In this exclusive extract from her new autobiography, Jo Pavey, mother of two, five-time Olympian and RW columnist attributes her career’s remarkable Indian summer to finding balance in life, rediscovering the joy of running – and a washing mishap the nig
Success secrets of the five-time Olympian and full-time mum
omeback races? I’ve had more than a few, but the night of 10 May 2014 was the ultimate long shot. I was running in the 10,000m National Championships – the ‘Night of the 10,000m Personal Bests’ – a trial for the European Championships in Zurich that summer. I could take confidence in being the 2012 European 10,000m silver medallist and a four-time Olympian, but I’ve always lived in the moment. And right then? I was a 40-year-old mother of two who had given birth eight months before. I trained on a treadmill in a cupboard by the back door and hadn’t raced on a track in spikes since London 2012. Was I crazy?
The race was at 9pm, which meant it just wasn’t practical to take the children. So I would have to be away from my baby, Emily, overnight for the first time. It felt like a big deal, an unsettling emotional wrench to leave her and my son, Jacob, now a very active four-year-old. I travelled to London the day before the trials so I wouldn’t have to race with ‘travel’ in my legs, my mind churning through a checklist I’d left for my parents. Mum and Dad were arriving the next morning to look after the kids so that Gavin, my husband and coach, could follow me to London.
I’d be away for 36 hours and Gav for less than 18, but I wanted babysitting to be easy and fun for my parents and that required a lot of preparation. I stocked up on food, nappies and baby
wipes. I rushed around and got the laundry washed and dried. I set out clothes for the kids, I laid out baby sleeping bags and muslin cloths. I wrote a list of roughly when they’d need feeding and with what. I left notes on other useful information, such as special tricks we use to get Emily to sleep and how to work the essentials: baby monitor, TV, central heating. I bought snacks and real ale for my dad and made them both promise to call me any time, and never worry that I could be preparing for the race. As the train neared London, I imagined what the kids would be doing. Had I remembered everything? My hand reached for my phone. I couldn’t resist calling for an update.
Emily was born by Caesarean section in September 2013. Having another little one filled us with so much joy and I didn’t want to spoil that very special time with our newborn by worrying about regaining my fitness. I was also determined to breastfeed for as long as possible. I returned to running before Christmas, doing whatever seemed achievable on a day-to-day basis.
On my first few runs I had a weird sensation that my legs were not attached to my body; my core muscles would take much longer to recover from abdominal surgery than from a natural birth. I kept breastfeeding until April, giving me just a month before the trial. Up to then I was feeding on demand, and Emily resolutely refused to take a bottle of expressed milk, so I couldn’t ever be physically far from her. So from the beginning of my journey back to race fitness, all my runs became family runs. Sometimes we’d head into the forest, with me or Gav pushing Emily in a running buggy and Jacob whizzing along on his little bike; sometimes we’d venture into a local park or down the canal path.
At track sessions – which involved an hour-long drive to Yeovil because our home track in Exeter was being resurfaced – Gav would coach me, stopwatch in hand, with Emily strapped to his front in a baby carrier, snoozing away, and Jacob sprinting up and down the long jump runway. While breastfeeding, my track sessions were laughable. I ran wearing two or three crop tops to support my lopsided boobs – one emptied from the last feed, the other full in readiness for the next.
I had to hope that even though the times I was recording were rubbish, I was still gaining the training benefits. Gav kept reassuring me this was the case.
In order to boost my mileage and be on hand at home for the kids, I’d pound away on the treadmill we have stashed in a space other people might use as a cloakroom. My children were now my priority, but I couldn’t yet contemplate a life without running.
My preparations to ‘come back’ as an athlete were rushed, guided by every parent’s mantra: ‘Do the best you can with what you have.’ What did I have to lose? I was spurred on by the outside chance that I might represent my country for one more athletics season.
I travelled up for the ‘Night of the 10,000m Personal Bests’ determined simply to give it a go. I’d normally have entered three or four races as preparation leading up to a National Championships and qualifying trials, but here I was, on the night before this very significant race, sitting in the Teddington Travelodge, 150 miles from my family, contemplating my first race back, a race that was my only chance of qualifying for the 10,000m at the European Championships. I sat there feeling alone, asking myself all the questions that I have repeatedly been asked ever since I became a mother in 2009: why was I still trying to run at an elite level? Why was I putting myself through this? To be isolated from our happy-go-lucky domestic chaos felt all wrong, that something was missing. It wasn’t until I was chatting to Gav on the phone at about 9.30pm, once the kids had gone to bed, that I realised with horror that something much more mundane was missing: my Exeter Harriers vest.
