Winning in 30:00.86 at Sound Running’s The TEN, Scotland’s Eilish McColgan surprised herself but not her mother — Liz McColgan, the 1991 World Champion — who now serves double duty as coach. We caught up with the Commonwealth Games 10,000m champion a couple of days after she broke Paula Radcliffe’s longstanding British record of 30:01.09 from 2002. This race came in the middle of a major training block building towards McColgan’s marathon debut in London.
THE LAP COUNT:How is Colorado treating you right now? Will you be there training for long?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: For the next month or so. We got stuck in Flagstaff during the pandemic for about three months and our flights were canceled and it was chaos. We were staying in the basement of this eighty-year-old woman and starting to go crazy and the only flight home we could get was out of Denver. We checked out Albuquerque and Boulder, but when we drove to Colorado Springs we both really liked it here.
There are so many tracks to get access to and the trails were decent and quite flat — for me, that’s a plus. Now we stay with a British family, Thomas Staines’ mum and dad. It’s like a home away from home. It doesn’t feel intense. Like, we’re training and then it’s quite relaxed and chilled.
THE LAP COUNT: Is there anyone that you link up with when you’re in Colorado, or is it mostly just Michael joining you by bike?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: He’s literally on every single run. Obviously, I train on my own, but it doesn’t really feel that way, so that makes life a lot easier. I don’t feel like it’s a hardship going out training when someone else is doing it with you. When Thomas is here, we’ll go for easy runs together or sometimes with a Canadian athlete, Rob Heppenstall.
THE LAP COUNT: And I am sure there are plenty of sunny days to be enjoyed!
ELISH MCCOLGAN: We do get dumps of snow, there’s no doubt about it. But it clears quite quickly and it’s always sunny. So even though it’s freezing cold outside, it’s snowing, the sun is actually out and that just makes a big difference. In the UK we have like 360 days a year of darkness and never see sunshine. You’re much happier when the sun is out there’s a bright sky above you. It’s very rare to see blue skies at home, plus you are at altitude here as well, which makes it feel like at least you’re getting a benefit. When there is bad weather in the UK there is no benefit.
THE LAP COUNT: It makes you tough!
ELISH MCCOLGAN: I’ve had plenty of years there! I’m more than happy to explore the rest of the world.
THE LAP COUNT: Speculating before the race, I mentioned that you compete so often and the fact that you hadn’t been was either a sign of a huge performance to come or some health issues. Based on the results is it fair to say things have been going quite well?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: I had planned to race small little low key races in January and follow a similar format to what we’ve done the year before because it had worked well. But I just had just one thing after another injury-wise. I actually wouldn’t call them injuries because I’ve had two serious ones in my career that were full blown.
But small things were bothering me from the increase in mileage towards London. I’m not used to doing this amount of volume. It’s the first time probably since 2014 that I’ve tried to introduce a lot more volume than I normally would do.
THE LAP COUNT: How different is the volume now than it used to be? I feel like you have a reputation as a notoriously good cross-trainer.
ELISH MCCOLGAN: I’ve never really done double days before. Well, I did back in like 2013, but I was just injured all the time with the steeplechase. I just did too much volume and was trying to hurdle and it just wasn’t right. I wasn’t doing enough gym work.
I almost had this fear over the last many years that I would break down if I did more mileage because of what happened to me in 2011 and 2014. Those two surgeries put a bit of fear into me. And I was also told a few times as well — and I don’t want to go into that too much, but even the Federation had said it to me — that I’d be somebody who will always break down trying to do it. Like, my body is not strong enough to do that sort of mileage.
It felt like it was sort of imprinted into my mind that I wouldn’t ever be able to do 80 or 90 miles a week without breaking down and that was probably the biggest thing for me, overcoming that.
Some years I was only running 40 miles a week and still able to muscle it out and make it to a championship, but it was obviously not optimal for what I was doing. It was just getting there. Last year was a little bit of an increase to getting up to maybe 65 miles. And then this year we’ve gone up and the last five weeks I’ve averaged 80 to 85 miles a week.
