Sarah McDonald got into athletics almost by accident but she is turning into a championship regular for both GB and England
As a child, Sarah McDonald spent more time skating than running. Yet you will not have seen her in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang recently but instead she will be racing 1500m at the Commonwealth Games next month on the Gold Coast of Australia.
The 24-year-old was a figure skater as a youngster but her period doing the sport ended with surgery on her hips for problems caused by the stress her body was under on the ice.
“I had fairly big operations on my hips due to the stress that they’d come under doing the skating,” she remembers. “Afterwards, I began running simply to get fit again.”
Ironically she soon discovered she had a talent for running and began to get her teeth into the sport. Initially she took part in a variety of events and in 2010 competed in the English Schools Combined Events Championships in Stoke. The following year she ran in the 800m at the English Schools at Gateshead in her native north-east of England and finished fourth in her heat.
In 2012 she was seventh in the 800m at the BUCS Championships – which was a special occasion as it was a test event for the Olympic Games.
Since then she has gone from strength to strength. Notable performances have included winning the British indoor 1500m title 12 months ago and taking a 1500m victory at the Diamond League in Birmingham in 2016 where she ran a PB at the time of 4:07.18.
During that year she took 10 seconds off her 1500m PB and it was the springboard to make teams for the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade last winter, the IAAF World Championships in London and, now, the Commonwealth Games for England.
Amid all this she has been studying medicine too at the University of Birmingham. But she has taken a year out to focus on athletics in 2018.
“I had exams in April but they would have been at around the same time as the Commonwealth Games, so I decided to have a year out and focus on athletics,” she told AW, as she was in Preston last month to pick up her official Team England kit from the warehouse of sports brand Kukri.
“I realised last summer when I was standing on the start line at the World Championships, with the noise and huge crowd, that this is what I want to do and I need to focus on it during 2018.”
McDonald ran to the best of her ability, too, with a 4:05.48 PB in her heat and then only a second slower in a tough semi-final where she finished a fraction behind German talent Konstanze Klosterhalfen in ninth.
Being on the start line was, she says, ‘a moment’ where she realised making major championships was something she felt she had to concentrate on while she was at the peak age to succeed.
She adds: “It isn’t easy to mix running and studying medicine, but two of the girls in the Bud Baldaro elite training group, Julia Cooke and Sara Treacy, have done it, so they are great to talk to and get advice from. The medical school have been great and made a lot of adjustments to help me.”
Enjoying the time to focus on athletics, McDonald, who has been coached lately by Baldaro and David Harmer, took the opportunity to train at altitude in Potchefstroom during January.
“I had a good period training in South Africa,” she says. “But it was strange to go from hot temperatures there to about 3C in Birmingham and drizzle.”
McDonald has experienced altitude camps in Font Romeu and Flagstaff but she says the South African camp was much warmer than her previous trips.
“One day it got up to 41C in South Africa although most of the rest of the time it was ‘only’ about 35C,” she says.
Last month she was travelling again, too. She raced at the New Balance Games in Boston, placing fifth in the 1500m in 4:07.62 – a time that took her from 26th to 9th on the UK all-time indoor rankings. She then clocked 4:09.00 – also for fifth – at the Müller Indoor Grand Prix in Glasgow.
As for her preparations for the Commonwealth Games? “I’ll hopefully find an 800m race to help sharpen up and probably do some time-trials too,” she says, on the holding camp period before the Games in April.