Liz Yelling: Encouraging times but the pool isn’t deep enough

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Liz Yelling: Encouraging times but the pool isn’t deep enough

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‘I guess we’re lucky at the moment. We seem to be in a fruitful era,’ says two-time Olympian Liz Yelling to the background of cow noises while on a farm visit with her kids

‘There are always certain eras where you don’t get a lot of talent coming through, where there’s a lull between age groups when the older athletes are coming towards the end of their careers. But there is definitely a new load of runners emerging now.’

Liz Yelling is confident we’re witnessing a breakthrough for GB’s next generation of distance runners.

Looking back to this year’s Night of the 10,000m PBs and Olympic trials certainly backs this up. The dominant performances of Ross Millington (26) and Dewi Griffiths (24) in the men’s championship race sidelined the star attraction and supposed Olympic shoe-in, Andy Vernon.

Even more outstandingly, the unheralded Jess Andrews (23) announced her arrival with a bang, as she streaked in to take down former world champion Linet Masai, and now five-time Olympian, Jo Pavey, to bag herself a full set of Stella McCartney’s fancy new GB kit.

‘Like all things, quality seems to go in swings and roundabouts. Since Paula’s era, it’s been the women who have stood out’

That she was followed home by 24 year-old Beth Potter, who went inside the Olympic qualifying standard for the second time, encapsulated the quality on show that night. For Liz, this is certainly a positive indication of the state of British distance running at the moment.

‘Like all things, quality seems to go in swings and roundabouts. It was the men who were really dominant in the eighties and nineties and then really, since Paula’s era, it’s been the women who have stood out.’

Though Liz’s own career can sometimes be forgotten in the wake of her more illustrious teammate, her two Olympic marathon appearances and Commonwealth Games bronze over the distance in 2006 are nothing to be sniffed at. Indeed, she was a regular fixture on the roads and cross country during that noughties period.

And whilst the shallow depth of men’s distance talent since the turn of the century has been masked by the success of Mo Farah in recent years, Britain’s female distance runners have built on the legacy of Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe and Liz herself.

Although there isn’t a dominant force of the Radcliffe ilk amongst today’s gifted crop, the depth of quality remains, and our female talent in particular is maintaining the standard set across a range of distances.

With Laura Muir catapulting herself to genuine medal contender status in Rio, Steph Twell returning to her best form since 2008, seven women already achieving the 800m Olympic qualifying time, the exciting three- horse race for Rio at the London Marathon in April, Eilish McColgan injury-free and making light work of 5,000m, and the class on show at the Night of the PBs, the future is surely in safe hands.

‘The depth of quality remains, and it’s our female talent in particular that is maintaining the standard set across a range of distances’

‘It’s a huge learning curve. If you can get to the Olympics at 23/24 rather than in your late 20s then instead of the Olympics being your end goal, it will inspire you to want more – to go back and do better.’

There certainly seems to have been a shift in mentality from previous generations when it comes to tackling longer distances. As used to be the norm, Liz ran her first marathon after she felt the shorter distances had been exhausted. But now many younger runners are making the step up earlier on in their careers.

‘It shows a lot more strength to be able to do that at a young age. I felt I needed to have a go at all the distances before I was ready to step up to the marathon. I matured late as a runner and needed time to attain that resilience you need to run a marathon.

‘It may mean that your career as a professional runner ends up being a little shorter if you start running marathons earlier but I don’t think it’s a bad thing by any means.

‘The likes of Callum Hawkins, Charlotte Purdue and Jonny Hay will have a lot more time to grow within the distance, build up strength and ultimately run faster.’

Never devastatingly quick as a junior, Liz didn’t feature in a major championship until the age of 28, when she finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester over 10,000m.

‘Liz’s two Olympic marathon appearances and Commonwealth Games bronze over the distance in 2006 are nothing to be sniffed at’

Her debut marathon a year later (2:30:58) though would soon set Liz on the road to regular international honours and see her establish herself among the world’s best at the distance.

A double-Olympian and Commonwealth bronze medallist already, Liz’s fastest time over 26.2 miles came in 2008, when she ran 2:28:33 for ninth place and the then-sixth-fastest time by a British female distance runner (she now sits 11th in the all-time rankings).

Though it was through marathon running that Liz eventually made her name on the international stage, as four-time winner of the National XC Championships (2001, 2002, 2007, 2008), she was far more comfortable on the mud.

‘Cross country was my first love. I definitely prefer it to track and road. Now I’m retired I’ve gone back to running on the trails and soft ground again.

‘The mixed pace of cross and different terrains and surfaces is very different to the constant slog of chasing times on the track or road, which becomes a mental slog as well as a physical challenge.’

The continual effort of churning through mud and up hills (‘Heartbreak Hill’ was always a favourite’) could be said to have been the making of Liz’s international career on the road and track.

And though the state of distance running quality is healthier than some like to make out amid a continuing running boom, Liz still has concerns about where the next generation of athletes will come from.

‘Athletics isn’t as attractive as it once was. There are so many more pulls on youngsters’ time than there used to be, so many more sports to attract them and as a result not as many people turn to athletics.

‘If you’ve never run on an athletics track, it can be very intimidating and the athletics community itself doesn’t do enough to actively encourage kids to take part.

‘You can be dedicated and disciplined but also have a laugh and enjoy what you’re doing. I trained at high intensity but my training sessions were always filled with running hard and laughing hard’

‘There is a big gulf between events like parkrun, which encourage inclusivity and enjoyment, and the elite and intimidating club scene – a view that the athletics world does little to dispel.

‘Of course, we probably do need that niche but not to the extent where it’s discouraging people away from that area of our sport. There needs to be a pathway between things like parkrun at the grassroots end and the elitist world of athletics.’

Just whether British Athletics’ latest strategy for an athletic nation will deliver the growth in the sport is another matter. But if the next generation were to follow Liz’s training outlook, the future may look rosier.

‘I think people often confuse dedication with punishing yourself. You can be dedicated and disciplined but also have a laugh and enjoy what you’re doing. I trained at high intensity but my training sessions were always filled with running hard and laughing hard.’

You can be dedicated and disciplined but also have a laugh and enjoy what you’re doing. I trained at high intensity but my training sessions were always filled with running hard and laughing hard.

Words by Hannah Viner
Image from @MarkNicol11
This article appears in the fourth edition of Left Spike from July 2016