Last Sunday was a poignant date on the 2013 calendar at Hannah England’s new Oxford home. Not only did it mark her first race of the season but was also exactly a year to the day that her Olympic medal ambitions were effectively ended in a freak accident.
Competing in Hengelo, in the Netherlands, the British 1500m runner was spiked in the Achilles. Remarkably she completed the race and achieved the Olympic qualifying standard, but her Achilles was in tatters and she subsequently spent a five-day stint in hospital with blood poisoning.
In a few hours, England will wake up in her hotel room in Portland, Oregon, feeling anxious about her first track outing of the season at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene today.
After a difficult last season, the 2011 World Championship silver medallist is considerably more under-the-radar than fellow Britons, such as Mo Farah, who will also compete today having switched from yesterday’s 10,000m to the 5,000m. “It’s a mixture of anxiety but also excitement at seeing how the winter training has gone,” she admits. The form is clearly good. She beat her domestic rivals in the London Westminster Mile on the anniversary of that accident last year.
Looking back, she recalls: “It was so hard, as I was in amazing shape. In the ensuing months there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of tears. I went training in Font Romeu recently and the last time I was there I was in pain. Now, nothing hurts. It was so liberating. That was closure in itself.”
The next obstacle in her quest for closure is her race today. Against a world-class field, she is keeping her targets simple – namely to achieve the World Championships “A” standard of 4min 5.5sec.
Races follow in quick succession – in Rome on Thursday, where she will share the bill with Usain Bolt, and then an emotional return to Hengelo the following week.
Looking ahead to the Netherlands in particular, she says: “I’m trying not to overthink that. What happened there was just one of those unfortunate things and I’ve always run well there.”
Going into her fifth year as a professional athlete, England feels mentally stronger because of what happened, and the battle to get fit for London. The fact she made it there at all was an achievement but, unsurprisingly, she failed to qualify for the final.
“I felt incredibly proud to make London and was made to feel like a superstar, like how footballers are treated,” she says. “I’m grateful for that. Had I had an easier first round, I might have made the final but my form and fitness weren’t quite there for the semi-final. But I made sure I enjoyed every minute. I was running for me and my husband [steeplechaser Luke Gunn]. He’d got really close to Olympic selection too, so it was important that I ran my races for us both.”
The couple got married in January and bought a new home the same month. England’s training schedule was such that they only had time for a five-day honeymoon in Paris before she was whisked off to Kenya for winter training.
She has opted to keep her maiden name. “I think Luke would have liked me to take his name or share it but I wasn’t going to be a double-barrelled Gunn!” says England, whose friends have now taken to calling her “Hangun”. “And anyway, I like being Miss England from England when I go through passport control. It’s fun.”
Her post-honeymoon training in Kenya is not something she relished. “It’s something I tolerate rather than enjoy,” is how she describes the high-altitude camp. But that, allied to a camp in Font Romeu, has put her in arguably the form of her life.
As a result, looking ahead to the dangling carrot of the World Championships in August, she says: “I don’t see why I can’t win a medal,” but then, fearing she might jinx her entire season, she quickly points out she hasn’t yet qualified.
“What I’d say is that the 1500m is such an unpredictable event. For me, my motivation is the other British rivals. When I step out of my front door for training, I think, ‘what are the other Brit girls doing?’ It keeps you on your toes in a way that an American or African rival wouldn’t as they’re less at the forefront of your mind.”
The other driving factor is to experience nights like Daegu when she won what was then a surprise silver medal at the World Championships. She makes no apologies for saying: “I want that again.”
All she can hope for is a level playing field. The Olympic champion in her discipline, Turkey’s Asli Cakir Alptekin, faces a lifetime ban for a second failed doping test, one of a number of middle-distance runners to test positive in recent months.
“People keep coming out of the woodwork and there’s not a lot I can do about that,” says England. “There’s no point before a race thinking someone’s a cheat. I’m very much for a lifetime ban. That’s my view on it but people can come back, and I can’t do anything about it. I have to focus on whatever race I’m in.”
Today that begins in Eugene.
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