Interview: Eilish McColgan on influence of mum Liz and coping with burglars and psychotic geese

Eilish McColgan, pictured in Glasgow, has now made St Moritz her favoured training location. Picture: John Devlin
Eilish McColgan, pictured in Glasgow, has now made St Moritz her favoured training location. Picture: John Devlin
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The Scottish middle-distance runner is in the kitchen of her 
St Moritz apartment preparing lunch – poached eggs on toast plus avocado and spinach – and she’s telling me about her track downtime boxset preferences.

“I felt under pressure recently to watch Game of Thrones,” says Eilish McColgan. “I wasn’t interested, didn’t think this was my kind of thing, but my boyfriend was watching it and I didn’t want to come home and find him glued to season five and feeling left out.” Home for McColgan and fellow athlete Michael Rimmer is Manchester; St Moritz is her favourite place to train. Now, it is difficult to imagine McColgan feeling under pressure to do anything against her will, especially after she tells me that, in the past few weeks, she’s faced up to online perverts, psychotic geese and burglars. We’ll come to that triple whammy shortly but let’s briefly return to the bloody, treacherous happenings in TV’s Westeros.

Eilish McColgan celebrates after winning silver in the women's 5000 metres at last year's European Championships in Berlin. Picture: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for European Athletics

Eilish McColgan celebrates after winning silver in the women's 5000 metres at last year's European Championships in Berlin. Picture: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for European Athletics

“The last time I was out here I just battered through the show,” she explains. “And when I got back I found out I was actually a season ahead of Michael. One day, travelling to a race in Sweden, I gorged on eight episodes. That’s my Game of Thrones PB, ha ha. Did I enjoy it? I think if I was offered those 70 hours of my life back I would probably take them. The book I was reading at the same time, This is Going to Hurt [based on the diaries of junior doctor Adam Kay], was far more enjoyable. All those life-and-death decisions – incredible. And some really hilarious moments as well.”

Good book. Endurance test of a TV drama. Training at 1,800 metres above sea level. Poached eggs. This would seem to be a winning formula for McColgan, for a stint in St Moritz last year was the prelude to her silver medal run at 5,000 metres in the European Championships in Berlin. And the Swiss training camp before this one sent the 28-year-old to last weekend’s Diamond League meet in Morocco where she achieved a 1,500m personal best of 4:00.97. Oh, and there’s perhaps another significant component: Scottish accents. McColgan needs to hear them, all the more since she travels the world so much and spends such a significant time with English athletes, most notably Rimmer, and this is smoothing down the rough edges of the native tongue. She says: “I feel like I’m losing my Scottish slang. Words I used to use all the time are becoming redundant to me. That’s why I’m a big fan of Lewis Capaldi. I love his songs but also his personality. It’s great that someone Scottish – and so Scottish – is taking over the world of music. The Scottish dialect is unique, isn’t it? Maybe other countries would say that about theirs but Michael definitely thinks it’s like nothing else. Mum and I will be laughing and calling something boggin’ and how it gives us the boak and he’ll be like: ‘That makes no sense. There’s no logic. What’s wrong with Scotland?’”

McColgan stresses she’s not leading a glamorous existence in the Alpine resort, definitely not a boggin’ place. “St Moritz is very exclusive for a lot of very rich people but I have to find the cheapest studio flat. This one, for instance, has a lovely view of a building site! I first came here after a horrible indoors season. I wasn’t running well and had picked up a virus and was feeling pretty shit. Things couldn’t have gotten much worse and, when I heard about some other athletes going out to St Moritz, I thought I’d give the place a try. Training at altitude got me healthy and feeling good about myself so I’ve kept 
coming back.”

That record time in Rabat was highly significant. In a power struggle far friendlier than any in Game of Thrones, McColgan finally topped the best effort at 1,500 of mum Liz, the former World and Commonwealth champion.

