In the Rose Tree restaurant, with its adornment of horse-racing pictures, it was only fitting that Shona Crombie-Hicks should proffer a tip. The taxi ride from the train station in Cheltenham to the Cotswold idyll of Bourton-on-the-Water had cost a perpendicularly steep £30. "Catch the Pulham's coach on the way back," the multi-gifted sportswoman and part-time Pulham's secretary advised. "It's only £1.65."
Dressed in her training gear, and fresh from her morning run around the paths and fields of Bourton - with its low stone bridges and its gentle-flowing, tree-shaded River Windrush, known as "the Venice of the Cotswolds" - Crombie-Hicks was contemplating a trip of her own. Last week she was picked to represent her native Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. On 19 March she runs in the women's marathon, which starts and finishes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It will not be her first experience of élite-class sporting action.
Back on 4 January 1995, as plain Shona Crombie, she rode the winner in the 3.30 at Wolverhampton, the Ash Handicap. Riding for Lady Anne Herries, she guided Aitch 'N Bee to victory at 10-1 - ahead of Ray Cochrane on Pillow Talk and Frankie Dettori on the 6-1 shot Rockstine. "It wasn't such a significant race to Frankie," she reflected, sipping her lime and soda, "but to me it was the highlight of my whole career."
At 34, Crombie-Hicks, a 5ft 2in, 7st 7lb bundle of hyperactivity, is about to embark on a career as an international athlete, thanks to her run in the Berlin Marathon two months ago, when she placed sixth in a women's section won by the Olympic champion, Mizuki Noguchi, bettering the Scottish Commonwealth selection standard with a time of 2hr 38min 42sec.
Born in Aberdeen and raised in Portsmouth, her first sporting career started some time after she joined John Dunlop's stable in Arundel at the age of 16. "I rode the horses in training there and I was so competitive I had to win every time on the gallops," she recalled. "Mr Dunlop said it was very difficult to become a female jockey in England and a lot of people told me there were more equal opportunities in New Zealand, so I went out there when I was 19. I had a fantastic time. I rode 10 winners and then I got a phone call telling me my dad had passed away.
"It was a terrible shock, and I came back home and went to work for Lady Herries at Littlehampton in West Sussex. She was brilliant. She gave me 10 rides. I had one win and two placings, but then I turned 25 and lost the 7lb weight allowance that apprentices claim. I could see I'd be going back to leading the horses round for other people - I wasn't going to get any farther - so I left racing.
"That win at Wolverhampton, beating Ray Cochrane and Frankie, was the real highlight, but I also rode a winner at 85-1 in a big cup race at Ellerslie in Auckland. America's Cup, it was called. It was 13th out of 13 in the betting, the rank outsider. We won it in a photo."
You would have got longer odds than 85-1 on Crombie-Hicks making it to major championship level as an athlete when she took her first steps as a runner in 1997. She was 27 at the time, and started training on a treadmill at a gym in Bognor Regis simply to shed the extra two stones she had accumulated in two years of inactivity since her jockeying days. She might have done little more than that had Mike Young, an instructor at the gym, not urged her to do more running and formed the Tone Zone Running Club.
She started running for the club in local road races and accompanied Young and his future wife on a running holiday to Lanzarote, where she finished high up in the races and met her future husband, Graham Hicks. By 2000 she was Shona Crombie-Hicks and a surprise winner of the Manchester Marathon, in 2hr 42min 22sec. Twelve months later, she was told that her running days were over.
"I had brittle bones and I kept getting fractures," she recounted. "The doctors said I would never run again. Osteoporosis was mentioned. I was told if I kept on running I would just keep fracturing bones."
After a year of treatment, though, Crombie-Hicks was back running again, clocking 2hr 40min 51sec in the Dublin Marathon in October 2002. And the following spring she was pushing herself beyond the bounds of the 26.2-mile marathon, running in the Flora 1,000-mile challenge, held by the organisers of the London Marathon to commemorate Captain Robert Barclay Allardice's feat of walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours at Newmarket in 1809. After six weeks spent running at least one mile of every hour, Crombie-Hicks emerged as the winner - then, with just an hour's rest, proceeded to clock a respectable 3 hr 8min 42sec in the London Marathon.
She and her husband moved to the Venice of the Cotswolds two years ago, after meeting Dennis Walmsley of Bourton Road Runners and falling in love with the village. "I'd never run through fields before," she said. "When you're out running here you just look around, see the beauty, and think, 'This is what it's all about. This is wonderful'."
It was only in February this year that Crombie-Hicks became truly serious about her running. She started following a structured training programme for the first time, after meeting Nick Anderson, a distance-running coach from Winchester.
"I remember him laughing when I told him I never went out running if it was raining," she recalled. "I told him, 'I just run when I want to. I don't follow any schedule'."
Crombie-Hicks now follows Anderson's schedules "religiously", and makes a 170-mile round trip twice a week to train with his group in Winchester. "Graham drives me down there every Tuesday and Saturday," she said. "I couldn't do it without his support. And you can see from how I ran in Berlin what a difference training under Nick has made.
"Now that I've been selected for the Commonwealth Games, I want to do the best that I can out in Melbourne and then aim for the Olympics. That's my goal now. The qualifying time for Beijing will be harder, but I think with Nick's help I can improve. I can see I'm going in the right direction."
It would take a brave man to bet against the Bourton Road Runner who has made a habit of beating the odds - a braver man than Frankie Dettori, even.
By Simon Turnbull
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