‘I COULD NOT CONTEMPLATE LIFE WITHOUT RUNNING’
I’d forgotten you need to wear your club vest for national trials. I’d spent hours preparing all the stuff for the kids, and then just chucked my sponsors’ kit into my bag on autopilot. It was the sort of thing that would have thrown me into a panic before I had children. Now I was used to taking things as they come and I just thought how lucky it was that we’d discovered the problem in advance of the event. I told Gav it was in the laundry basket and would need a quick wash. Gav said no problem, he’d bring it up, clean, the following day.
An hour later he called again. I could hear in his voice that something was wrong. In the division of domestic chores in our house, there’s only one machine Gav’s ordinarily allowed near – the coffee maker. And for good reason. He’d only gone and put the vest on a hot wash and it had come out a beautiful Peppa Pig pink. The dye in the burgundy strip across the white had run. It was ‘totally unwearable’, Gav said – and it was the only one I had.
Then I started to panic. The rules clearly state you have to wear registered club vests. Racking my brain, I remembered I did have one other – the vest I wore as a junior in the late 1980s, now stashed away as a keepsake in a box of mementos. But where was the box? In the garage? The loft? A cupboard upstairs? Gav was going to have to turn the house upside down to find it and, if he did, I was going to have to run in a vest that was older than most of the girls I was running against.
A while later he rang, triumphantly declaring that he’d found the box, eventually, at the back of a wardrobe in a spare room. The vest was inside, he said, but it would need a wash. ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’ I said. ‘Just bring it as it is.’ When he handed over the mothballed vest the following day we had to giggle.
BACK ON TRACK
From 2003 to 2010, Gav and I had lived in Teddington, in southwest London, as many distance runners do, because of the proximity to the running trails in Bushy and Richmond Parks, and to Heathrow for travel. So we were back on our old stomping ground. We had lunch in a favourite coffee shop, and looked with dismay at the weather outside. It was pouring with rain and high winds.
When we arrived at Parliament Hill Athletics Track, we said hello to everyone, then jumped back in the car to keep dry. Squirming in the passenger seat, I changed into my running kit. I pinned on my number – 41 – and thought they should have given me the number 40.
What were my chances of achieving a qualifying time? I honestly didn’t know. It seemed such a long shot. Having recently stopped breastfeeding Emily, my body was still undergoing physiological and hormonal changes. As an athlete, I understand my body well. I take good care of it; I can read its signals, but I was now primarily a mum who runs and, as any mother who’s breastfed knows, your body doesn’t quite feel your own immediately post-feeding. It truly was a step – or several thousand strides – into the unknown. I knew that when I put myself on the line, a 40-year-old up against much younger girls, I would not modify my approach because of my age. I was aware some of the other athletes had been overseas on winter training camps in preparation; some had run good times in the US. I’d just been clocking up my miles in Devon with Gav and the kids, but I would do what I’d always done and simply run as hard as I could. There can be a surprising difference between how I feel when training and how that translates into race form. Sometimes I surprise myself with how much faster I go, other times it can go the other way. The only thing to do was give it my absolute all.
Despite the dramatically stormy weather, the meeting had an uplifting party atmosphere. The organisers had been granted permission from England Athletics to allow spectators onto the track to cheer on the runners from lane three. There was live music, real ale and the smell of burgers wafting across the track. Fuller’s London Pride sponsored the event, producing commemorative bottles of beer labelled ‘Night of the 10,000m PBS’ – a nice touch. The organisers had asked all athletes for a song in advance to create a playlist for the night; I had chosen U2’s Vertigo because I wanted something upbeat with a strong tempo.
The rain lashed down; banners and tents strained in the wind. There were some good girls in the field and I had been nervous anticipating the race, but the atrocious weather made us giggle each time we were literally blown off the track while attempting our final warm-up strides – so much so that my nerves evaporated. No one could expect to run well in the blustering gale and that took
‘I WOULD NOT MODIFY MY APPROACH BECAUSE OF MY AGE’
some of the pressure off. During my warm-up, I had to bow into the wind and throw myself forward to counter the resistance. It was another ridiculous variable which made my mission seem even more unlikely. The comedy of the situation helped me relax.
As I stood on the start line, I pushed all the factors against me out of mind. I thought, ‘Let’s go for it and see what it brings.’ When the pistol went, I was taken over by the awesome thrill of being back in a competitive race. Tasha Vernon was the pacemaker for the first few laps, then I decided to go to the front. About midway through, Sophie Duarte of France took the lead for a lap, but I overtook her and pushed on. I was feeling surprisingly OK. It was tough in the gusting wind but everyone was in the same boat and I just felt like cracking on with it. I had to finish in the top two and run under 33 minutes that night to automatically qualify for the European Championships. Gav had been chatting to fellow coach Alan Storey, the former head of British Athletics Endurance, who thought it would be pretty tough to go under 33 minutes in these conditions, but it was one of those races with no messy moments or sharp elbows or the risk of having your legs cut by another athlete’s spikes. After three of the 25 laps the race strung out, so I just focused on my rhythm and the track ahead, trying to keep under the qualifying pace as the laps ticked by, my energy boosted by encouraging shouts from the crowd.
