Friday, 5 August 2011

Pregnant and still living on the run

The Scotsman, 4 September 2000

There's a gloominess about the haar lingering over the deserted coast road. It's early and certainly too dreich for the great and the good of Carnoustie to be taking the air. But for Liz McColgan, at ease in the foyer to her gym, it's already been a good morning. The damp breeze cooled her on her first five-mile run of the day, which she finished long before we begin to talk at nine o'clock.

Injury may have ruled her out of Olympic Games qualification, but McColgan is sticking by her gruelling marathon training schedule, three full-pace sessions every week, and a daily routine to prepare her for the next two years of running. There are Commonwealth Games to look forward to in 2002, and she feels there are three, maybe five 26-milers inside her before she retires.

It would be a punishing regime for anyone. For a woman who is five-and-half months pregnant with her third child it is almost unbelievable. You say so and almost by way of mitigation she offers: "This is the only pregnancy I've trained through like this. I'm surprised. Normally when you get to four months you feel..." she grips her stomach and makes a sickly sound "... and you can't keep the sessions going. But I'm actually doing hard sessions which I can't believe I'm capable of doing."

It all seems so typical of the McColgan image: the fierce commitment to family, spliced with that single-mindedness which so unsettles some observers.

That competitiveness though is the mark of a major athlete, who despite her talent has had to cope with disappointments which arrive in four-year cycles. Just remember: there she was, smiling with the British team in the opening parade at Atlanta in 1996, all hope and glorious medal expectation. That was before an insect bite prevented her running. Four years earlier she was laid low by anaemia.

This time around, a second operation on a toe injury disrupted her schedule and made it impossible to achieve a qualifying time within the limits set for the British team. Her fate seems especially cruel. After all, as she says herself: "Sydney was going to be the one where it happened. The temperature would be right, the course was perfect - it's quite tough and would have suited me - but it's out of my hands. I can't do anything about it now."

There's no bitterness she says, though her foot feels better and she believes she could compete. But she admits it was the disappointment which prompted her decision with husband Peter to have another child. They already have Eilish, ten, and Martin, ten months.

"We want more children, and we thought we can't sit and dwell on what can or can't be.
"I felt I could give myself six months where I didn't over-stretch myself and just gradually build up my strength. So we thought, 'What the heck', and that's when we decided. By the time I have this child, my foot will have been through a lot of training."

She's laughing at herself now, perhaps knowing that she sounds, even by her standards, a trifle focused. "So when I have had the child I'll be able to get right back in and not worry about any more children for a couple of years!"

At 35, it's improbable even McColgan could win Olympic gold now. With a third child on the way why not simply retire?

"That would be the easy option, to put my feet up. But that's not me. I've got other things to do, not for anyone else but your myself. I don't see the point in throwing in the towel just because your biggest dream has been taken away from you.

"I've trained but I haven't raced for two years and I feel I'm two years short in my career. I still feel mentally strong. If the mind's willing and the body's able, age isn't a problem."

It been a lifetime's work already. The facts of the young Liz Lynch's early career are well known. Brought up on a council estate, she was thrown into athletics by a PE master with a yen for cross-country and a membership at Dundee Harriers. At the club she met her mentor, coach Harry Bennett, who instilled a competitive philosophy which has shaped her life.

More than that, Bennett cajoled Liz's parents to take their daughter out of a jute mill and send her to America. He funded the journey; he even picked her Mormon college, because he understood his protege would require the support such a restricted environment could provide.

There's a shine in her eyes when McColgan talks about Bennett. Though he died while she was a student, he had already fitted her for the long haul. By the time Eilish was born she was a Commonwealth 10,000m champion. Within another year she had added a world crown, a world record and was ready to step up in distance. The marathon, the greatest of all challenges, is an extraordinary event, requiring a fanatical level of preparation for the most unpredictable results. It is a roller coaster, she admits, and not everyone enjoys the ride. How does she feel on the morning of the race?

