Rhona Auckland’s European win makes her ambitions more realistic than before, she tells Mark Woods
WITH the dawn light a reluctant visitor on these winter mornings, the eeriness of Holyrood Park hints at forbidden terrain, the blanket of frost obscuring the undulations which lie beneath, threatening to catch uninvited intruders unawares.
Undeterred, Rhona Auckland brushes the ghosts aside, ploughing through the Queen’s backyard as if in a netherworld of her own. “It can be a bit spooky when it’s misty and you’re out on your own,” she shrugs. “But you just get on with it.” Work done in the darkness, the 22-year-old knows, brings the promise of eventual illumination.
Refreshed from a Yuletide break in her native Aberdeenshire, the recently-crowned European cross-country champion intends to keep kicking onward in 2015. The first stop on the calendar will provide a degree of home comfort, with next Saturday’s Great Edinburgh International XC conducted around the Arthur’s Seat circuit she knows so well.
Her surprise victory in Bulgaria three weeks ago came at Under-23 level. This time, Auckland will mix with fully-matured adversaries as part of a British squad which will take on teams representing Europe and the USA in Scotland’s only annual A-List athletics event.
Diminutive in stature but elevated in endurance, the Scot feels emboldened as never before at the outset of a year where she will try to bridge the gulf between the junior and senior ranks.
“It’s given me a huge amount of confidence,” Auckland declares. “I said beforehand that really just getting a medal would be a dream. But to get the gold is just something else. It’s showed me that I can do it and that my ambitions are maybe more realistic than I’d imagined possible.”
When the anthem played in her honour, the victor looked out to the gathered crowd, feeling “a concoction of disbelief, mixed with excitement and joy”. Her parents had travelled out and had their prescience repaid. Standing beside them were Ken and Joyce Hogg, stalwarts of Banchory Stonehaven AC, and her joint coaches since she signed up for the club at the age of 17. “So when I spotted them,” she says, “it just made it an even more special feeling.”
Theirs is an unconventional relationship. A medical sciences student in her final year at Edinburgh University, hands-on mentoring occurs only on an irregular basis. “Every week I get a message with what I’m supposed to be doing,” she confirms. The husband and wife pairing give their charge the leeway to tinker and adjust to accommodate the variables of life. Yet early alarm calls, plus sessions in the gym or pool after lectures, suggest it is student spoils which must cede ground.
“I don’t see it as a sacrifice because for me, it’s worth it. I’m lucky in that I have supportive flat-mates with a similar lifestyle – as well as a training group in Edinburgh who have that kind of mindset. And most of my socialising tends to be over food or dinner parties so I can find a balance without necessarily having to miss out on going to clubs or whatever.”
If the approach is all-encompassing, then it brings both the rough and the smooth. Although Auckland gained a Great Britain & Northern Ireland track debut over 10,000 metres at the European Cup last summer, she was left on the outside looking in when the Commonwealth Games passed by.
Missing out stung. Seeking a constructive distraction, she signed on for an outreach project on the eastern coast of South Africa, applying raw knowledge gained in the classroom and laboratory to assist in a clinic where treating HIV was among the most frequent concerns.
Eyes were opened, minds were blown. “There were people with full-blown AIDS, people who were really ill,” Auckland recounts. “Before I went, the briefing was pretty minimal. But when I got out there, it was very hands-on. You had to act quickly as you went along. There wasn’t too much time to sit and plan. But it teaches you how to deal with those kinds of situations and how to deal with people. For the very most part, they were immensely kind back to me.”
It was transformative, a little perspective going a long way. “It taught me that life is sometimes about seeing the bigger picture and accepting how lucky we are here – and how we should make the most of our opportunities. That small things don’t really matter.”
The soothed young adult who returned has not looked back. And she has taken a primary role in a strong cross-country campaign for Scotland’s exponents, with loftily-ranked Callum Hawkins, Andy Butchart and Luke Caldwell, and promising teen Jonny Glen, all retaining their GB places for Edinburgh.
The quintet must, however, doff a cap at their most illustrious colleague, with Mo Farah set to perform on the cross for the first time since his victory in Holyrood in 2011.
“That’s really exciting,” Auckland acknowledges. “I’m looking forward to that. It’s that kind of thing that keeps me training hard because he’s such an inspirational figure, seeing how hard he works.”
Once Farah was regarded as something of a stick-in-the-mud before adjusting himself to the rigours of the track with devastating effect. It is a transformation Auckland will hope to emulate come the summer when tweaks and tinkering will be undertaken to secure strides forward.
With her distinguished foes in Edinburgh including in-form Gemma Steel and Ireland’s formidable Fionnuala Britton, this will be a valuable benchmark.
“There probably is more expected of me now but I’m desperately trying not to think about it,” Auckland admits. “It’s a senior race. I need to remember that. And the quality of the field is fantastic. So it’s more about getting points for the team than me.”