Liz and Gemma: Distance running dream team set for success

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Liz and Gemma: Distance running dream team set for success

Athletes competing in the British Athletics Cross Challenge Liverpool (inc European Trials) at Sefton Park, Liverpool, UK, on 31 October 2015.

Athletes competing in the British Athletics Cross Challenge Liverpool (inc European Trials) at Sefton Park, Liverpool, UK, on 31 October 2015.

It turns out Liz McColgan has been as frustrated by Gemma Steel’s stagnation over the last year or so as the athlete herself

‘Coaches have an obligation to look after the athletes as well as their athletic ability,’ advises Liz.

‘Both myself and John [Nuttall] really care about Gemma as a person and her ability – and we’ll work together to get her back racing well.’

When Gemma ended up without a coach this summer, it seemed only right that Liz would step into the breach to offer a hand.

Stalled progress

It’s fair to say Gemma has spent the past 18 months or so scrabbling around in a no woman’s land of British long distance running.

Though she never really bombed during that period, tellingly, her progression stalled.

Tenth-place at the European Half Marathon Championships in summer 2016 was the last real high – but a race she could, and perhaps should, have medalled in.

It’s been a while since she’s fired on all cylinders.

Question marks inevitably surfaced, from both outside her circle and within. Were Gemma’s best days, crammed into a stellar three-year period between 2011-14, already behind her?

Getting on board with Liz

Finishing first Brit at the Great North Run last month in her fastest half marathon since 2015 (71.32) was certainly one first swift step to swatting away any doubt.

Switching coach and reverting to tried and trusted methods under Liz’s direction has left her looking and feeling much more like her old self again.

It would, indeed, be folly to write her off just yet.

‘Liz likes to keep it simple and I like to just get on with it and get it done,’ says Gemma.

‘It seems to be working. I’m less distracted and more focused again.’

A solid 10k in Swansea and a month-long block of training since that finish in South Shields looks to have teed her up nicely ahead of this weekend’s Great South Run.

Liz’s no-nonsense attitude to her own training and racing saw her win Olympic silver and the world 10,000m title in 1991. A similar approach to her coaching is already rubbing off on Gemma.

‘Liz has believed in my potential – and still believes in me,’ says Gemma.

‘I appreciate the fact she is honest. I might not always like it but it’s what I need to hear. She tells it straight but is also willing to listen.’

Meteoric rise

Gemma’s potential has been obvious since she first turned heads in 2010.

Arriving late to the sport and with no real pedigree as a junior, she fast became the latest in a long line of successful female club athletes to emerge from the Charnwood AC group under the guidance of Roy Stowell.

A subsequent switch in coaching set-up to John Nuttall saw her quickly accelerate from quality club runner to international athlete.

Gemma’s progression was as swift as it was perhaps surprising following her first international vest seven years ago.

National titles, international honours and soaring road times followed.

Gemma’s annus mirabilis undoubtedly came in 2014.

Not only did she win the national cross country title for the second time but she also shot up to number three on the UK all-time 10k rankings – ahead of Wendy Sly and behind only Liz and Paula Radcliffe.

Gemma then went on to edge out fellow Brit, Kate Avery, for gold at the European Cross Country Championships in Bulgaria later the same year.

Flatlining with UKA in Loughborough

Since then, however, her progression has flatlined somewhat.

Gemma’s link up with Rob Denmark as part of the UK Athletics coaching set-up in Loughborough evidently did not work out.

‘I was training with the girls at Loughborough University and taking longer recoveries than I was used to, doing training tailored more to them rather than myself,’ says Gemma.

’I ran well enough at the European Half Marathon Champs last July, but there was too much overthinking, too much science involved – at one stage I was taking pictures of what I was eating!

‘I was being turned into a science project, and felt like a bit of a guinea pig in the end rather than a runner.’

Too many cooks with too much input seemed to spoil an otherwise nicely-balanced broth – dampening Gemma’s love for the sport in the process.

‘I trained towards the Amsterdam Marathon last autumn but I think training for that tipped me over the edge,’ she recalls.

‘I ran the Great North Run last year with one-and-a-half legs and lost the plot a little after that. I didn’t feel good at all and had to drag myself out the door to run. I’d never felt that before.’

Making positive changes

It took time for Gemma, now 31, to make the coaching change – something that came up after a chance encounter with Eilish McColgan at the Ipswich Twilight 5k in August.

After mentioning that she’d been self-coached throughout the summer, the wheels were set in motion for Gemma to ‘get back to the drawing board’ and to hook up with Liz for advice.

Liz, though, has been involved with coaching Gemma before.

She helped coach Gemma alongside her husband, John, in 2011 and has remained in touch over the years in a mentor capacity.

‘Gemma’s strength is her endurance,’ says Liz. ‘She is a strong runner and, when running well, very focussed. She is a natural endurance runner.

‘Her weakness is her lack of belief in her own abilities and letting other people’s opinions affect her.

‘Due to poor coaching and guidance, her form has slipped – but now we are back on track to get her back to the standard she was at before.’

Getting the best out of Gemma

Now working from a programme designed purely to get the best out of Gemma, the future suddenly appears brighter again.

A title tilt at one of her favourite events follows the New Balance athlete’s run out in Portsmouth this weekend. Beyond that, who knows?

‘I’m not shy in saying I love the European Cross Country Championships,’ she enthuses. ‘It’s my favourite race and I want to be at my best again for it this year.

‘I’m not planning to do a marathon any time soon, though. The way I approached it under Rob felt so slow and sluggish. My training just changed completely – and I’m still trying to find that extra gear.

‘I haven’t spoken in depth to Liz about the marathon yet. Everyone expects me to do it – but I want to do it for myself first.

‘I want to appreciate what I can do, and enjoy doing that again for now.’

Words by Chris Rainsford
Image from Andrew Peat