The part-time athlete has already achieved an Olympic marathon qualifying time and hopes to take another huge step forward in London
When it comes to marathon running, Stephanie Davis has excelled in every event she has encountered. However, the 29-year-old knows that this year’s Virgin Money London Marathon will take things up another notch.
Davis has already made huge strides in the sport, despite only taking her running seriously in the past couple of years, and now finds herself well and truly among the frontrunners in the British race to this summer’s Olympics.
A 2:41:16 marathon debut in Berlin in 2018 was followed by an impressive 2:32:38 off the mass start in London before another improvement – to 2:27:40 in Valencia in December – catapulted her into the spotlight and put her among the top 10 on the UK all-time rankings.
Never before has Davis lined up in an elite marathon field rather than with the masses but, on April 26, she will do so with realistic ambitions of reaching Japan.
“It has still not fully sunk in because it has all come around so quickly,” says Davis, who juggles training and racing with a full-time job in finance in the UK capital.
“I didn’t really believe that I would run 2:27 in Valencia. With some hiccups in training I thought that 2:29:30 (the Olympic qualifying standard) was definitely possible but I didn’t know what side of that I would be on or how close.
“It has really shaken things up.”
Davis is well aware that competition will be fierce, however. Domestically, women’s marathon running has never been stronger and joining Davis on the start line in London, which is the GB Olympic trial race, will be three other Britons who have also achieved the required standard – Jess Piasecki, Charlotte Purdue and Steph Twell.
The first two British women across the finish line on The Mall will secure selection, while the third spot will be filled at the discretion of selectors, and there are a number of other UK athletes for whom the standard is within touching distance.
“This will be a whole new learning curve, running in a female-only race and potentially it being a bit more of a lonely race. I am a very competitive person, which is what I think brought me to that 2:27 in Valencia,” says Davis, who took a lot of confidence from her performance in Spain.
“I was in a group where the pacer was meant to be doing 2:29:30. He went too quickly but there were some other people in that group that I recognised and I was thinking ‘if they are sticking here I’m going to take this risk and stay’.
“I was really determined to stick and not be dropped. I hope for London that will be the same. I really don’t want to end up running solo.”
Seeing others achieve the sorts of times they have – with Piasecki having run 2:25:28 to win in Florence, Purdue clocking 2:25:38 in London and Twell breaking the Scottish record with 2:26:40 in Frankfurt – has also left Davis open to future possibilities.
“When you see now there’s four of us that have achieved that sub-2:29:30, it makes you think ‘maybe I could do it’,” she says. “If you put in the hard work, training and consistency then it’s not completely unachievable. It motivates you to know it’s not impossible.”
Davis took part in athletics as a youngster, racing in cross country and a few 800m events, and then ran for the University of Edinburgh, albeit mainly for fun and fitness.
Her running journey really began a few years later, when she moved to London and joined the Clapham Chasers.
She then met her coach, Phil Kissi, who trains out of Battersea, and the Berlin Marathon was their first race working together.
“I think in Berlin I had potential to go quicker but maybe didn’t push myself hard enough in the earlier stages of the race,” Davis recalls.
“As it was my first marathon, I was just expecting to get to that six miles to go mark, hit a wall and die! I think that made me a little bit more reserved in my racing because I really didn’t want to get to that state!”
She aimed to build on her 2:41 in London but training got off to a rocky start when she suffered a hip injury. Rather than see it as a setback, however, Davis used the experience to shape her future training and it has clearly paid off.
“The hip injury taught me that I was better not being a high-volume athlete on the running miles side, so I tend to focus a lot on keeping my mileage around 60 to 70 miles a week and then I do a lot of cross training,” she explains. “I also cycle to and from work every day.”
The focus is on quality, rather than quantity, she adds.
“Typically, I try to have two days a week where I just cross train. Those tend to be a Monday and a Friday. I’ll swim and then I’ll jump on the cross trainer. I only have one day a week where I have a double run day. My sessions tend to be over more higher volume to make those 60-70 miles up.”
Tuesday track night can include sessions such as 12x1km or 25x400m, while Thursdays will offer longer intervals and Sunday is long run day.
“My coach tends to give me mini motivational pep talks before and after training sessions,” says Davis, who speaks with coach Kissi every day.
“He has dealt with a lot of emotions in training and races so we are very close.
“You’ve really got to trust your coach, the things they say and the goals they give you, otherwise it’s hard to believe that it’s possible that you can hit those targets.”
As well as having support from her family, coach and club, Davis is grateful for the flexibility her employer, Lazard Asset Management, allows her when it comes to her working hours.
“I can factor in double training days and get the extra sleep and recovery time that I need,” she says. “I think my ideal situation would be to work part-time and train, to be a semi-professional athlete. Because I think the balance of going into work, seeing other people, switching off, would be a good balance.”
Although becoming a full-time athlete would be “amazing”, she adds. “Maybe I could go part-time for a bit and transition into that just depending on what path I end up going down and how London goes.”
Davis is currently unsponsored and happy to share her views when it comes to the current shoe debate. The Scot ran her 2:27 while wearing the Nike Vaporfly Next%, while her London run saw her sporting the 4% model, but she remains open to trying other footwear.
“In Valencia, most of the people I was running with were wearing the (Nike Vaporfly) shoes,” she says. “I did wear them because I guess I jumped on the hype of what everyone else was doing. I haven’t tested a lot of shoes, I don’t actually personally feel there’s any difference between the Next% and the 4%. I wore the 4% in London and then the Next% because my 4% shoes were finished, the miles were done in them and I needed a new pair so it made sense for me to transition to that shoe.
“I wear another Nike shoe for a lot of my tempo and speed session in saying that, because of this debate I don’t want people to think ‘oh, she only ran 2:27 because she wore the shoe’.
“I have got some adidas shoes that I am going to try in my runs. If they feel good then I would definitely be open to wearing them but if they don’t feel good then it would make no sense to.”
Nike shoes or not, Davis hopes for continued health and happiness as she works towards securing an Olympic place.
“I don’t know what my race plan will be for London yet. I guess for this race it might not be such a specific race plan because it might depend on the tactics on the day,” she says.
“Obviously, I’ve made the jump from 2:41, to 2:32, to 2:27, so there will be some expectation on where I can go next but we’ll see. I just want to stay injury-free and healthy and at the moment that is the case, so hopefully things can just continue going as they are.”
» A version of this interview was first published in the January 23 edition of AW magazine