STEPH Twell is excited. Hugely excited. “Super-excited,” she confirms. For most, the idea of spending Sunday in sub-zero temperatures, trying to keep your balance while slogging through frozen mud, is about as attractive as a dental extraction.
However when your greatest dream was dashed, and your raison d’être ripped away, a little frostbite is merely a minor inconvenience.
Today’s world cross-country championships in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz represent new beginnings for the 23-year-old following the torture of missing out on the Olympic Games and the trauma of having metal removed from around an ankle which splintered in three places during a race in 2011.
Sidelined from London, few would have blamed Twell for wallowing in misery. Instead, she withdrew from the sport which had been all-consuming since her teens, indulging in her passion for music, spending time in the great outdoors, living a normal life until her body was ready to embrace running again.
“I’ve been in control of things a bit more,” the 2010 Commonwealth medallist states. “I feel like my training has been more organic. I’ve not forced anything.” There is no doubt, she confirms, that her hiatus proved just how much athletics meant, and how much has been left unachieved.
Cross-country, at which she has long excelled, has been the first stage of the comeback. “But when you’ve been away from it for a while, you question your confidence on it. Especially with my ankle, and how that happened, I did lose confidence.” She finished fifth at the recent trials and with Africa expected to dominate in Poland, there are no expectations.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got what I wanted out of this winter season,” she states. “I’ve done a few races, like the nationals with my club when I was just coming down with an illness. So although my training has been going well, I haven’t delivered yet. I feel like, hopefully, this could be the opportunity.”
Great Britain has sent a 24-strong team for an event which once lured Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah but has suffered increasingly from absenteeism in recent years. The IAAF takes part of the blame for moving it from annual to biennial two years ago.
Cross-country, Twell argues, has been needlessly downgraded. “It seems that all the publicity and commercialism is through track and we don’t have the same credentials supporting cross-country. It’s not as glamorous. Everything’s become about times and there’s a lack of respect for the grind and tenacity of the endurance runner. You have to be able to cope with all types of conditions and all types of running, and have the tenacity to work your butt off all winter.”
Translation: warmth is for wimps. “That’s the kind of runner I think I am. I put myself on the line all year round.” Is she excited? You bet she is.