ANYONE would be relieved to learn they do not need an operation, but for me that news meant a lot more than just avoiding a few days in hospital around now. Being told the wound in my leg has completely healed and is clear of infection has left me free to plan a full winter training schedule – something that I hope will have an impact on my form next season.
I went through all of this season fully expecting I would need a third operation to finally clear up my leg problem. Indeed, for much of the season the limit of my ambitions was merely to postpone the operation for as long as possible because, for a time, there was a risk that I would have to have it during the summer and therefore miss out on the Commonwealth Games and European Championships.
Fortunately, thanks to careful daily management of the wound, that risk did not materialise. But even so, all the medical staff still thought I would need it by September at the latest, with one doctor saying he would eat his hat if I didn’t.
I’d also been told that, if and when the operation went ahead, we were looking at a three-month rehabilitation period. That was not merely three months before I could get back to full fitness. It was three months of almost complete inactivity: carefully protecting the wound, ensuring it did not get wet, and avoiding virtually everything that is a normal part of an athlete’s preparation during winter. Three months before I could even begin the kind of strength-building training you need before you can go on to start training at your normal high intensity.
Granted, there’s a positive side to everything, and complete rest can come in useful at the end of a busy season. But enforced rest becomes annoying very quickly, and in my case the operation would have prevented me from having the kind of beach holiday with friends that I enjoy so much.
So instead of those restrictions, I am now able to have a quick break in America, and then get down to winter training. Many athletes tend to have little or no affection for winter training, because it’s hard work, often in poor weather, with no immediate reward in terms of competition. But I’m really looking forward to it, because it will be the first time in years that I’m completely injury-free and able to do it.
The fascinating thing will be finding out the difference it makes to my running. To an extent this season I confounded the conventional wisdom by setting new personal bests and winning silver medals at both major championships despite having had so little preparation. But it was touch and go, and, as I wrote last month, I was still in a wheelchair just a few weeks before running a Commonwealth Games qualifying time.
It’s strange to look back on it now, but for that spell last season just getting to the Games was the limit of my ambition. Although the qualifying time was something that I should have taken in my stride if I’d been race-sharp, I only made it with a couple of weeks to spare.
So for me the question will always remain: how much faster could I have run if I’d had a normal winter’s preparation, and if I had been free of illness in Glasgow? I’m still convinced I could have beaten Commonwealth champion Eunice Sum in the final, and I think my subsequent victories over her prove that. But how much more I could have taken off my personal best remains a moot point. It’s simply up to me to keep on getting faster, with Kelly Holmes’s British 800-metres record the medium- to long-term target.
While my sights are now firmly set on preparing for next season and then after that another Olympic year, I had the chance to take a broad look back at the past recently after being invited by UK Anti-Doping to give a speech from an athlete’s perspective at one of their conferences. The fight against doping in athletics is a continuous struggle that may never be finally won, but there’s no doubt that in the past five years there has been significant and sustained progress, particularly in relation to biological passports. That is even more the case this year now that the use of EPO and steroids is detectable over time through biological passports.
For me personally, justice would not have been done had it not been for the use of biological passports – that is what led to the disqualification of the athlete who finished ahead of me at the 2012 European Championships. In general, I am of the opinion that, worldwide, more athletes than ever are being caught. In a conversation with team-mates at this year’s European Championships, we all felt that it was perhaps the cleanest Championships ever, a huge improvement on the 2012 Championships, from which there have been several disqualifications.
Next year, a revised anti-doping code will bring the reintroduction of four-year bans, which has to be an improvement on the current two. Yes, we still have a long way to go, and the anti-doping programmes in some other countries are a lot less rigorous than they are in the UK, but for me there is little doubt we are heading in the right direction.