WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS (ON MAY 17)
After spending years outside of the international medals as a middle-distance runner, Helen Clitheroe has successfully reinvented herself as 2012 Olympic hopeful after increasing the miles, writes Nicola Bamford.
Many predicted the 37-year-old from Preston would possibly retire from competition before the London Games next summer, given her age and ongoing frustration of missing the podium, but after swapping to the long-distance events, Clitheroe has enjoyed unprecedented success.
Guided by John Nuttall, the Lancashire athlete has switched the direction of her athletic career since winning the European 3,000m indoor title in Paris in March by training up to ninety miles per week and tackling races up to three times longer than her former specialism.
The latest achievement in Clitheroe’s new chapter was an overwhelming victory in the Bupa Great Manchester Run over 10km on road last weekend, where the British 3,000m steeplechase record-holder stormed to glory in a lifetime-best of 31:45 against a top-class international field.
Launching straight into the lead and showcasing impressive displays of gutsy front-running and even-pacing, Clitheroe smashed her 2008 best by thirty seconds and said afterwards:
“I was really interested to see how fast I could run and use it as a springboard for the track season so it’s hopefully a step in the right direction.
“Today makes me wonder why I didn’t start doing the longer distances in the past! I’m really enjoying the training for it and today was brilliant - I’m absolutely thrilled and think I can go even quicker.”
Having enjoyed a month-long training stint at altitude in Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees, Clitheroe revealed that the 2012 Olympics is the main impetus in her taking one last shot at the big time:
“Some people tend to move up in distances as they get older and I still think I can run a fast 1500m but I just felt that running the longer distances would give me a better opportunity to make the team for 2012 and be competitive.
“Going to the home Olympics at my age would be fantastic but it will be very competitive -for the last few years, I’ve felt that everything’s a bonus so I’m being realistic and taking it day by day.”
Having spent much of her career without funding from the sport, Clitheroe admits life has been tough but a steely determination to succeed against the odds has
driven her onwards:
“I suppose for the last seven or eight years, I’ve thought as long as I want to run and can justify it, I’ve felt like I should continue but always on my terms,” she explained.
The holder of seven veteran-35 British records no less, Clitheroe can boast personal bests of 4:01.10 for 1500m (from 2002), 8:39.81 for 3,000m indoors (from earlier this year) and 9:29.14 for the steeplechase (from 2008) in a jam-packed sporting CV.
Ranked third and fourth, respectively on the national all-time lists for the 1500m and 3,000m indoors, she has captured an impressive four British 1500m and four steeplechase titles dating back almost ten years and represented her country at eight straight World and five European cross-country championships to demonstrate her versatility.
In 2010, the former personal trainer placed seventh in the World indoor 1500m final and finished fourth and eighth in the steeplechase and 1500m at the Commonwealth Games but overall, was disappointed with the season which became another catalyst for change:
“Last summer was a real disappointment to be honest - with my foot injury in May, I lost confidence in the steeplechase and was in rubbish shape,” Clitheroe revealed.
“But I think it was more of a mental problem, as the week after I ran my personal worst for the ‘chase, I ran the qualifying time for the Commonwealth’s 1500m which saved me by going back to what I used to do and getting the love back so after Delhi, I decided to try for the longer distances.
“We never really intended to target the indoor season but after running the 3,000m time, I thought the Euro indoors would be interesting how I can do, especially off the training I’ve been doing - and to win my first medal and also win in Paris was a dream come true.”
Victory in the French capital was all the more sweet following two previous fourth-place finishes in the 2005 and 2007 editions and the next biggest goal is the World championships in Daegu, South Korea in August.
Yet to decide whether to compete over 5,000m or 10,000m, Clitheroe will hope to make her sixth appearance at the global outdoor event and improve on her highest-place finish of tenth (in the 1500m in 2005).
“I hope to be selected for the 5,000m in Daegu if I get the qualifying time and do well in the trials,” she explained.
Hoping to compete in the European Cup 10,000m in Oslo, Norway next month, Clitheroe has aspirations of competing in either event in London, too:
“My target’s to see how I can do doing 10,000m on the track for the first time, which is quite scary for someone who used to be a 1500m runner.
“I’m using this year as a test year for the new distances and training with a view to what I want to achieve in 2012.”
Having finished ninth and sixth in her heat of the steeplechase in Beijing and
Berlin in 2008 and 2009, respectively, Clitheroe is keen to finally make an impact in a global final:
“I’ve got to run under 15:15 for Daegu and the Olympics. I’m taking it one step at a time but getting to the final in my first year in the event would be a dream.”
And as this plucky runner has recently found, if you persevere for long enough, dreams sometimes do come true.