McColgan's long run from factory to fame

Geoffrey Beattie finds that Scotland's steely competitor is fired by a warmth of emotion and a debt to her first coach as she prepares for the challenge of next summer's Olympic marathon
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In the summer of 1991 Liz McColgan gave what Brendan Foster described as "the greatest performance by a male or female British athlete in the history of long distance running" in winning the 10,000 metres World Championship in Tokyo. This was less than a year after the birth of her daughter, Eilish. In fact, 11 days after she gave birth, McColgan was out on a three-mile training run.

In 1991 McColgan also won the New York Marathon in 2 hr 27min, the fastest female debut at the distance. She was also voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Not bad for the girl from the council estate in Dundee. Not bad for the girl who started work aged 16 in a jute factory, clocking on at 5.30am on those cold Scottish mornings.

Now she lives in a 14-room mansion outside Carnoustie, the grounds includine a gatehouse occupied by her parents. Her single- mindedness has taken her a long way. A long way up, but as we all know it's even tougher staying there. In 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, in the 10,000 metres final McColgan trailed in in fifth place. Three weeks after the Games, she was diagnosed as suffering from anaemia, this was followed a series of operations on her knees and toes. But the recuperation is finally over, and she has set her sights on the Olympics in Atlanta next year, running in the race she has always felt was her natural distance - the marathon.

On a bright sunny winter morning in Carnoustie, I started off by asking her how lonely is long distance running?

"It really depends on the individual. I don't find it lonely at all because I quite like being on my own and when I'm running lots of things go through my head. But I suppose when you think about training - especially for the marathon which is up to three hours a day on the road - I suppose other people would visualise it as being lonely."

So what kind of things does she think about when she's out there on the road for three hours at a stretch?

"If you've any problems whatsoever in your life at all, I think the best solution is to get out and run because it gives you a clear head and you can really think all your problems through. When I'm running I think a lot about how my body's feeling. I could be running along and have a little tightness in my leg or whatever and I talk to myself to try and release that tension. I think about the pace of my run. I have certain marks on the course that I do because everything is measured for me. I never just go out and run. I run on certain loops that I know the exact distances of, so I look at the time that I'm running and the pace that I'm running and I just thoroughly enjoy the whole atmosphere that I'm in."

My image of Liz McColgan is always of this lonely front running figure, this thin figure with the hair up running into the wind, this lonely figure who seems to want to be on her own. How accurate was this picture I had of her?

"It's not what I do today at all. I've not front run races for a long time. I only ran at the front because I would never take it easy on myself. I just went out and I ran as hard as I could and nobody else could run with me. It's a different situation now. There's a lot more competition today, a lot more girls run a lot more faster and so now I can just sit in and try different tactics."

How did she get into running in the first place?

"When started running there really wasn't anyone in the Dundee area that was running well. We didn't have Olympic champions or anything like that. I think there was one girl maybe who went to the Commonwealth Games but she was never very top. My very first run was because of our PE teacher who was a mad marathon runner. In the winter he just used to say, 'Right, out you go. You run round that field.' I'd always be either first or second... This teacher noticed that some of us were good so he sent us up to the local Harriers and I loved it.

"I didn't really have a lot of friends at the school because they were more into boys and partying and super lager type things at the weekends. I just wasn't into that. So my whole socialising ended up being at the running club.

"I met Harry Bennett, my first coach, at the club. He had us training Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He was well ahead of his time. He never pushed us. We used to think it was all games he had us doing. We used to do leaping and bounding and bunny jumps, as he called them. One of my favourite sessions was zig-zagging up these hills.Now that I'm older and wiser, I realise exactly what he was up to. He was just building up muscles because we were still growing.

"When I was 15, he told me that the Olympic gold was in my grasp and that I would be doing the 10,000 metres. At that time there was no distance race for women like that and I just couldn't grasp what he was getting at. It was unbelievable for him to say that to a 15-year-old."

McColgan's relationship with her first coach was extremely close. How did this affect her relationship with her parents?

"Harry was like a second dad. If my mum and dad told me to do something, I'd just say 'no I'm not doing it.' If Harry told me, it was done right away. No questions asked. I was always coming up against a brick wall with respect to my running. Everyone else just didn't understand. 'Are you still doing that running thing?' was what my friends used to say to me. 'Get a real job. You'll never make a living out of running.' When I was 16 I left school and was put on a YTS scheme. They put me a jute factory. I was stuck in this factory and with me being a runner it was really unhealthy because it was very dirty. I was breathing in all this dust and dirt from all the fabrics.