THE LAP COUNT: With that base behind you was there an expectation going into The TEN that you’d be in British record shape or did that surprise you?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: It was the expectation from my mom and Michael. They were adamant that I could break the time, but I felt like because the training is different that going through 5K in 15 minutes would feel worse because I haven’t been hitting hard quality 3-5K type sessions. Or anything that’s a sort of time trial or 300 reps at 1500 pace, really. I thought I’d need some speed endurance or lactic-type work. My mum would always say from a young age that I’m never going to be speedy and that it will come through my strength. So I feel like they have a lot more belief and faith in what I can do, maybe, than I do.
THE LAP COUNT: You closed unbelievably hard the last 200 meters. Was that because you saw the clock and knew exactly what you needed?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: That’s why I’m actually a little bit disappointed in myself. I crossed the line and I was really happy because I was like, ‘Oh, I won the race!’ And I knew that we were under the American record because that’s all I kept hearing was the American record. So I knew that we were under 30:13. I had not a clue of the time at all until afterward when Colleen told me.
I just had no idea. And then when I saw the official time… if I could have just found an extra 0.87 seconds! In hindsight, I wish I had gone earlier and done a whole load of different things. But it’s more that I was so frustratingly close to it. Like, 29 minutes sounds so much nicer. But yeah, I’m happy with it.
THE LAP COUNT: The British record is a nice consolation prize.
ELISH MCCOLGAN: I would have been a hell of a lot more disappointed if it was one second slower!
THE LAP COUNT: Pivoting to London, do you have expectations going into your marathon debut?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: No, not at all. I honestly have no expectations whatsoever. Although I’m very aware that everyone else has an expectation of what I should do. To be honest, the pressure has never really bothered me. I’ve had that my whole life from being a kid with my mum being a world champion and people saying what I should be able to do.
London is my first ever marathon and that’s a huge step up. It’s a massive challenge. Just the distance alone from starting my career as a steeplechaser, I didn’t ever think I’d be at this point. My mum did and from a young age she always told me I’d do one eventually. I’m also aware that not many people knock out their debut and it takes a lot of practice and a couple of marathons to get used to what that feels like over the last six miles.
I’m pretty confident that I can run a great half marathon and probably get to 20 miles feeling good. But nobody knows how the last 10K is going to feel.
It’s really about enjoying the experience and finishing feeling like my body’s in one piece. I’d like to be competitive against the other British girls and to get my mum’s personal best of 2:26:52. Her Scottish record was just broken by Stephanie Twell in 2:26:40 so I’d like to get it back to our family.
I have to be realistic, though. The field is one of the most ridiculous ones I’ve ever seen for a marathon. Jokingly, I sort of regret choosing this one as my first one! But being a British athlete this is the one I’ve watched on TV since I was a kid — it was always going to be London.
THE LAP COUNT: Last year you were having some stomach issues in training and trouble getting fuel down. How has that improved?
ELISH MCCOLGAN: It’s probably been the biggest challenge, to be honest. Coming from a track background I’ve never ever had to worry about taking in gels. Even for a half I would just eat normally and not even think about taking in any food. We’ve probably come to realize I’m not going to be someone that is taking in the amount of carbohydrates that is suggested. You hear the crazy number of grams that Kipchoge takes in and that’s never going to be me.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error to find what works for me. A lot of the gels and drinks that are out there just don’t have me feeling good when I take them — I crash quite early and it messes with my blood sugar. I could go for a 20-mile run, taking no fuel, like not even water and feel totally fine. And then I’d try taking gels and my body wouldn’t respond well at all. We are still trying different options and I think we’ve got something that’s more of a clean sugar that has been working the last couple of weeks. It’s a work in progress but I am starting to feel good about it.
Thank you to Eilish for taking the time to speak with us for this interview! You can continue to follow her career on Instagram and Twitter. Stay tuned for her debut at the London Marathon on April 23rd.
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