"I just wish I wasn't there! It's like D-Day and you really have a feeling of dread.

"The worst thing is you know you're going to hurt, it's going to be tough. So many emotions are going through your mind, it's very hard to deal with. One of the thoughts is 'Why do I do it?' But it's not until you've run the race, good or bad, that you realise why you're there - the enjoyment of it. But the worst side of it is at the start."

As a teenager, Bennett had thrown books at her, to help her attune to the sport. One she enjoyed was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, though these days she has worked out her own version.

"When you're running, you've got to keep yourself as relaxed as possible so you've got to concentrate on your breathing. I tend to go into myself: I listen to my body and my muscles, and I try to relax myself when I'm running.

"When I'm focused and when I'm right up there, I haven't got time to think of things about me. Normally all I hear is a buzz ... you just run through it. On the track I don't hear anything."
It's not the thought of a gold medal which drives her through the silence, nor the prospect of fame. It's a belief that she can do better.

The closest she came to her perfect race, she reckons, was in Tokyo.

"We had Eilish with us, and she had really bad ear problems. I'd just arrived in Japan and I was up walking the floor with her all night, a three-month old baby. Then I took my period on the morning of the race, so it was all doom and gloom.

"I thought, 'Well I don't care, I'll just go and run flat out'. I honestly thought I'd run badly. But I thought, 'Stuff it, I'm just going to go from start to finish'.

"I remember running 10,000m in about 31 minutes and I thought I'd die a death. But I just kept going. I was surprised. In the end, I took two minutes off my personal best for the half-marathon and a good chunk off the world record."

Results like that are built on a fierce asceticism, and it's not surprising that she deplores drug cheats. There's a bit of history too - after all she was denied Olympic gold in 1988 only by Olga Bondarenko, from a since-discredited Soviet team.

These days, McColgan supports proposals to bring in blood testing and though sympathetic to some of those enmeshed in the current drug-taking scandal, she frowns on what one might charitably call a careless approach to food supplements.

"There's so much stuff on the market now," she tells you. "For me, before I consume anything, I sit down and read the label and I phone up to check. Some blame has to fall on the athletes."
Then there's Linford Christie. He failed a drugs test at the Seoul Olympics, a result later overturned because the sprinter said he had taken ginseng. Last year in Dortmund, he was found to be 100 times over the limit for Nandrolone.

"That's a different story altogether," she says. "He was extremely high. Goodness knows how he was that high. It's not for me to say he's not taking it or he is taking it, but at the end of the day he's been involved twice and you know ... it's a very hard subject to approach.

"There are people who are blatantly doing it, and others who are not. It's very harsh when they get banned, but I'd rather see a stronger stance."

That's for the future, and McColgan is realistic enough to anticipate the days when competitive athletics are behind her. Already, through her health club, she is involved in the rehabilitation of patients discharged from organ transplant and heart operations.

"When I see the progression and enthusiasm they find for their lives again, it gives me as much enjoyment as running London or winning medals. That's where I'll be when I stop running altogether."

Some television work would appeal, she admits, but she was once told by a PR company she would need elocution lessons.

"I just said, 'Yeah, stuff that. I'm happy being a Scot'. If people don't like my accent or don't accept me like I am, too bad. Why hide what you are? So I turned my back on that right away."

She's had the problem before. After Eilish was born she told Woman magazine she hoped eventually for four to six children. The front cover from March 1992 is on display in the health club. There she is, smiling with her darling daughter, the picture embellished with the slogan: "Liz McColgan - my race to have 46 children". In the real world, before even her third child arrives, she will have to sit at home and watch an Olympic marathon. She'll be "very agitated", she admits.

"It would be easy to sit back and say I'd have won it. I wouldn't do that. It's when you see girls you know, who aren't any better than you, that you realise you could be out there competing, that's the annoying thing. At the end of the day, I'm sitting in Carnoustie with my feet on a chair watching it and they're out there doing the work. But there's no comparison."

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