LEARNING to live with the Kenyans. That’s what Eilish McColgan has just spent several weeks doing on their own turf – and it is exactly what she will need to do on the Hampden track next summer if her dream of a Commonwealth Games medal is to become a reality.
A look at the world rankings for the 3,000 metres steeplechase shows what a tough job it will be. Of the ten women currently placed above McColgan, five are Kenyan. At least the other five are not from Commonwealth countries and, of course, each team can only select a maximum of three competitors per event, but it will be a daunting task all the same.
And yet, having lived in a training camp in Iten earlier this month, where she and other British athletes got a taste of the regime that has made Kenya one of the most formidable countries in track and field, McColgan is optimistic. There is no magical formula behind Kenyan success: it’s all down to relentless hard work and a refusal to be distracted by the little luxuries of life.
“The living conditions are very basic compared to what we’re used to in the UK, although compared to the other Kenyan athletes out there we’re living the high life,” she says of the camp. “It takes getting used to, but it allows you to purely focus on your athletics. There are no other distractions there, so you get into a good routine and become fitter and healthier. It’s been a huge benefit to me, and I’m going to go back to Kenya for four weeks early next year if I can.”
She will have a lot on her plate in 2014. The world indoor championships are in Sopot, Poland, in March, and she may try to qualify for the flat 3,000m. Then there are the European Championships, which take place in Zurich immediately after the Commonwealth Games in August.
And she is on the road a lot in any case, dividing her time in the UK between Dundee and Loughborough – although on Monday she was in Edinburgh to announce a sponsorship deal with Lindsays, the Scottish law firm. She made the approach herself, hoping she would get a sympathetic hearing from Ian Beattie, the company’s chief operating officer.
“I wanted to have a Scottish company that I would have a closer connection with,” she explains. “I knew there was a branch of Lindsays in Dundee, and it made sense really, so I approached them. With Ian being the chairman of Scottish Athletics as well, that was another link. So I’m really fortunate they’re helping me out in Commonwealth Games year.”
Having just turned 23, McColgan is still relatively inexperienced as a hurdler, particularly as an injury last year prevented her from training over the jumps. Nonetheless, she improved her flat speed and took a big chunk off her personal best, which is now 9mins 35.82sec.
The initial target for next season is getting below nine and a half minutes. Then there’s Barbara Parker’s British record of 9:24.24. And after that? Well, she’ll race in Glasgow, go all out to record another personal best no matter what it is by then, and do her utmost to challenge the best competitors in the world.
“There have always been several Kenyans close to the top of the world rankings, so for me the Commonwealth Games are at Olympic or world championship level,” she says. “All I can hope for is I get in amongst it, really. I improved by 13 seconds this year, and if I can do the same again next year that will make a big difference.
“I have no expectations to just go in and win a medal. It’s not going to be that easy. People maybe don’t realise how difficult the Commonwealth Games are going to be in the distance events. Scottish athletes are going to have a lot of hard work to do in order to be near the Kenyans. But anything can happen. If I can run a personal-best time and be in amongst them, I’d be really happy with that.”
There will be a massive burden of expectation on every Scots competitor, but there are two reasons why McColgan is not fazed by that. First, having run at last year’s Olympic Games in London, she feels she can deal with the unique stresses of being a home competitor. Second, having her mother, Liz McColgan, as her coach means she is used to being expected to succeed.
“My mum is probably the hardest person to please in athletics. There’s not much more pressure that could be put on me. I’m very fortunate I’ve got my mum coaching me. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now without her. My mum had a home Games in Edinburgh, and for me and my mum to have that experience may be unique. I don’t know if there’s another family who have had that.
“She always said to me that the one race that stood out was the Commonwealth Games.
“I’m fortunate that the Olympics have set me up for next year, because there were 80,000 people there and I’m never going to experience that same thing again. Though I can guarantee the Scottish crowd will be a hell of a lot noisier than London. I’ll never be as nervous again as I was for London.”