I’m never keen on wearing a running vest (as opposed to a crop
‘I THOUGHT, “LET’S GO FOR IT AND SEE WHAT IT BRINGS’”
top) – they remind me of PE at school – but the decades-old vest proved to be a lucky charm. I knew I was running under the time I needed and won in 32:11, well within the European Championships qualifying time. I was delighted, exhausted, soggy, cold, jubilant and relieved. In little over half an hour I had gone from nowhere to National Champion. And I’d won selection to run in the Europeans for my country in my first race back from having a baby! It was bonkers. I congratulated the other girls. Beth Potter had run a brilliant race for third to be the second Brit to guarantee selection. I embraced Gav. We were thrilled but laughing in sheer surprise. Alan shook Gav’s hand, shaking his head wryly.
After the podium ceremony and a celebration with friends, we set off on the long drive back to Devon, happy my running career was still on course and our flexible training methods had proved successful. The conversation switched back from athlete/coach to our concerns as parents. I couldn’t wait to tiptoe in to see our children asleep, and to read the amusing notes Mum would have written about how things actually materialised despite my original list of ideal food, bath and bed times. I’m not obsessive about routines; we have an understanding with both sets of grandparents that as long as the kids are safe and happy, that’s the important thing. It would be amusing to hear how it had panned out.
Chuckling about the vest drama, Gav and I couldn’t help but sense how life had come full circle. It seemed so fitting that I came to wear that old Harriers vest in the 2014 National Championships because, at the grand age of 40, I was more than ever like the free-spirited runner who first discovered a love of racing wearing that same vest in the late 1980s. It had been stored away for two and a half decades, a period of time in which many medical experts suggested I give up running and various people tried to modify my approach or make me into a different kind of runner. I continually rebelled (politely) and now – after I had had kids and moved back to Devon, after I had thrown away piles of orthotic insoles and training gadgets, after my support team had shrunk to just Gav – I had rediscovered my own instinctive, uncomplicated version of running.
When I cast my mind back over my career, I realise that in many respects, my continuation in the sport comes down to not wanting to let go of that passion and love for running I first discovered all those years ago. Becoming a mum helped me rediscover the simple joy of it. The happiness it gave me, and the better balance in my life, has psychologically benefited my running immensely.
Since becoming a mother, my whole approach is about juggling priorities – with my kids always coming first. As soon as I was pregnant with Jacob, I decided against ever going abroad for winter training camps. I want to be a full-time, hands-on mum and there’s no time now to obsess about training or worry about trying to follow the ‘perfect athlete’ routine. I do what I can, when I can, and I don’t stress about straying from some idealised plan.
I enjoy my training and racing so much more now because I am happy. I feel life has come full circle on both a personal and a career level. I feel fulfilled. I love being a mum who happens to run, and I love being a mum who is a professional athlete but can still come second in the primary school sports day mums’ race (it was running with a tennis ball under the chin!). My family unit is my training unit. I have a better balance in my approach to life. The perspective that parenthood gives me means I don’t stress about the small stuff.
The experts I’ve worked with along the way had helped me develop as an athlete. Equipped with that selfknowledge, we simplified our approach, moving back to rural Devon, stepping away from the world of highperformance centres. It was just Gav and me working together. I was back running round the same country lanes that had helped me win those junior titles. My staple run was the five-mile loop I ran as a child; my track sessions were completed at the same Yeovil ground where I’d set a British junior record. And as if to sum it all up, I’d won my comeback race in the vest that symbolised my innate love of running. Now I had returned to running for pleasure, I was never going to let go of that simple passion. Little did I know then just how far it still had to take me.
‘MY WHOLE APPROACH IS ABOUT JUGGLING PRIORITIES’
MUM ON THE RUN Jo has ‘stopped stressing about the small stuff’
QUIET RESOLVE Jo still does what she’s always done: run as hard as she can
PRECIOUS TIME Jo and son Jacob in the family lodge during the London Olympics in 2012
BACK ON TRACK on her way to victory in the 10,000m National Championships in May 2014
IN THE BEGINNING Jo running in her Exeter Harriers vest in 1988, when she was still Jo Davis
BACK TO BASICS Jo has rediscovered her uncomplicated approach to running IN TRAINING Jo puts in another track session while daughter Emily pays not the slightest bit of attention
WINNER Jo takes gold in the 10,000m at the European Championships in Zurich, August 2014
HOME Jo and family after she won bronze in the 5000m at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games
Extracted from This
Mum Runs, by Jo Pavey, published by Yellow Jersey Press. © Jo Pavey 2016