Eilish McColgan and her mother Liz, right, with Paula Radcliffe in Stirling in 2008. Picture: TSPL

Eilish McColgan and her mother Liz, right, with Paula Radcliffe in Stirling in 2008. Picture: TSPL

Liz, who coaches Eilish, is based in Qatar so the debriefing has been conducted by phone. How, then, does Liz’s girl feel, squeezing past her mother and up to ninth in the all-time UK table? “It’s special. I wouldn’t be in this situation, a pro athlete, if it wasn’t for mum coaching me. I never see it as ‘me’ trying to achieve this or that; it’s always ‘us’. I say ‘we’ because we’re a team. She’s happy that I’m in a good place again and I appreciate the hard work she puts in to the partnership. Now we want to see how fast I can get.”

As she says, the glitz of St Moritz passes her by. And for further evidence of the athlete’s lifestyle being more edgy and borderline dangerous than the chat-show appearances of an elite few might suggest, consider this tweet from McColgan last weekend: “Yesterday, battling off geese on a canal in Manchester. Today, battling off weird men sending me videos of them masturbating on Instagram … ”

This is a family newspaper so geese first: “I don’t run along the canal very often and maybe after that I won’t again.” The long-necked guard detachment blocking the towpath reminded her of nightclub bouncers from back in her wild student days, which she had little problem sneaking past underage. “But these guys were scarier. I tried to reason with them but ended up calling them arseholes and taking the long way round to my physio’s, through the Asda car park. I didn’t fancy getting chased into the canal. I’ve just got myself back in good shape and didn’t need a daft injury to muck everything up.”

Here come the pervs: “I’ve had this happen to me for about four years now. Guys send nude photos or videos – it’s crazy. Sometimes I can see them coming – the picture above the name might be a bit sketchy – and they’ll get ignored but I feel duty bound to open up my messages because lots are from kids asking how I train and what I eat before races and if I was starting out I’d love to get that sort of advice. I literally get hundreds of messages every day and when there’s a weird one I just think: ‘What are you getting out of this?’

“The first time it happened I said to Michael: ‘Look at what’s just turned up in my inbox.’ He was pretty annoyed that I’d just seen another man in the nude so I didn’t show him any more photos after that. I’ve talked to other female athletes about this – – they get photos, too. Even mum, who’s 55, has been sent them. The other day she told me about one on Facebook. She replied to the guy: ‘I’m a married woman with five kids, this is disgusting.’ I’ve never replied. Instagram has a good system for pornographic or abusive material – delete and block. I don’t want to give these creeps the satisfaction of knowing I’ve seen the stuff.”

The “good place” McColgan talks about has been hard-won. She initially competed in the 3,000 metres steeplechase but was dogged by injury and illness. Unsurprisingly, 21 months of not being able to race on the track prompted much soul-searching and self-doubt. Eventually, she had seven metal screws and a plate inserted in her left foot and decided to kill the jumps. Now, against her stunning snow-capped backdrop, the Dundonian is putting in the miles which she hopes will lead to more success at October’s World Championships in Doha – where Liz lives – and next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Not even last month’s break-in at her Manchester base knocked McColgan out of her stride. While she was competing in Stockholm, thieves stole jewellery and running mementos. “Michael and I are not a superstar couple so it wasn’t a big haul. The things I’m most sad about losing are two necklaces which mum had made for me, one of the Olympic rings and the other marking the fact I’d qualified for the Worlds, which has my name in Arabic. They’re not going to mean a thing to anyone else. The race was the next day. It was difficult to sleep knowing there had been intruders. Mum was worried it would affect my performance but I went out and ran a really good time.” Then at her next meet in Hengelo, Holland she smashed the Scottish 5,000 metres record, leapfrogging Zola Budd into third place on the British all-time list.

McColgan has always used running as an escape. “For me, right from the start, it’s been stress-relief and a place where I can be free of troubles. If there were problems at school or exams were coming up, the same at uni or if I was breaking up with a boyfriend, I would throw myself into athletics. When my parents were going through their divorce I just ran and ran and ran. That was probably why I made such a big step-up in 2012 because it was such a stressful time in my life and I felt like the track was my refuge.”

