WRITTEN FOR ATHLETICS WEEKLY MAGAZINE
Training for the marathon is a demanding task for any runner and logging the miles whilst looking after three sports-mad daughters is even tougher, but Michelle Ross-Cope manages to take it all in her stride, writes Nicola Bamford.
The 38-year-old shrugs off suggestions that motherhood and belonging to a master’s age-category could thwart her ambitions to excel on the international scene in true gutsy style.
Indeed, such steely determination and focus amidst such a hectic lifestyle has been rewarded with two fine championship performances during her 2010 campaign - with 14th place in the European championship marathon in Barcelona last July (with 2:38.45, leading Team GB to the bronze medals) and 6th in the Commonwealth Games event last month with 2:46.13.
With World-record holder Paula Radcliffe returning to fitness after childbirth and Mara Yamauchi also getting back into shape following injury, the British number-one tag has befallen to Ross-Cope in the past two seasons.
Never one to rest on her laurels, however, the City of Stoke athlete is still left feeling frustrated at the lack of revision to her 2:36.02 lifetime best set on her 26.2-mile debut in London last year.
Still, intermittent bouts of injury and illness combined with the priority of championship racing rather than pacing, provides a clear reason to the time stagnation and surely there is more to come.
Taking up the sport at aged eleven, Ross-Cope competed for England over cross-country, track and road in the 1990’s and had her first child aged-24. Returning to fitness quickly, her mother then passed away, enforcing Ross-Cope to take a break from competition, though she has never missed a day’s training.
Following marriage and her second child, Ross-Cope returned to racing before falling pregnant for the third time and moving on to join her local athletics club and has not looked back since:
“After my youngest, a few of the girls from Stoke were asking me to go up to the club, so I joined in on sessions and found I was quite fit. I was then asked to race and I suppose it started from then. I just thought it was silly to do all the running I was doing and not making any use of it, so it was good when I got back racing and was getting personal bests,” Ross-Cope explained.
Coached by Bud Baldaro, Ross-Cope moved up to distance running in 2007 and come the following season, the Staffordshire athlete had emerged onto the Team GB radar, placing 47th on her British debut in the World half-marathon championships.
Finishing first Briton in the 2009 London marathon in a time which puts her as 15th on the V35 all-time lists, Ross-Cope’s performance was even more admirable – coming only ten days after the passing of her father.
“It was very tough losing my father, I did consider pulling out of London but he would never have wanted that. He was so excited about me doing the marathon,” Ross-Cope revealed.
I was caring for him and checked on him each day, so when I went round to run from his house I found him dead. Again I had to decide whether to bury him before or after the marathon, I decided on before so I buried him the Thursday before London.
I just wish he could have hung on a little longer just to watch me, but looking back now I think he went when he did so I didn't stress too much on the marathon.”
Six months later with the emotional wounds slightly healed, Ross-Cope progressed to 34th in the World half-marathon championships in Birmingham – her occasional base – but suffered through injury to finish 16th in the New York marathon the following month.
“I think my 2009 season was very mixed,” explained Ross-Cope.
“I had a great start and did my debut in the marathon which I was pleased with. However, I got injured and was fighting fitness to make the World half-marathon team. Unfortunately, I didn't make selection as I was still not fully fit in the qualifying race at Bristol but Paula had to pull out with illness, so I was put in the team and luckily I produced a pretty good performance.
At the time I was in training for the New York and unfortunately, that marathon didn't go to plan as I suffered with major cramp from mile 16 so ended up walking and jogging the rest of the way.”
The injury nightmare continued after being forced to withdraw from London this April with a calf-strain, which was all the more annoying for Ross-Cope following
victories in the Wilmslow (inc. English championships) and Bath half-marathons, together with encouraging personal bests of 26:53 for five-miles (to go fifth on the V35 all-time lists) and 72:02 for the half-marathon, which places her as 23rd on the overall all-time lists for women.
Nevertheless, Ross-Cope managed to turn her season around again to storm to two impressive performances when it mattered most over the past few months – in major championships.
“When I look back over the years, who would have thought that I would be in the GB Team for the Europeans and then go onto the Commonwealth Games?” Ross-Cope reflected.
“I know the times weren't the best, however both marathons were in brutal conditions so I think the positions were good.
I think my main regret was not being able to run London but Barcelona went well, as I felt really strong before the end. It’s so hard mentally with the marathon as the last one I did was New York and I suffered badly with cramp, so that was in my head. I started off steady and didn't panic, so the later stages it was good to pass people.
As for Delhi, I was just so pleased to be on that start line as three-weeks before the race, I had to have an MRI scan and then an injection in my calcaneum, as my bursar was very inflamed. This meant no running at all, no cross training for a few days and then I was only allowed to do easy running so I was relieved to be on the line pain free.”
Running up to 110-miles per week, travelling from Stoke to Birmingham as often as possible and looking after her girls who appear to do more exercise than their mother outside of school hours, it is little wonder that Ross-Cope is enjoying some well-earned ‘down time’ at present.
“I think I will just train for the rest of the year with no pressure of racing,” she revealed.
Sponsored by Asics, Cope is currently seeking additional sponsorship or funding after recently leaving her job as an accounts assistant:
“Unfortunately, a few issues came up with me requiring the time away to compete for my country at the Europeans and Commonwealths, I chose my country first,” she
“I have had a pretty tough year - even though I didn't do London I trained all the way up to it. I aim to just to do easy running and then start doing sessions in December.
I aim to do a spring marathon but having discussed this with my coach, we are still not sure which one to do. Hopefully if I produce a good marathon I would love to go to the World Championships (in Daegu, South Korea) in the autumn.
Unfortunately age is not on my side so I plan to run for as long as I can. I would really like to improve my personal bests over a number of distances, and if I continue to improve I'd love to compete in the Worlds and of course, the Olympics. I just need to stay fit and injury free.”
With a new lease of life despite arguably being one of Britain’s busiest runners, Ross-Cope should certainly achieve her goals after proving in impressive style that she can cope with the load of being a marathon mum.