Eilish McColgan’s future is littered with fantastical possibilities. It wasn’t always so. Injured and irritated last summer in the wake of an ankle surgery that saw a protective moonboot become her season’s must-have accessory, the Dundonian became prone to pondering her athletic mortality even at the youthful age of 25 as dark thoughts of a life away from the track took hold.
The world championships came and went. With her Lottery funding soon to be cut, the UK’s leading steeplechaser tapped out the alternative paths available as the frustration took hold.
“I’d gone through every single one, looking at what was best,” she reveals. “You do think about even how you pay the rent and for food. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I looked at courses, maybe doing a year of teaching so I could do that, or tutoring. But my dad, and my mum, were saying give it one more year. In 2017, you can do anything you like and follow through but this year keep strong and continue.”
The initial signs, two track races into her comeback, are that parents know best. Two personal bests, one an Olympic qualifying standard, the other a respectable showing in Friday’s opening Diamond League meeting in Doha, have caused McColgan to slide her CV back into the drawer.
Months of rehabilitation have borne fruit. It is a tedious process, as exhaustive to the mind as racing is to the body. However the Scot has emerged to view the sight of the Olympic Games in Rio as a realistic possibility once again.
Should she eventually be chosen, it will be over 5000 metres rather than the steeplechase whose hurdles are now deemed an unnecessary risks, those. The switch propels her down the road on which her mother Liz Lynch-Nuttall excelled and away from the event where her father Peter McColgan impressed, a diversion she once was reluctant to take.
“I remember when I was a kid, doing my first 3000 metres on the blue track at Scotstoun and hating every single minute of it,” she recalls. “I said to my mum I would never do another one. But then you do, and then you do a steeplechase. It was the same with a 5000m. I never wanted to do another one. But you mature a bit and realise you can get round and push through the tiredness and the pain. And I’m at the point now where I can keep going.”
Her ankle bears the scars and still grumbles in complaint. Remaining in Doha for a warm-weather stint, she remains confined to running only once each day to minimise the load, opting for a cross-trainer or a jog in the pool while her contemporaries are pushing through the latter leg of their split shift.
It messes with your mind, she confesses, not to follow the pack but to plough onwards alone. Last month in Arizona, she found herself texting Lynch-Nuttall to seek reassurance and relief. “Is this OK? Are we doing things right?” became frequent messages. “You question yourself when you’re doing something different to everyone else. But my mum told me not to worry and it would eventually click. It’s just having the confidence in that. And now I’m glad I stuck to what I wanted to do rather than trying to push things on.”
Best foot forward now. In Hengelo in two weeks, McColgan will chase the second 5000m standard required for Rio. Then it will be all eyes on the trials where her fellow Scot Steph Twell will be among those in her way. Yet, her sporting contemporaries have become valued cheerleaders in this comeback, especially amid a Scottish distance-running cluster that has shown immense promise in this early part of the season.
At altitude in Arizona, when niggles could easily have morphed into self-doubt, encouragement was usefully abundant. “I was lucky enough to be in a house with a lot of Scottish athletes,” she says. “I’d never met Andy Butchart before but I knew Beth Potter and we met Sarah Inglis a lot. It was nice to be around people who want to do the same thing.
“But I did a warm-up and a sort of session with Mo Farah. He was doing different things and he went past me a few times at speed. But it is amazing to have someone like that on the team. You see how hard he works. He was doing a 20-mile run at 5:30 pace and that’s inspiring to be around. He’s also very down to earth. He’ll chat to you. You wouldn’t think he’s a superstar of athletics. People were queuing up to get his autograph. So it was nice to be around him.”