There are three British athletes occupying pole position in the continental rankings going into the European Indoor Championships next week at the Palais Omnisports in the Bercy district of Paris. Dwain Chambers leads the way in the 60m. Mo Farah does so in the men's 3,000m. And then there's Helen Clitheroe in the women's 3,000m. The remarkable Helen Clitheroe.
It is not by chance that Charles van Commenee, head coach of UK Athletics, has chosen Clitheroe to captain a British team that includes major figures such as Farah, Chambers, Jessica Ennis and Jenny Meadows. The Dutchman could not have picked a more inspirational figure to lead the 32-strong squad. At the age of 37, through determination to make the grade for Olympic selection in 2012, Clitheroe has run herself into the form of her life.
The Preston Harrier first made the international grade in 1998 – as Helen Pattinson, finishing 46th in the 4km race at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech. She won a Commonwealth 1500m bronze medal in Manchester in 2002, behind Kelly Holmes and Hayley Tullett, and holds the British record for the 3,000m steeplechase. But the performance she produced in the Aviva Grand Prix at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham eight days ago was truly world-class.
Mixing it with elite distance-runners from East Africa in the 3,000m, Clitheroe made a quantum-leap improvement of 11.21sec. Her time, 8min 39.81sec, put her just 0.02sec behind Zola Budd in the UK all-time rankings – and ahead of Yvonne Murray and Wendy Sly, who were both Olympic medallists outdoors at the distance.
Clitheroe has decided to move up from the steeplechase and the 1500m to the 5,000m and 10,000m this summer to have a better chance of making the steep Olympic qualifying standards set by Van Commenee. With extra, high-quality training miles under her belt this winter under coach John Nuttall, the one-time lifeguard would appear to have found a rubber ring for her long-running career.
"I feel that the training I'm doing towards the 5,000m and 10,000m is really working for me," she said. "It's been a good move because there were a couple of occasions in the past two years when I thought: 'Is it really worth it?' I'm not on funding and it's only through the support of my husband Neil that I've been able to keep training full-time. We made a decision as a couple for me to keep doing this. I desperately want to run in the London Olympics."
It remains to be seen whether Clitheroe, an Olympian in 2000 and 2008, will make the 2012 grade but next weekend she could make history. The oldest British athlete to win a medal in an individual event at the European Indoor Championships is Colin Jackson, who was 35 when he won the 60m hurdles in 2002. Donna Fraser was 36 when she won team silver in the 4x400m relay in 2009.
Not that age will be preying on her mind in Paris – even with 17-year-old Jodie Williams, the world junior 100m champion, alongside her.
"I suppose it is quite weird," Clitheroe said of the age gap. "I have friends who have daughters the same age as Jodie. But ultimately we're both members of the British team. We've both achieved the standards, so it doesn't matter how old we are. It's great Jodie's doing so well as a 17-year-old and it's great I'm doing so well as a 37-year-old."
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