McColgan charged up

OLYMPIC GAMES: Norman Fox looks at a regenerated marathon runner who can sense victory today
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The Independent Online
Liz McColgan got halfway through the sentence. "I had a dream..." Then she remembered that the city where today she plans to become the Olympic Marathon champion was, of course, Martin Luther King's Atlanta.

Re-phrasing, she said that three years ago she was told she would never run again. Giving up does not come easily to McColgan, however, and she kept dreaming that she would finally return to athletics, come to Atlanta and defy the pessimistic specialist. She knew though that if she ever ran again, her punishing schedule might need to be amended. The trouble was she had always believed that the only way to succeed was to drive herself to the point of collapse.

She confesses now that none of her early coaches attempted to dissuade her from believing that high mileage and frequent racing without proper planning were the only ways to win anything. "That's been the difference being with Greta Waitz," she said. Waitz, the Norwegian who set the best time for the marathon on three occasions and was world champion, began to advise McColgan only a year ago and immediately insisted that rest time was as important as training and racing and that "quality training" was more important than sheer slogs.

"She was coaching herself. I could see that she was tired before she started racing. She would never allow herself time to let her body regain strength after heavy training or racing. She always thought that a day without training was a day lost," Waitz said.

McColgan now takes notice because Waitz had similar experiences and similar weaknesses.

Waitz remembers first watching a gaunt McColgan and thinking "poor girl". The gauntness was the evidence of permanent exhaustion, but since taking Waitz's advice, McColgan has developed from an often frustrated long-distance track runner to an instant success over the marathon distance. Yet her three victories and her third place in London in 1993 were done at the later expense of injuries that threatened her career.

There were two knee operations, Achilles tendon problems, back pain; it went on and on. It was nearly three years ago that an American specialist advised her that running again was out of the question. "I won't repeat what I said, but I just lay there believing that running in Atlanta was possible."

Winning this year's London Marathon in the hottest weather the event has ever witnessed convinced her that she could win here, even though the favourite remains the Boston Marathon winner, Uta Pippig, of Germany.

McColgan is sure, however, that the London race in April taught her a lot. "I would never want to allow anyone to take such a big lead as Anita Haakenstad had. I fell into the trap of only watching the top girls." The way she hauled in Haakenstad and two others has given her the confidence to believe that whatever conditions she has to face here she is capable of winning.

Easier said than done, because not only is it going to be hot, the course takes the runners into downtown Atlanta which means negotiating a number of comparatively steep climbs amounting to a total of nearly 1,200ft.

McColgan said: "I'll not be thinking of times or where I am. My eyes will be on the blue line - I never notice anything when I'm running, not even the heat."