Lily Partridge is aiming to transfer her cross-country credentials to the track

Lily Partridge has been virtually ever-present on GB cross-country teams in recent years, having been to six consecutive European Cross Country Championships since 2009. Having just enjoyed her best winter, in which she took English National and Inter-Counties senior titles and ran 70:31 for the half-marathon, the 24-year-old is no longer content to be known purely for her cross-country and road-running ability. The Aldershot, Farnham & District athlete says she is motivated most by the challenge of transferring her cross-country pedigree into greater track credentials.

Partridge seemed destined for distance running success as the sport is in her genes. Her mother, Ruth (née Smeeth), won the National in 1980, ran in four World Cross Country Championships and finished fifth for England over 3000m in the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Her father, Richard, clocked 63:24 for the half-marathon and won Midland and Southern cross-country titles and fittingly the couple met at the 1984 World Cross.

Partridge junior, therefore, grew up around the sport and spent some of her formative years in the United States when her parents were racing on the road running circuit. She remembers running around, enjoying the freedom that it gave her, unaware of her parents’ success until much later on. It was not until Partridge ran in the local schools’ cross country at the age of eight and finished 33rd that she really got the running bug. She told her parents she wanted to train, so they signed her up to the AFD club as soon as possible.

In 2003, aged 12, Partridge moved into Mick Woods’ and Martin McCarthy’s group, but two years later moved to be coached by Nick Anderson in Winchester, before returning to be coached by McCarthy until 2009. When she left college, Partridge had chance to study in America, but after a conversation with Liz Lynch-Nuttall, decided to move to Scotland to be coached by the former world 10,000 champion.

She stayed there for 18 months, completing part-time work, but eventually the financial stress of trying to support herself in the small town of Carnoustie and living away from home took its toll and Partridge moved back. Her mother helped her out with her training for a while before speaking to Woods in 2011.

“My mum spoke to Mick at the European Cross in 2011 as she was sure I was about to walk away from the sport and he told her I would be welcome to join in with the girls,” says Partridge.

“He has high expectations of us and that makes us have high expectations of ourselves. I see other athletes in the group performing well and that makes me think that I can do it too. I think it is down to success breeding success” – Partridge on her coach Mick Woods

After being unsure whether Partridge would be keen or wanted to run at all, she waited a few months before broaching the subject with her. “It was my nan who persuaded me to speak with Mick personally about coaching in March 2012,” explained Partridge.

Since joining Woods’ training group, Partridge has continued her improvement and she is quick to credit the role he has played. “He’s given me belief,” she says. “He has high expectations of us and that makes us have high expectations of ourselves. I see other athletes in the group performing well and that makes me think that I can do it too. I think it is down to success breeding success.”

Living in Farnham with her boyfriend Danny Davis, a runner from Leeds City AC, Partridge drives to the Aldershot club five times a week, including for training sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and she also completes a run with some of the other athletes on a Wednesday and Saturday. When she isn’t running at the club, her favourite place to run is Bourne Woods in Frensham and she enjoys taking her dog, Rupert, for runs there.

So is Rupert a better running partner than Davis? “Rupert is the best training partner, although he tends to do his own thing if I’m not running fast enough for him and he has been known to just run home,” laughs Partridge before adding more seriously: “I run with Danny about once a week, but I run on my own in the mornings, as I run early before work.”

In an era when many international athletes increasingly expect to train full-time, Partridge refreshingly admits that life as a full-time athlete would not be for her at the moment. Not that she always finds it easy to run in the dark before or after work, but it is a routine that she embraces.

“I always struggle at 6am, but days like winning the National make it worth it,” she explains.

Alongside running, Partridge combines working as a teaching assistant at a primary school with studying one day a week at St Mary’s for a teaching degree. This lifestyle leaves her little time to relax, but she says that she would not want it any other way.

“I think working full-time helps me. It is all about time management. I need routine. I also have goals outside of athletics that are equally important to me,” she explains.

“I think working full-time helps me … I also have goals outside of athletics that are equally important to me”

When it comes to her performances this year, it is clear that the National victory holds a special place in Partridge’s heart. She is aware that her half-marathon victory at Reading is her best performance, but says: “The National is my proudest achievement. It just meant so much to me, due to the family connections and having wanted to win it since I was a kid. It was a really special day.”

