Fellow Brechiner Pete Barrow, in conjunction with Arbroath Footers, arranged a Q & A and warm up with Eilish McColgan on Tuesday 2nd October 2018 at the Arbroath branch of Mackie Motors, who sponsor the athlete. Tina Fowler of the Footers took on the task of advertising the event to club members and sending invites to other local clubs.
There were around 40 or 50 runners there, mostly from the Footers, but with some representatives of Forfar Road Runners, Arbroath Road Runners, St Cyrus Solos and Brechin Road Runners. A professional photographer had been employed to cover the event, and we got group photos out of the way just after the 6pm start, whilst there was still some daylight outside.
The Q & A was quite short – around 25 minutes or so – but very interesting. Eilish began by telling us about her background and how it became her livelihood, and it was both enlightening and entertaining. It would be easy to assume that she had been encouraged to run from a young age, given the credentials of her parents, but if anything they were reticent about it. Apparently Liz McColgan kept her Olympic medal in her sock drawer, and the kids were always sent off to stay with relatives whilst she was away racing, so Eilish doesn’t really have strong memories of seeing her mother running at international events, and was not pushed into the sport.
Her first experience of competitive running was towards the end of primary school when a teacher, noting her family pedigree, seemed convinced Eilish must have an innate talent for running and entered her in a schools Cross Country event. She didn’t win (she thinks she finished in around 6th place) but she loved it.
Eilish joined Dundee Hawkhill Harriers shortly after starting High School, after pestering her parents to take her along to training with them. She quickly showed promise at middle distances, and still holds the U13 and U15 club records for 1500 metres. However, her performances weren’t outstanding enough to result in UK Athletics funding or other sponsorship being forthcoming, and her family were keen for her to do a degree and get a “proper job”. She went to University and loved the student lifestyle – which involved a lot of partying, drinking, and late nights. She did represent her university in some events but continued to train with the Hawks, and wasn’t performing at her best as a runner because of the student lifestyle she was leading, and as she wasn’t focused on trying to make it her career.
When she was in her final year at university her uncle suggested to her that she should quit running and focus on establishing herself in a career. At that point, she realised she wanted to see whether she could do better than she had been doing on little sleep and poor nutrition. Pouring heart and soul into her training that year, it paid off and she was selected for the European team, aged 21.
BRR member Kate asked Eilish what her training is like during a typical week. At this point, Eilish explained that her training is not typical for a 5,000 metre runner due to the injury she sustained in 2011 when she broke her foot. She now has a metal plate and 5 screws in her navicular bone. She also broke her ankle in 2015 and spent several months in a “moon boot”. As a result, it would not be feasible for her to do the 75 to 95 miles per week that most elite athletes at her distance would do. Instead, Eilish “only” runs 45 – 50 miles per week. She goes out running in the mornings, and supplements her mileage with cross training at night – she bought a cross trainer for the house so that she would have no excuses.
Eilish schedules speed work on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Typical sessions would be 6 * 1 mile or 10 * 1 km in the winter months. In summer she would do shorter, faster intervals such as a reverse pyramid: 2k, 1k, 800, 600, 400, then 200 metres. These would be at a much faster pace than 6 * 1 mile.
I asked whether she did any strength training, and was slightly surprised by the answer. Eilish does bodyweight work and core training, but she generally doesn’t do any strength training. This isn’t because she doesn’t see the benefits of it for injury prevention and addressing imbalances or weaknesses, but mainly because it’s hard to find a suitable block to fit it in as it doesn’t fit in well during summer racing season. It seems that even full-time athletes struggle to fit everything in.
When asked about nutrition, Eilish admitted that she doesn’t track her eating particularly closely. However, she does have a healthy diet as she cooks everything from scratch, eats little to no processed foods, and will only very rarely have takeout. Her main concern is to ensure that she is getting sufficient calories in to maintain performance, and getting those from high quality foods.
When asked how she motivates herself when she’s having a bad patch and things aren’t going well, Eilish said that she reminds herself how lucky she is that she is still able to run. After not being able to train properly for months in 2011, and losing most of 2015 to injury, she knows how terrible it feels to not be able to run at all. Thinking back to those times helps to keep her motivated.
There were several other questions, but not having an eidetic memory I have forgotten the answers to, for example, what her favourite race was. I was listening and interested, but I didn’t have time to write everything down quickly enough.
After the Q & A, Eilish took us through what would be a typical warm-up for her before a track session. As I had felt an urgent need to use the bathroom facilities before heading out for the group run, everyone seemed to have been fighting to hide at the back rather than pushing to the front – I suspect this was due to the very large camera and flash being used by the professional photographer. So of course I ended up in the front row, though tried to hide in the corner a little.
The first move seemed to be a combination of walking hamstring stretches and Mexican waves, and I had neither the flexibility or co-ordination for it. A lot of people seemed to be struggling with it though, and there were lots of giggles. Perhaps realising we weren’t as good at taking instruction as the schoolchildren she had spent the day with, the remainder of the warm-up had slightly simpler drills such as high knees and lunges. I found these easier, and thought I had got a pretty good handle on the one that involved raising a high knee every third step – until I was brought back to reality by a couple of the guys who told me just how co-ordinated and professional I actually looked. I was hoping the photographs weren’t as bad as they could be, and that I’d managed to sneak under the radar during the video of the warm-up. In the end, the photos are pretty great – not because we all look like elegant runners, but because we look like we were having a great time and a bit of a laugh – which we were. It was a fun way to end the event, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable run afterwards, despite it getting rather dark before we made it back to the dealership.
For me, the key takeaways from this enjoyable event were the following:
- You don’t necessarily have to start really early in life if you want to become a professional runner.
- Determination and resilience are important traits for all athletes, but are particularly important when training isn’t going to plan or injury leaves you out of action for extended periods.
- Even professional athletes struggle to optimise their training plans
Although there wasn’t time for me to ask my second question, I found the event very worthwhile and if you get the chance to attend a similar event I would definitely recommend it.
Many thanks to Mackie Motors for providing some of the official event photos for use in this blog post.