The English Schools 800m champion is aiming for global success

A prolific racer on the track and country, Exeter Harriers’ Molly Canham is hoping her hard work in training and success over the two-lap distance will soon be recognised by the national selectors.

The 14-year-old English Schools under-15 800m champion has competed 20-plus times over her preferred distance so far this year, claiming national indoor and outdoor titles along the way, but still struggles with nerves before major races.

Riding high at the top of the UK 2016 under-15 800m rankings with her 2:07.84 PB and No.1 on the all-time under-13 lists with 2:14.17, Molly admits she has some way to go in believing in her abilities.

“I’m never that confident before I race,” she said. “I’m a real worrier and I’m always really nervous. I know my form has improved this year and I feel strong, but my nerves sometimes get the better of me.”

As the Torquay Girls’ Grammar School student’s times have improved – she has knocked nearly seven seconds off her 800m best in two years – the distances she has to travel for higher-level competitions have dramatically increased.

Living in the South West of England means not only driving miles for meetings – many of which are in the north of England and requiring a six-hour car journey – but also fewer facilities and support from the athletics governing bodies to prepare her for the national competitions she nevertheless often wins.

She said: “The lack of financial support can be frustrating when most other athletes at my level are benefiting. However, I am lucky that, as I have got faster and have to travel further afield to test myself more, my parents find the right races for me and are happy to drive, even if they are miles away, often requiring an overnight stay or two.

Highlighting just how well she has done this year she explains: “The national indoor title was a surprise, as I’d only ever run on an indoor track once before at the South West Championships in Cardiff – and it was all a bit different! I haven’t ever trained on an indoor track as there aren’t any in the South West – the closest is in Wales. I loved it, though, and much preferred being inside in the warm to cross country!

“I knew going into the English Schools I was probably the favourite as I was running consistently faster times, but that put more pressure on me to perform. I was pleased with my performances in my regional races, though, when I was front-running consistent 2:10s, and knew from last year that I could compete well at that level. I was determined to give it a go and really happy to get the gold, though I always think I could have run faster as I’m never that tired when I finish.”

Molly recognises the huge contribution her parents have made to her blossoming athletics career. Her dad Kevin has coached her from the beginning, drawing on his own track racing experiences when he competed over the sprints as a teenager at county level in Hounslow, and her mum Catherine oversees many of her sessions too.

She adds: “My parents are one of the biggest influences in my athletics. They are both hugely supportive, giving up their free time to coach me.”

The middle-distance talent shares some striking similarities with Paula Radcliffe’s early experiences of athletics, as Molly too was taken to watch her dad compete in distance events, discovering her running speed when she started entering marathon ‘fun runs’. She was further encouraged by her success over the country in school events, winning her first race by 200m at the age of nine, adding: “I’ve always been driven and my competitive spirit took over.”

She went on to win three gold medals in her first inter-club track competition, initially joining Newton Abbot AC with her sister Poppy before moving to Exeter Harriers last year to access their superior facilities at the Exeter Arena, where a certain Jo Pavey started her own meteoric career.

Teaming up with the biggest athletics club in Devon has seen her not only top the UK 800m rankings but also the UK 2016 mile rankings, with her 5:01.93 best from the Oxford BMC meeting in July.

“My club are really supportive. They encourage me and always take an interest in what I’m doing,” she said. “The middle-distance coach at Exeter, Brian O’Hare, pairs me with the faster boys to push me more, and is always one of the first people to contact me after a big championship race.”

A typical week’s training for the former regional trampolining competitor includes a track or grass session with her mum, such as three sets of 4x200m, two track sessions with Exeter including a 600m-1000m pyramid and three sets of 60m, 80m, 100m, 150m, 200m followed by two 300m efforts, core work and cycling, a 5km tempo or a race, and a long, easy run with her dad.

Molly is ambitious in her studies too, aiming for a career in medicine as a paediatrician and at the tender age of 14 is already targeting a place at the University of Oregon to allow her to balance her college work with her training at one of the running meccas of the world.

Watching her Olympian clubmate Pavey train regularly on the same track is a huge boost for the Devonian teenager, but she also draws inspiration from Lynsey Sharp and, perhaps more surprisingly, Steve Prefontaine. She explains why: “My dad has shown me videos of him running as he thinks I run a bit like him – he was determined to run out at the front as I like to. He had real speed and strength, and I would love to follow in his footsteps.”

The energetic Exeter Harrier is keen in the short term to gain a top-30 position at the major cross-country events over the winter. Looking further ahead, she is gunning for national and English Schools intermediate and senior titles, as well as selection for GB, adding: “I’d love to be one of the best female 800m runners in the world and inspire others to run.”

However, her most immediate goal is the one that has continued to allude her since she joined her current school – the school sports award!

You can find further performance stats on Molly on Power of 10 here.

» Support young athletes via the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund, see rpmf.org.uk