Liz McColgan on glory in the searing heat of Tokyo and urging on daughter Eilish from afar
The combination of Japan’s blazing sun and Tokyo’s torrent of humidity felt like twin torturers drilling into her lungs. Two weeks out from her attempt to become champion of the world, the dress rehearsal in heat so ferocious that it threatened to melt the ground beneath her quicksilver feet was cut short abruptly when it seemed she might simply keel over on the spot.
“I was dead,” Liz McColgan recounts. “I couldn't handle the heat or the humidity.”
Arriving well advance of the 1991 world athletics championships in order to properly acclimatise to seasonal temperatures far in excess of 30 degrees, the Dundonian who sweated toughness from every pore wondered if her challenge was simply destined to evaporate.
“That put me a little bit on the back foot,” she reflects. “But that was the only little moment of doubt. Ten days later, another session went really well. Then I knew. I went, ‘I’m OK. I’m adjusted’. And I was actually so glad I did go out that little bit earlier.”
A mere month short of three decades hence, no Scot has accomplished more on Japanese terrain than McColgan from capturing the world 10,000 metres title with a display of sheer, undiluted bravado. Others however, will dare to write legends of their own over the next three weeks as the second Olympics to be hosted by the city looms.
Her eldest daughter Eilish, among them, of course. Liz, now 57 but still looking marathon-ready, has spent the past few weeks in the south of France overseeing her preparations for a 5,000-10,000m double at the Games in her parallel role as her coach. Others too have captured her gaze there, notably middle-distance marauders Laura Muir and Jemma Reekie. “Fingers crossed that they’re able to get the race to get a medal,” the elder stateswoman observes. “But it is never easy.”
Eilish’s arrival, ten months prior to her mother’s golden hour, provided the subtext for the elder McColgan’s push, often seemingly uphill, to reach the summit of her profession. The story is well told but a brief recap. Her endorsers sprinted away, scoffing at the idea that she could return to any semblance of contention after giving birth. Accepted wisdom then, she regrets.
“I had no advice whatsoever, none. It was all done from listening to my body and trying to do the best that I could. I didn't have a sponsor. I had no-one to compare with. We didn’t have the social media where everybody’s like, ‘look at me, I’m training and my bump’s this size’.”
And yet her maternity leave speedily ceased. Tokyo was a stimulus. Demolishing the naysayers too. Within seven weeks of entering motherhood, she won a 5000m in Florida and then swiftly went to the world cross-country championships in Antwerp and bagged bronze. “My body still wasn’t back to what it should have been,” she outlines. “But by the time the worlds came around, everything was back to normal.”
Yet Japan’s climes are natural poison to Scottish skin. These, data suggests, could be the hottest Games on record, with even locals advised yesterday not to exercise outdoors. In between frequent stints in the Pyrenees during recent months, Eilish has converted the gym at her Manchester home into a makeshift heat chamber, dialled up to the max. “I trained in a little sauna room with a treadmill,” Liz reflects. “I did a lot of ridiculous sessions. I put myself through a lot of stress and put myself into a good position. I was in good nick.”
Flying east, Eilish was left with her grandparents. A necessity, with her father Peter also on the British team as a steeplechaser. “You couldn’t have had a kid in the team hotel,” McColgan laughs. “I’m sure it wasn’t allowed.”
Roles reversed, this time it is Eilish who is preparing to jet to Japan while her two parents observe through a television screen and provide insights on WhatsApp. Footsteps followed, this resonates mightily.
“It is an unusual one because there’s lots of dads and sons, like Geoff and Jake Wightman, who both ran,” Liz notes. “Other countries have got daughters and mothers. But it’s really unusual to get a daughter and mother in the same event. And at the same place where I won a title.
“But it wasn't important for her to get there because it was Tokyo and because of me. She’s worked her back end off and she deserves to go. I wanted to go there for her, for her third Olympics. That's massive for her. It’s just a bonus that it’s going to be in Tokyo.
“It would have been more brilliant without Covid because I’d planned on going.
“It is my 30th anniversary of the title. I’m sad to not be there. It’s probably my first championship I’ve actually ever missed with Eilish.”
If not for the bar for on spectators, the Japanese would surely have given her progeny a special embrace. McColgan – whose own Olympic zenith was silver in Seoul in 1988 – is remembered fondly, both for her world title and victories at the Tokyo Marathon, and equally for a moment of compassion that followed the semi-final ahead of her track triumph when she gathered a stricken local athlete who had found the conditions too hot to handle.
As a Mum, she did her utmost to prepare Eilish for life’s trials. As a coach, she has been there every step of the way. It is an unusual dynamic, she acknowledges. Yet a richly rewarding partnership too.
“I do get a little bit more anxious than I used to when she was younger. But now it’s been a great journey with her. I think, as a mother, I’ve been very honoured that I’ve been able to be part of such a journey with a child of mine. It’s just been amazing.”