Eilish McColgan recalls partying and drinking five nights a week before her ‘lightbulb moment’

Scottish running star looks back on her student days and what got her athletics career back on track

Eilish McColgan celebrates after winning silver in the 5000m at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin. Picture: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for European Athletics

Eilish McColgan’s laughter echoed long and loud down the line from her training retreat at altitude in Colorado Springs.

The 29-year-old Scottish athletics star is rewinding ten years and recalling her life as a student in her native Dundee.

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“I was out partying and drinking five nights a week, getting no sleep and eating kebabs at 4am,” came the candid admission.

It’s hardly the lifestyle befitting an Olympian. Even though it was the lifestyle circa 2010 of the daughter of a triple Olympian.

Then came the lightbulb moment which brought McColgan, guided by her mum and coach, Liz McColgan-Nuttall, back on track towards a career which has subsequently seen her feature in GB and NI teams for the past nine years, win European medals indoors and outdoors, race twice at the Olympics and land Scottish National Records in two distance events.

“It is no secret I enjoyed university life,” Eilish told Scottish Athletics in a special interview about her career and being coached by her mum.

“I just wasn’t a ‘runner’ as such. When I look back now, I know I was still training all the time and that was because I enjoyed it. I went to the Hawks three times a week.

“I did have ambitions but not really to make a career from it – to be honest, I wasn’t anywhere near good enough.

“I went out and partied. I had a big friendship group. I partied more, and harder, than I certainly should as an athlete. But I don’t really regret it. I feel as if I got it out my system so to speak. I had some great times, made some great memories, made some not so great memories.

“It felt like part and parcel of growing up. I still enjoyed the physical part of training – even turning up with the hangover I would push myself.’

Towards the end of 2010, however, a conversation with a sneering family member triggered a response which demonstrated a (genetic?) thrawn streak.

“When I made the decision at the start of 2011, it was like throwing a switch,’ recalled Eilish.

“I stopped partying right away and trained harder. A family member had said to me: ‘Why do you bother? You do all this training and put in effort but you are never going to make a living from athletics? What’s the point?’

“And I thought, ‘Well, I still enjoy it so why can’t I do both?’ But more than that it just annoyed me a wee bit that someone was saying I was wasting my time. And I started to think ‘I will show you... I actually think I can become a professional athlete. That was a lightbulb moment for sure.

“I went from someone who was out drinking five nights a week, not sleeping and eating a kebab at 4am to someone who was teetotal and didn’t go out. Friends were asking me ‘Are you okay?’

“I just decided at 20 I wanted to commit 100 per cent to my running. The Olympics were looming up 18 months later and people were saying with it being in London it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I got into a far better routine of eating, sleeping and training and I split my Uni course to give more time to athletics.

“Within six months I made my first GB and NI team for the U23s (in Ostrava in the Czech Republic in July 2011). And that was a huge eye-opener because suddenly I was away on camp with real athletes – people who were basically eat, sleep, live runners and I thought ‘I’m not doing that enough’.”

McColgan had grown up without any real appreciation of her mum’s status as a global athletics star and with dad Peter as an Irish international steeplechaser (later to be her main event and for which she holds the Scottish National Record; she also holds the Women’s 5,000m Record).

“Growing up my parents sheltered me a bit from the fact they were professional athletes,” she said.

“They wanted to ensure that I got into the sport for the right reasons. They did not want to be known as pushy parents. I had no real awareness of what my mum had achieved or even that my dad was a professional athlete. I think I assumed that everyone’s parents were always out running.

“I was so naïve as a very young kid – primary school age – and it was only after I went to high school that it really registered. I was confused when other kids crowded around my mum and asked for autographs. She never had the medals out on display in the house and we never watched back her races on video.

“All that happened later and only for media interviews and photographers. So the thing is – I love running and it was from me that I came into it rather than them.”

Later, mum Liz was to become her coach – although that didn’t quite come about as might have been expected. More a case of a ‘pushy daughter’ than a pushy parent, in fact.

“My mum was not a coach when I joined Dundee Hawks,” recalled Eilish.

“I was in P6 or P7 when my teacher put me in for an Angus cross country race, I think simply because of my name. I loved it and did quite well. I was maybe fifth or something like that and there was someone there from the local club, which was Arbroath, and they were ‘scouting’ the top six girls and boys. Myself and a pal, Ian, were asked to come along to the club.

“I was excited and told my mum. She just said: ‘You can start at a running club if you want, but it will be Dundee Hawkhill Harriers – because that’s my club’.

“There was a bit of begging that went on from me for mum and dad to take me from Carnoustie, where we lived, to the Hawks but soon we were really involved and competing in teams and at events.

“I went along and we did high jump, sprint hurdles, throws. Every event you can think of. Then I asked to move into the distance running group.

“My mum said that if I stuck at it for x number of months, then she would come along, too, and coach me.

“My pal Ian quit after a few weeks but I enjoyed it and served my probation of whatever number of months, and mum started coaching.

“She coached me and a couple of others at first. I don’t think she had really thought about coaching prior to that. She was a retired athlete and probably had her hands full bringing me up!

“But it took off and she had a training group and became a successful coach for the Hawks. I won my first Scottish Schools medal in the javelin, right enough !”

Even during the ‘wobble’ at university, the coach-athlete relationship was maintained by mother and daughter... albeit under strain.

“My mum and me have had a lot of ups and downs, like anyone does with a parent. But our coaching relationship was usually maintained in the midst of that. At times if we’d had a row at home I was still treated the same as any other athlete in the group when we went to the track.

“She was not happy with my lifestyle when I was a student but she did not step in. I think she accepted that if I was serious about running I would come back to it. She was always there, always at the track. But she stepped back a bit to let me mature and become an adult.

“So the decision, when it was taken, to come back to the sport was taken by me.

“And when I did commit myself fully, I started to have a far greater appreciation of the work and sacrifices she had put in to be one of the best athletes in the world.”

Now, a decade later, McColgan and her partner, former GB international Michael Rimmer, pictured inset, are coaches themselves with an online business which has been a surprise source of inspiration during Covid-19.

“I’m motivated and inspired by some of the people that Michael and I are coaching remotely who work in the NHS,” said McColgan. “There are doctors and nurses among them who have full-on jobs and even more so now fighting the coronavirus. But they are still motivated to get out the door and do their 12-mile run – after a really hard day working crazy hours for the NHS. Or they are willing to do a shorter, faster session on a Friday night or as and when they can.

“It has been a real eye-opener to see how hard people are willing to push themselves. I’m motivated to work hard at my running but this is my job. It’s not their job but they enjoy it so much and they want to try and run faster.

“What it comes down to is – we’re all runners, whether we are chasing the Olympics or maybe preparing for a first parkrun.”

Some of them may even be students in Dundee ...

* Watch the video interview with Eilish McColgan on www.scottishathletics.org.uk

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