Twell and Woods came as a pair. Their partnership was one of the more well-known and well-established in UK distance running. The numerous highs far-outweighed the inevitable lows in a relationship that lasted almost two decades.
As a team, they went to two Olympic Games, three World Championships and numerous other indoor and outdoor championships.
Don’t forget the silverware either. Notwithstanding Steph’s prowess over the mud, and her multiple domestic successes, she has European 5,000m bronze and Commonwealth 1500m bronze in her locker. She is also a former world junior 1500m champion.
Which is probably why now is as good a time as any for Steph to make her move.
The foundations she and Mick have built are unquestionable. The platform to springboard off strong and informed. The opportunity is now there for Steph to go on and leave no stone unturned in the still-fruitful years of her athletics career.
‘Coaches are often the unsung heroes of the sport – and I want to say again just how instrumental Mick has been in my journey,’ stresses Steph.
‘I could definitely have gone on achieving under Mick. I’ve no doubt. But over the last 18 months, I’ve known that I’ve needed a new challenge and want to develop my skills as an athlete for the long term.’
Steph decided to flee the safe nest of the last 19 years, eager to see just what else she can learn from the sport. It’s a change in set-up that comes coupled with her choosing athletics as her full-time profession. A stint combining elite sport with the demands of teaching crystallised her thinking.
Some may question Steph’s coaching decision and say, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what progress was ever made taking that approach?
The yearning for something more first started after the Rio Olympics. A shot at evolution rather than revolution was attempted. But in a relationship as longstanding as Steph and Mick’s, a clean break was inevitable. Old habits die hard. The only way to reset the table was by pulling up the tablecloth.
‘Our approach to training had been the same for Rio as it had been for London,’ says Steph. ‘I looked at the competition, where I was and started to question just how I was going to get there. I started to develop my own ideas and became interested in trying new things.
‘I started to subtly drop in ideas to Mick more and more and thought: what else can I be learning? I knew then that I needed a new challenge.’
Having these thoughts and knowing they were justified or, at least, not a curveball bolt from the blue was a challenge at first. Given the length of time she’d been training the same way with Mick, the idea of suddenly following a different path seemed radical. There was a certain guilt in questioning what she wanted and why too.
Following through with her convictions took some doing. It was a bold, brave move. Being challenged and supported in her thinking by friends and family helped. Steph was supported by her fiancée, Joe, and Olympic silver medallist, Wendy Sly.
‘Wendy has mentored me since I was 16,’ says Steph. ‘Our relationship hasn’t been particularly close over those years but I’ve always had the knowledge that I could pick up the phone and speak to her.
‘It was different from asking for advice – it was more me having the chance to talk about running and ask questions of myself to someone else. I didn’t want to look back on my career and think, what if I hadn’t changed anything, tried something new.’
‘It was amazing to have that support from Wendy, someone not only female and who knew Mick and I, but had experience of performing at an elite level.’
With the decision made, the next step of identifying somebody who would coach her in the next phase of her career was unclear. For the second half of 2017, Steph was self-coached.
‘Changing coaches is a very difficult thing for an athlete to do,’ says Steph.
‘You don’t want to put yourself up for sale and jump ship before really knowing what’s out there. No coach wants to be seen as a parasite either.
‘I knew that I was happy with my environment and was looking for someone to see me through for the long term. I also wanted to learn.’
Steph’s future undoubtedly lies on the roads. Long-touted as a probable successor to Paula Radcliffe over 26.2 miles, the opportunity to make the step up to the marathon was there on a plate. Marathon coaches would jump at the chance to coach the 28-year-old.
With the likes of Callum Hawkins and Dewi Griffiths performing wonders and AFD contemporaries Lily Partridge and Charlotte Purdue taking the transition in their stride, the temptation to put off track ambitions and head for the roads was apparent in Steph’s initial search.
But unfinished business on the track remains.
‘I know I’ve still got 5k potential,’ asserts Steph. ‘I’ve touched on it, got near it, but haven’t run a PB in quite a while.
Callum and Dewi may be putting paid to the belief that the marathon is the realm of maxed-out track athletes, but the general feeling is that when Steph makes the move up, that will be it.
What she needed was someone who could support her in her 5,000m ambitions and steer her towards the marathon at a later date. Someone who has the knowledge and experience of both distances. That’s when Geoff Wightman’s name was thrown into the ring.
‘I didn’t know Geoff that well and only knew that he coached Jake,’ says Steph. ‘But once I met him, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Geoff has a 4:01 mile best to his name as well as a 2:13 marathon. His wife, Susan, was also a very good half marathon and marathon runner. The familiarity and knowledge of both distances is evident – and it was a simple conversation from there.
‘We talked about running, my experiences over the previous 18 months, my results,’ says Steph. ‘We hit on a lot of common ground in both the way I was thinking and the way he coaches.’
Geoff and Steph started working together after Steph’s tenth-place finish at the European Cross Country Championships in December.
There’s nothing extraordinary in their approach – but the new stimulus and its impact on Steph’s body has already led to her feeling happier with the direction her career is headed.
Steph is now logging her workouts on Training Peaks, using the analytics to monitor and better inform her training. She has a scheduled rest day and is also doing two high-quality workouts a week rather than three.
She is also much closer to speed. From being used to doing 10-12k cross-country sessions at this time of year, Steph is now incorporating pure speed into the weekly equation.
Steph has spent the last month with Iona Lake and training at altitude in South Africa. We speak not long after she has run a one mile time trial. It’s something she has never done at this time of year – and from the smiley, confident tone, you know it’s gone rather well.
The new stimulus for mind and body has left Steph excited and upbeat just 56 days out from the Commonwealth Games.
‘I’ve thrown myself into the new set-up,’ says Steph. ‘I’m not asking for miracles – but just want us to work together to try and get the best out of me.’
Words by Chris Rainsford
Images from Steph Twell