As for Reading, Partridge offers her verdict: “The plan had been to do 5:30 miles for as long as possible. Mick told me to run with the marathon girls for as long as I could and see how I felt. It was just one of those days when I felt amazing and everything clicked. It had given me a big boost, psychologically more than anything.”

Indeed, Partridge went to Huelva, Spain, three weeks later, with half an eye on achieving the UKA qualifying time for the World Championships in the 10,000m (32:00). Although she failed, Partridge was thrilled with her 32:20.77 PB.

“I went through 5km in 15:58 and felt really good,” she explains, emphasising why this year she is so keen to clock the track times that she feels reflect her ability. “I tried to get the Worlds time. Two girls broke clear and I tried to do it on my own.

“I would like the opportunity to do another 10,000m to try and get the time this summer. The Worlds would be an incredible experience and I would love to have the chance to compete there, but the most important thing for me this year is to be consistent and have a full summer, so I can put myself in contention for Olympic selection next year.”

This explains why Partridge opted not to do the World Cross. As the event was held in China, Partridge would have had to have taken a week off work unpaid and she was focused on the race in Spain and preparing for the track.

At the beginning of June, Partridge contested another 10,000m and was the top Briton with her third-place finish at the European Cup 10,000m, clocking 33:02.03.

“… the most important thing for me this year is to be consistent and have a full summer, so I can put myself in contention for Olympic selection next year”

Her focus for the next two years is improving enough so she can earn selection to represent Britain in the 10,000m in Rio and therefore Partridge is well aware that she needs to improve her track times over the full spectrum of distances.

She is already addressing this and raced over 1500m at the BUCS Championships where she claimed bronze,
believing that three 1500m races in three races would be good speed training for her. In May she clocked a big 3000m PB of 9:06.40 in Hengelo and she will also race over 5000m as part of the GB team for the European Team Championships in Russia on June 20-21.

Partridge knows that physiologically she is best suited to the roads and has not ruled out moving up to the marathon in the future. However, at the moment, she is not thinking beyond next year, although she knows selection would be tough.

“Everyone will be aiming for Rio, but hopefully I can prove I’m good enough by consistently running well. It’s a dream to compete for Great Britain at a major games on the track,” she says.

Looking at her improvement this year, you wouldn’t want to rule Partridge out. She puts her advance down to consistency, having adapted to her training programme with Woods and the support she receives from the
physiology team at St Mary’s where she can access altitude and testing.

“It is exciting to see so many of the British girls running well … It keeps us all on our toes”

However, she is quick to put things straight regarding Woods. “There is sometimes a misconception with Mick that he pushes athletes too much, but in my experience, he really stripped my training down to the basics when I moved to him and I have built up slowly,” she says. “Although I trained hard as a junior, I wasn’t intense in the sense that it wasn’t only about running for me. My parents have always advised me to have other things in my life and it’s something I believe is very important and helps me.”

Unbeknown to many outsiders, external factors have so far prevented Partridge from bringing her track times in line with her cross-country achievements. Calf injuries have curtailed her last two track seasons. In addition, she has a grade-six allergy to grass pollen, due to having an overactive immune system, meaning she has to keep an epipen with her and typically has to go to A&E about twice every summer.

“It comes on instantly,” she says. “I get hives, tingling lips and can’t breathe. Usually I can get it under control with the use of oral medication and it is generally more the 400mg that I have to take every day that can cause a problem.

“I’m trying to learn to deal with it, but it takes time. I’m no longer afraid to simply not race if it is a day when the allergy is bad.”

She has also switched to a gluten-free diet, as she believes this will minimise the allergy symptoms. However, there is one essential component of her diet she has no intention of cutting out. “I have quite a bad chocolate addiction!” she says with a smile.

Partridge’s final word of praise goes to European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey, as she believes she is partly to credit for the many high-quality British women runners in the UK at the moment.

“I do look up to Jo, as she seems very normal, which I like,” she says. “She is also kind of the next generation up, with athletes such as Liz Yelling and Paula and has paved the way for all of the younger girls coming through,”

Perhaps in part because she has always been surrounded by high-quality athletes training day-in day-out at her home club in Aldershot and feels it has drawn out the best in her, rather than be bitter that there are so many athletes fighting for GB distance running spots at the moment, Partridge sees it as a positive.

She adds: “It is exciting to see so many of the British girls running well, as I have grown up with many of them. It keeps us all on our toes.”

» Lily Partridge is supported by New Balance UK, Soleus EU/Fitbrands Ltd and GLL Sports Foundation