Eilish McColgan’s latest success is the result of some tough love.
The Scottish 5,000m athlete had her heart set on a return to the steeplechase when she eventually battled back from a fractured foot but, fearing that the bones, which eventually had to be screwed together to get her mobile, would not withstand the rigours of the gruelling event, her mother and coach gave her an ultimatum.
“It was really hard to tell her she wasn’t doing the steeplechase again,” said her mother, Liz McColgan-Nuttall, who is an Olympic medallist and one of Scotland’s most famous competitors. “She was adamant she was. My thing was ‘if you do the steeplechase again then I don’t coach you’. That’s how it went.”
Having made her senior debut in a Great Britain vest in the 3,000m steeplechase in 2011 and represented the country at the event in the 2012 Olympics in London, the McColgan ladies were embroiled in a gut-twisting war of wills as they plotted the future but in the end it seems mother does know best.
“I was very confident she could be a good 5k and 10k runner. I had no problem with that at all,” said the woman who secured the silver medal in the 1998 Olympics. “But for Eilish it was hard for her to get her head around it.
“There were a lot of tears, a lot of hard work. But she’s a very determined young lady and she wants to be in Rio, she can’t do it one way so she’s going to do it another. We sat down and we made a plan.”
Sure that the foot would not withstand the impact of jumping, there was actually no way to say it would even withstand the impact of running, said Liz, who could not be prouder of the strength of character that has allowed Eilish to make the progress she has over 5,000m. The weekend saw her run the Olympic qualifying time for the second time this year, giving her great hope of making the GB team for Rio but it has been a tough road.
“She’s had no support. It’s been really difficult for her,” added Liz. “She fractured her foot, got back running and she fractured it again. When she fractured it we were told it would heal on its own but seven months later it hadn’t. She had to fight to get the right diagnosis then got an operation, she got a few screws in the foot.”
The long lay-off and lack of competitive action meant that she was kicked off the lottery funding, and ousted from the athletes’ house in Loughborough, forcing her to reassess and replot her route to Brazil.
“She’s done it the hard way,” said Liz, speaking at the launch of the Stirling Scottish Marathon, which will be added to the athletics calendar from next year. The former world and Commonwealth champion middle and long distance runner was enthusiastic about the wealth of Scottish talent coming through at those distances, confident that her daughter can be part of a cluster of talent who can ultimately challenge the elite.
Now based in Manchester, Eilish has tweaked her training schedule to address the physical weaknesses and has found the form that takes her into next month’s British trials full of confidence.
“She got to go to Kenya which was a big help and to Flagstaff which was a massive turnaround for her. She responds really well to altitude so to get access to those camps was a massive help to her. She’s only able to run once a day, she can’t train twice a day. So to get to the level she has is pretty amazing,” said Liz, who believes her daughter could turn out to be an even better athlete than she was. “She knows it’s the right decision. It’s been a long and hard road but she realises she can be world class if not better at 5k.”
But as a mother and a coach it has been as tough as anything she achieved as a runner.
“It’s difficult to watch as a coach because you’re balancing a lot of emotion you don’t want an athlete to see,” said Liz. “You question and doubt things and hope you do it the right way. I think I’m fortunate I do understand how endurance running works. With Eilish it’s about getting the balance right for what was appropriate for her injury rather than her event. It’s really paid off because she’s running really well. But she’s still got a challenge, got to finish in the top two in the trials in four weeks time. I couldn’t have been any more proud of what she’s done now. I’m just happy she’s healthy, she’s back running and I believe she’s a very talented runner. I’m just pleased she’s getting into the ballpark area I think she should have been anyway.”