Discovering her own recipe for success has brought results, increased confidence and progress for the European 5000m silver medallist who refuses to stand still
The thought of running a marathon “horrifies” Eilish McColgan. Even racing half that distance elicits a slight shudder, quickens the pulse and starts her mind ticking about whether or not such targets are achievable.
Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when she felt the same way about running 5000m, not mention recent trepidation about tackling 10,000m on the track at Highgate.
Now the former steeplechaser has arrived in Doha having competed over the 13-and-a-half lap distance at the Olympic Games and world championships, as well as winning a European silver medal last summer.
She is ready to test herself against the world’s best again, before she turns her attention completely towards tackling the 25-lap option in Tokyo next year.
Slowly, mother and coach Liz – the 1991 world 10,000m champion, Olympic silver medallist and someone who knows a thing or two about road running – has been lengthening her daughter’s disciplines and Eilish is fully accepting of the pathway which lies ahead for her.
The changing challenge has resulted in the 2017 European indoor 3000m bronze medallist surprising herself and gaining confidence in the process.
“I feel like I’ve had a good two years now and I hope to build on that for the next couple and onwards for what will hopefully be a career on the roads,” she says. “I think that’s the natural stepping stone.
“You move up the distances and this year was my first step up to the 10,000m and I really enjoyed it (McColgan ran 31:17.36 at Parliament Hill in July to finish third).
“I wasn’t prepared for it at all so the fact that I ran the time I did surprised me a bit.
“It made me think that, if I’d trained for it, if I’d prepared for it, I feel like I could run sub-31. I never believed I could do that, I never had the confidence even in my own abilities to think that would ever be possible.”
She adds: “It’s about having the confidence and belief in yourself that you can do something and I think my Mum’s been really influential in that. Every year she gradually ups the distance.
“I remember thinking that I could never run a 5k and then there I was at the Olympic Games competing over 5000m. Even last year I was thinking ‘I’ll never do a 10,000m at a champs, I don’t think I’m good enough to do it’ and now for Tokyo I’m gearing everything towards that.
“I think it will be the same for the half-marathon and the marathon. I’m sure that in the very near future I’ll be doing a half-marathon and at the moment I think ‘god, there’s no way I’ll do that’ but somewhere down the line my mum will have that in her plans.
“The idea of running a marathon absolutely horrifies me but I know that, certainly, after Tokyo that’s exactly where I’m heading. From 2020 onwards I’ll be looking towards the roads.”
“I’ve been able to look back through training diaries and you can start to see patterns and think ‘Wait a minute, why are we continuing to do that, because we know that if we do this then I’ll end up breaking down or I’ll get injured or sick?'”
The immediate task at hand, of course, comes in Qatar and McColgan is taking further confidence from the fact that she has been largely untroubled on her way to the start line.
In previous years, the near-constant cycle of getting fit, getting injured and getting fit again meant there was a persistent feeling of playing catch-up and that, when the time came to perform, vital energy had been spent in securing her starting spot in the first place.
It’s very different now that the right training balance has been struck.
“I’ve never ever been in this shape before,” she says. “Consistency has been the key. Being able to put weeks and weeks of training behind me and I think that’s made a real difference.
“I’d say 2017 was probably the first year where I had a bit of a breakthrough as I’d call it. I broke all my PBs that year and ran 8:31 for the 3000m, I ran 4:01 for the 1500m and I’d run 14:48 for the 5000m.
“I’d like to think that I’m in slightly better shape than that but, certainly, I’d say that I’m a completely different athlete from the one I was in 2016 and previous years to that.
“I’d like to think that from 2017 to now I’ve just been building on that breakthrough and continuing to just be consistent.
“I still get injured and I still get sick, but just nowhere near the level that I was previously and I think that’s just because we’ve changed my training and we’re now training a lot smarter. Those thought processes of when you’re younger is that more is always best when actually that isn’t the case and I think that’s really reflected now in my performances and my training.”
Is that also a reflection of a growing maturity?
“When you first come into the sport, you’re very aware of what other athletes are doing, so you see all these people that are training twice a day, they’re doing sessions every two days, this and that and you think ‘I need to be running 80-100 miles a week, I need to be doing really hard quality sessions, I need to be doing strength work….’ .
“You see what other athletes are doing and feel that, in order to be the best, that’s what you need to do, but everyone’s different.
“You start to realise everyone’s bodies are different, everyone matures at different rates – some people maybe don’t have to have such a high intensity workload and perhaps have to do more quality rather than quantity.
“There are so many different ways for people to train.
“As you get older, I suppose you have to get more confident in your abilities and your own workloads – you know what your body can or can’t take. I think it’s taken a little while to get to that point but I think with having that experience I’ve been able to look back through training diaries (I’ve kept one since I was 14 years old) and after a couple of years you can start to see patterns and think ‘wait a minute, why are we continuing to do that because we know that if we do this then I’ll end up breaking down or I’ll get injured or sick or something?’.
“You can tell from the patterns what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a case of becoming a bit more confident, ignoring what other people are doing, focusing on what you can do and what’s best for your body to get results out of you.”
With Liz living and also coaching in Qatar, Eilish spends two weeks every Christmas in Doha and can be guaranteed plenty of support from her mother’s young athletics squad, all of whom have bought tickets to see her run.
Asked what she expects of herself when it comes to these championships, she says: “I have to be realistic in my own goals and I always am. Going into major championships, I always aim to try and run a personal best.
“If I can run faster than I’ve ever run before and that gets me to fourth, fifth, sixth or wherever in the world then I’ll accept it because I can’t control what other people do. It’s a case of focusing on myself and executing the race in the way that me, my team and my coach have planned.
“The aim for me is always just to get faster, to run as fast as I possibly can and to push my body to times that I know I’m capable of.
“It’s exciting now to be getting closer and closer to medal territory – perhaps not this year but certainly looking towards Tokyo next year over the 10,000m if I could break into the top five in the world at the Olympic Games – that’s certainly my main aim and a big goal for me.”
To keep coming back after surgeries and injuries, to keep pushing simply can’t happen without motivation. The source of McColgan’s is hope.
“It’s that thought of ‘what if everything went well?’,” she says. “I had a glimpse of that in Berlin that, actually, when my body is co-operating, when it’s 100 per cent, when I’ve not had any real setbacks and a smooth build-up into a race I know that I can perform at that level and produce those good results.
“It’s the thought and glimmer of hope that at some point things will click and Berlin was a glimpse of that. I felt the same thing when I won my first medal at the European Indoors. It gave me a sense of ‘actually maybe I can do this, maybe I am good enough’.”
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