Jo Pavey

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

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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’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.


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


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


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.


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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.