Liz married Northern Irish athlete Peter McColgan in 1987, the year after winning gold in the 10,000 metres at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Games. Eilish is the oldest of five children and among the sacrifices she makes as an athlete, regret is reserved for family and the parties and get-togethers she must miss. “I’ve just not been there for my siblings,” she admits. “When they’ve passed exams or driving tests or been going to uni I’ve not been able to share those moments. I missed my gran’s 80th birthday and mum re-marrying. Friendships have fallen by the wayside. Pals understandably get bored of inviting me to their weddings and I’ve had to decline. My best friend – from 12 we were joined at the hip and even ran together – got married and I just couldn’t be there for her.”

On Father’s Day, McColgan tweeted a message to Peter describing him as “the man who will forever push me to get an Irish passport”. Does he wish she ran for the land of his birth? “It’s not that so much as he thinks that post-Brexit I might need it to travel more freely. I have a strong affinity with Ireland but I’m Scottish born and bred and very proud of that.”

The story of the McColgan running dynasty is an intriguing one, and as much for how Eilish was never pushed into following in her parents’ spiked footsteps, indeed didn’t even know that they were famous for running until surprisingly late. “Mum was really disappointed at only winning silver at the Olympics that she kept the medal in her sock drawer! There was no big running shrine in our house. When we all went to Florida for her training camp I thought that was just a holiday. When mum and dad went out running every day I thought that was a routine thing all parents did.”

Revelations about Liz’s running career would stun her. “It was a shock when we went to the Angus District cross-country and mum got mobbed for photos and autographs. I was so confused. And I remember mum being interviewed at home and the journalist asking me, aged 11 or 12, if I’d seen film of her famous races and him being surprised that I hadn’t. He showed me them and right away I felt so incredibly proud.”

Liz wasn’t a track-and-field equivalent of the stage mum, Eilish being scouted for her running promise independently. Liz coached her in the junior years but then when running took second place to McColgan having a good time as a student, there was no parental disappointment or disapproval. “I imagine other coaches would be infuriated by that but mum just stood back and let me get drinking and partying and getting to bed at stupid o’clock out of my system.” Rave-ups at the Fat Sam’s and Liquid nightclubs were funded by her shoe-shop wage. She was still training with Dundee’s Hawkhill Harriers although an uncle wondered why. “He told me I was wasting my time because I was never going to make it as a runner and that I should concentrate on my degree and getting a real job. That stung me and right away I quit drinking. I won’t name him because he would get embarrassed. He was a complete pain in the arse back then but now he’s one of my biggest supporters! And he did me a favour. Within six months I’d got my first call-up to the GB team.”

Quietly, Liz was thrilled. “I’d decided to take running seriously and mum must have thought that if I ever did that it would be because I wanted to do it and not because of the family name.” Choosing the steeplechase was an attempt to avoid comparisons with her mother until what she calls her “spaghetti legs” could take no more. She mentions, again, her parents’ break-up – “the most challenging two years of my life”. And Liz moving to the Middle East was tough at first, McColgan having to rely on Skype and Whatsapp for face-to-face contact with not just her coach but also her mum. But she’s found a positive in this: “I wouldn’t say it’s made me more independent, as I’ve always been that, but I’m taking more ownership of my career.”

Where is this career going? McColgan has ambitions to dip under four minutes at 1,500 and, in the 5,000, to nudge into second behind Paula Radcliffe in the roll-call of the fastest-ever Brit women. Right now, in the best shape she’s ever been, Liz is again proving an inspiration. “I loved everything she did and especially ’91 [World Championships] when everyone was struggling with the heat and humidity and she battered through to take the gold medal. In a smaller way, that was maybe how I approached winning silver at the Euros. I hit the front right away. Before I’d have been too nervous to do that and 
others would dictate the race, leaving 
me to finish disappointingly. Not 
that day.

“For me, as I say, running is freedom. As a girl I never had dreams about standing on the top of podiums and I still don’t. This is just something I love to do.”