As a 28-year-old who had not previously received a penny in public funding, Gemma Steel has discovered that being placed on UK Athletics’ podium potential programme opens up whole new worlds. That of regular deep tissue massage, for example.
“Previously I could just afford a light massage once a week,” Steel explains. “Now I can get proper treatment, it’s making a real difference. If you get too tight in certain areas it affects basic things in running, like stride length and balance. That doesn’t just affect performance, it leads to injury.”
She shakes her head. “In some ways it feels like I’m only beginning to find out how many areas I can prepare better. On the other hand that’s encouraging, because hopefully it means there is plenty of improvement I can make.”
Given that she recently ran the UK’s fourth-fastest 10K, finished second in the European Cross-Country Championships in Belgrade and earlier this month won the Great Edinburgh Cross-country at a canter, the prospect of there being much more to come is an exciting one.
Paula Radcliffe, whose time of 30min 21sec is still the world record, Liz McColgan and Helen Clitheroe are the only British women to have run 10K more quickly, and it is what that reveals about Steel’s marathon potential which is focusing attention on the Leicestershire athlete.
She may make a full marathon debut around the streets of London on 13 April. “It would be great to have home support,” Steel says, “so we will see how things go in training. London may be a bit soon, and a marathon later in the year like New York or Berlin could be better timed.”
According to McColgan, who has been advising Steel alongside coach John Nuttall, she has the ability to be world-class. “Gemma has the best marathon potential of her generation of British runners, that I’ve seen anyway,” said McColgan. “She has such a natural endurance base, and now she’s starting to build and develop her natural strength, and is really maturing as a person, she’s realising what she can achieve.”
By inclination a road and cross-country rather than track runner, Steel only began to compete nationally after joining the Charnwood Athletic Club near her Leicestershire village home in 2009. She made the British cross-country team for the first time the following year, and as well as making her mark in road races up and down the country, took bronze in the European cross-country championships.
Forced to miss the 2012 event with an Achilles injury picked up at the world half-marathon championships, she returned to action in February last year and finished on the podium in a series of major road races before her 31:35 in the “Beach to Beacon” 10k in Maine in August. After that she focused on Belgrade, where she finished a close second to France’s Sophie Duarte – an athlete she left trailing far behind in Edinburgh last weekend.
“I was looking forward to the Euro cross-country championship after having to miss 2012 and I didn’t want to get distracted by looking beyond that too soon,” admits Steel. “But the marathon is a natural step, and obviously the event which will become my main focus. In terms of increasing my mileage I’m still finding my feet; at the moment I’m probably only averaging around 80 miles a week.”
For marathon specialists a weekly average of 120 miles is not uncommon but, with the pressure of needing to race for money lifted by Lottery funding, Steel can afford to build gradually. In recent years she has had to work part-time, sometimes as a cleaner, while also being supported by her boyfriend. She also illustrates children’s books written by her twin sister, Louise. “It’s a relaxation in a way, it takes me into another world,” she says. Their latest title, Spots and Stripes (left), has just been published.
While the pressure is off Steel in one sense, however, it is increased in terms of expectation. “I do feel lucky because some very good athletes didn’t get funded for next year, and it is up to me to justify it by performing, by hitting my programmes. It’s now all about the Olympic cycle and Rio, which is a really exciting thought,” she says.
McColgan makes the point it would help Steel to run an Olympic qualifying time this year and, though that time has not yet been set (the London 2012 British women’s ‘A’ qualifying time was 2hr 31 min), does not think it will be a problem. “She’s capable of running close to 2:20, but she needs to be confident of running the race she is capable of running,” McColgan said. To put that in context, the Ethiopian Tiki Gelana won the 2012 Olympic Marathon in a Games record 2:23.