McColgan finds new motivation

Mike Rowbottom meets the British distance runner who has her mind focused on victory in the 10,000 metres at the World Championships
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The women's 10,000 metres at the European Cup in Lille just over a month ago had many athletics observers sadly shaking their heads. The object of their attention was a familiar, dogged figure running on her own. Unlike past years, however, Liz McColgan was not in the lead, but labouring home in fourth place.

The widely shared conclusion of those present was that the former world champion's first competitive track appearance since the 1992 Olympics had served to confirm her decline from the standards she once set.

That she finished inside the World Championship qualifying standard of 32min 30sec seemed little more than a technicality. But her performance a week ago last Saturday dramatically altered that perception.

Running at Hechtel, Belgium, in the race where Portugal's Fernanda Ribeiro set a new world 5,000m record of 14min 36.45sec, McColgan finished third in 14:59.5 - a lifetime personal best at the age of 31. When she set off for Gothenburg on Monday, she did so with a sense of anticipation that she has not experienced in a long time. The anticipation of being a real contender.

"I don't really care whether people are saying I am back," McColgan said. "I know when I am back and that's all that matters." She felt she had returned to her best about a month ago, during routine training at altitude in Font Romeu, in the Pyrenees. "I just knew from the way I was running, from my style, and how comfortable I felt," she said.

But feeling good and proving it are different things. "You can be as fit as you like," she said, "but you have got to do it on the track. There is no lying. You can't cover things up there." There has been no covering up, either, the fact that the last three years have been predominantly difficult ones as she has struggled to overcome anaemia and then a succession of injuries.

She will never run without pain in her left foot. She has also endured two operations on her knee, and was told by at least one medical specialist that her career was finished. Her response to that was characteristically direct: "When he said that to me, I just thought: 'Stuff you. In your opinion I won't, but in my opinion I will'." And her opinion has prevailed.

If it only depended upon will-power, McColgan would still be a world champion. As it is, her strength of character has kept her in the sport when others might have dropped out. Relaxing in the sunshine of Greenwich Park on Monday at a promotional appearance for the London Marathon, she contemplated just how far she had come.

"There have been several moments when things have gone wrong and I thought: 'I'll just have to give up'. But I believe these things are sent to test you, and if you can come through them, it makes success even sweeter. It was only a matter of time before my luck changed because I wanted it so badly. If I didn't really want it, the easy option would have been to give up."

The imminence of next year's Atlanta Olympics, where she plans to do the marathon, but may yet return to the 10,000m if things are going well, was another important factor for her. "That is really what has kept me going," she said. "If it had been another four years to the next Olympics, I don't think I would have been able to carry on."

Her motivation has been helped in the last three months by advice from a female coach whom she coyly refuses to name. Her husband, Peter, who coached her previously, now fulfils a role as "husband, motivator and manager".

The race in Hechtel was memorable for more than just her time. "I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it," she said. "The whole atmosphere of the evening was great. By the time we raced it was dark and the lights were on, and the crowd were there all cheering. It was just like a floating zone."

Gothenburg is something she is also determined to enjoy - not least rooming with her old friend Jill Hunter, who along with Yvonne Murray makes up a full British complement in the women's 10,000m.

But the fact that she departed for the Swedish city over a week before her 10,000m heat on Tuesday indicates how serious she is about getting her preparation right for the first major championships she has contested since the 1992 Olympics.

If she remained at home in Carnoustie, she feels, the domestic routine would erode her concentration. "I need to get my mind focused on things," she said. "It's just a matter of getting out there and doing the business." If it really is business as usual for McColgan, it should be a 10,000m race worth seeing.