Philippa Bowden: BUCS medallist on mental shift behind success

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Philippa Bowden: BUCS medallist on mental shift behind success


The chaos and confusion captured on video at the BUCS Cross Country Championships perfectly encapsulated the drama of the annual student champs

Retweeted by Marathon Talk and FloTrack, the unavoidable mud slide and hapless runner’s frantic search for his left spike went viral.

While the river crossing chaos may be the most abiding memory for many from that weekend, the joy written across the face of Philippa Bowden as she crossed the line to take bronze is another that came to represent a vintage championship.

Buzz of excitement

With her friends willing her on and a home crowd roaring her home, it made it that little bit easier to hang on the coattails of Phoebe Law and cross the line for bronze.

The Brunel University student grabbed the medal she was aiming for and, speaking to Philippa a few days after the race, the buzz of excitement is still palpable in her voice.

‘I’ve pretty much recovered from the race itself, but it’s more the after-party that’s still lingering,’ laughs Philippa.

Race hard, party harder. It’s probably the only fixture on the cross country calendar that’s remembered as much for the celebrations afterwards as the running itself.

Bridging the gap

But while Philippa may have told friends beforehand of her aim to go home with some silverware, her story is hardly one of overnight success.

How do you go from 80th and almost four minutes off top-spot at BUCS to third and four seconds shy of winning the thing in just three years?

‘I owe a lot of credit to Mick Woods for taking me to where I am right now,’ explains Philippa.

‘I’m not ashamed to tell people that I’ve come a long way. I’m not someone who’s always been at the front of the pack.

‘Hopefully it makes people who did finish 80th or further back see that they too can medal at BUCS and run for GB one day.’

Following the right path

Philippa’s upward curve started back in October 2015. Enjoying her running but feeling too comfortable to progress, the then-19-year-old sought to shake things up.

Although a sports scholar at Brunel University, they weren’t able to offer the sessions she was after, nor was the 40-mile round trip home to Berkshire for training an option.

Luckily, she had a possible solution.

‘I accidently-on-purpose happened to come across Mick when he was having a coffee with my boyfriend Ricky [Harvie], who he also coaches,’ remembers Philippa.

‘I spoke to Mick, asked his advice and he sent me a few sessions. I knew almost immediately that I wanted him to coach me.’

Bottling that PB feeling

The veteran Aldershot, Farnham and District and St Mary’s endurance coach has prescribed the same medicine for Philippa as many female long-distance runners before her.

While you could hardly call her rise through the ranks meteoric, Philippa’s rate of improvement year-on-year is certainly impressive. Her performance at the Highgate Harriers Night of the 10,000m PBs last May, though, stands out.

Philippa finished inside the qualifying mark for the European Athletics U23 Championships in a PB of 33.44. With a bronze medal in the BUCS Championship race to boot, it was certainly a night to remember.

‘When I got home that night I wrote it all down because I just knew I had to bottle that feeling somehow,’ says Philippa.

Two weeks later, she received the surprise call-up to Bydgoszcz.

‘I tried really hard to look beyond the fact of just being there, recognises Philippa. ‘I knew I had to get it in my head that I deserved to be on the team and that I was there to run another 10,000m – and run it well.’

She may have perfected the art of the steely stare of concentration during a race, but a smile is never far away. Crossing the line eighth, just outside 34 minutes, Philippa was once again grinning from ear to ear.

‘I’ve always loved it,’ enthuses the 22-year-old.

‘Ever since I started running at the age of fourteen, I always knew I wanted to be good, to be one of the best. But I’ve shocked myself in the last year-and-a-half in just how far I’ve come.’

First-rate revival in women’s running

Philippa’s story is very much a tale of consistent hard work and simply not giving up.

Looking back through the results of regional and national cross country championships from 2014, when Philippa was in her last year as a junior, there aren’t too many names who were finishing near the front of the field who are still floating around the UK distance running scene today.

The ones who’ve stayed in the game for the long run, Philippa among them, have reaped the rewards. We seem to be witnessing a first-rate revival in female British distance running right now.

Old favourites are revitalised. Think Emelia Gorecka’s authoritative return, Gemma Steel rediscovering her mojo and Steph Twell’s embrace of change. But the transformation is also coming from below. The next generation is stepping up.

Nine out of the first ten women at the BUCS XC have run for GB on the mud this winter. At the Euro Cross in Samorin last December, Philippa was the last member of the U23 team to cross the line – in 13th.

‘Being last scorer should be disappointing but 13th isn’t so bad! The quality of the girls is insane,’ says Philippa. ‘And it’s cool to be a part of that growing momentum.’

Keeping good company

Being part of Mick Wood’s group has helped Philippa to compete with the big guns. Training week in, week out with a core group of like-minded girls does wonders for confidence and prospects of improvement.

Counting 2017 South of England XC champion Emily Hosker Thornhill, current Southern champ and BUCS silver-medallist Phoebe Law, and GB internationals, Katie Bingle and Louise Small, among her training partners, Philippa is in good company.

‘When I first arrived in the group it was daunting to be training with all these big names. But that once large gap between me and the front of the group just gets smaller and smaller,’ says Philippa.

Keeping training at the same intensity after a target race can often be a hard task. Resetting with a new focus and new goals going forward can be the only way to avoid post-race blues.

Getting back on the saddle

After the euphoria of bronze at BUCS, Philippa is aiming to avoid any post-race blues by hitting the boards over 3,000m at BUCS Indoors this weekend. The English National Cross Country at Parliament Hill is the next major target in sight.

A top-10 finish at Wollaton Park twelve months ago, which led to a first England vest, can probably be considered the catalyst to Philippa’s surge towards the two GB vests she now has safely stored in her wardrobe.

The women’s race at Parliament Hill will be wide open, chief protagonists, among others, likely to be Philippa’s aforementioned training partners. But that won’t stop her aiming for a spot on the podium.

‘It doesn’t feel like there’s a rivalry between us at all, not when we’re training together,’ asserts Philippa. ‘During a race, it’s always comforting to have other girls from the group battling it out at the front with me.’

Harnessing mental power

It may well appear more like a group of friends helping each other out in training but the high calibre of athlete she competes with day-in-day-out has proved decisive in Philippa’s change of mentality. If she can train with them, then she can compete with them, as last week proved.

‘It was the first time I’ve convinced myself mentally that I could be up there,’ says Philippa.

‘A switch has flipped. I’ve convinced myself I can do it, that I can be in those positions. If I can hold on to that, harness that mental power, as cheesy as at sounds, maybe I can be the one breaking the tape next time.’

Words by Hannah Viner
Images from @jhmsport