"It wasn't the greatest job for me. That was when I got the opportunity to go America. I'd never travelled, never been on my own, never been away from my family. The problem at the time was that we didn't have the money. So Harry gave me the money. Then an uncle made up the rest of the money and that was it. I was away. Within a week I was gone. I went to Idaho but I was really sad because it was the last time I ever saw Harry because he died when I was out there. He died when he was out running.

I could see this steely runner still gets very emotional, when she thinks of her mentor who gave her the one big chance to escape from the jute factory. So what effect did his death have on her? Since her running was so tied up with this one individual, did her interest wane when he was no longer there to persuade and cajole, and get her to train?

"I thought that I wouldn't run again. But then my dad said that I had the talent and that Harry wouldn't have wanted me to just stop running. I was lucky because whilst Harry was coaching me he was also educating me at the same time. He was always throwing books at me to read about training and the reasoning behind it."

When we talk about dedication to athletics, the words trip out very easily, with the hearer often not reflecting on what they really mean. So what exactly does this "dedication" consist of?

"I normally get up about 5.00 am and then I'm out for my first run about 6.00. My husband Peter looks after Eilish while I run in the morning. The run lasts anything between 30 minutes and two hours just depending on what I'm doing but when I get back I get Eilish ready for school, Peter has his run then. Then I take her up to school and then really it's just a matter of relaxing for the rest of the day until my next training session because I train again at 3 o'clock. I usually have a nap of an hour in the day because of the training that I do. It's quite a boring life really. I don't do much at all. I don't do any socialising. I go to bed at 7.30."

What effect did motherhood have on her running?

"It didn't really affect my attitude to running. When I had Eilish, she was unplanned and it was quite a shock but I really wasn't prepared to have a child that year and so my running was very much foremost in my mind. So I trained all through my pregnancy. I was three and half months pregnant before I knew that I was pregnant and I was training a100 odd miles a week... I trained right up until I had her. I think it was about the week before I had her I was out for a run and I took a really sore stomach and I said 'Well, that's nature telling you stop running,' so I stopped running then... But I just love running. I think if I'd stopped I just wouldn't know what to do with myself."

I wanted to know if she felt guilty if she ever missed going out for a run.

"I do, yes definitely. It just interrupts my whole routine. If I don't run, then the next day I feel about 20 stone heavier. It's just psychological, I feel so unfit if I miss one day running. You've got to remember, I've run every day since I was 11 years old.."

The guilt about missing even one day's training was obviously tied up with her own bodily image.

"I think that most women athletes thinks that they should be lighter, and I'm exactly the same. Even when I'm at my lightest, I always think. 'Oh, I should be another few pounds lighter.' It's not a great way to be but I think it's good for me because it makes me very aware that I've got to be good on my diet and I've got to get the best out of my body. A couple of days before a marathon you've got to put carbohydrates into your body. I always put weight on because of it and I hate it."

I asked her whether she ever looked at herself running on television and thought that she looked fat.

"All the time. I think I look fat compared with all athletes. If you look at any report from the London marathon last year, it was all 'Liz has got a weight problem'. It really does bother me because if you're going into a race, you're going in to perform well and somebody says 'You're fat.' I'm not fat. I know that I'm not fat. If I look at any Joe Bloggs walking down the street, I know I'm not fat compared to them. But in terms of the skin and bone athlete, the distance runners, I'm not in that mould. When I talk to youngsters I will say, 'You don't have to be skin and bones to compete.' It's a major problem, it really is."

Top athletes spend a lot of time thinking about their bodies, monitoring every slight ache and pain. I asked whether she thought athletes could become almost hypochondriac about every slight twinge in their body.

"Definitely yes - with some athletes the slightest thing and they're limping off... I'm quite tough on myself. When I was 16 I broke a kneecap and I ran a race with a broken kneecap. I've run through a lot of problems which, medically, I probably shouldn't have... I've got quite a high pain tolerance... I've never, ever dropped out of a race yet in my life and I never will."

Finally, how she would know when her time had come to stop competitive running?

"I'll know. I'm not one of these athletes who could line up, finish 23rd and be happy with it. I couldn't drop out of a race. I've got standards. I'll quit when I'm at the top."

Geoffrey Beattie is professor of psychology at Manchester University. His series of interviews with leading sports personalities, Head to Head, continues with Liz McColgan on Radio 5 Live tomorrow at 8.05pm

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