WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS
Twelve months ago, Gemma Steel was a relative unknown in British distance running yet after a whirlwind, glittering six-month period, she now has her sights set on the Olympic 10,000m final next summer, writes Nicola Bamford.
The Leicestershire runner – who has transformed from a pub cleaner outside the top forty in the country to a full-time athlete and prolific major race winner in the last year – has an eye on the 32:10 Olympic ‘B’ standard for the London Games next August and judging by her recent form, she may just achieve her lofty ambition.
Guided by John Nuttall at the Loughborough University campus, Steel has enjoyed a dramatic breakthrough on the national and international scene of late, culminating in her being shortlisted by European Athletics for the ‘European Athlete of the Month’ award for her October performances.
A member of Charnwood AC and only in her sixth year of serious running, Steel scorched to a 72:21 half-marathon lifetime best to win the Bupa Great Birmingham Run last month and also rank as the fourth-fastest British woman of the year – an astonishing improvement of nearly seven minutes and forty-three places since the 2009 season.
Adding to that the notable scalps of World marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe and 2012 marathon hopeful Jo Pavey in the Bupa London 10,000m and Great Yorkshire Run road races in July and October, respectively, and her season was certain to be declared a major revelation indeed.
“It’s been one good race after another recently - I seem to be on a roll,” Steel modestly explained.
“Obviously, beating Paula and Jo were two great experiences for me and being the fastest at the national road relay championships (in Sutton Coldfield over 4.3km last month) was the icing on the cake for me, as I beat one of my biggest rivals in Charlotte Purdue (the Commonwealth 10,000m fourth-placer) and I don’t consider myself a shorter-distance runner.”
Twenty-seventh and fifty-fourth, respectively, in the European and World cross-country Championships on her Team GB debuts last winter, Steel has been shown great versatility over the varying distances and terrains this year, showing fine form over cross-country, 5,000m on the track and 10,000m on the road.
After beginning the year with victory in the Lotto Cross Cup international race in Belgium, she then went on to finish fourth in both the English and British Championships in the mud before turning her attentions to her first love, the road as well as her first serious attempt on the track.
Between April and October, Steel’s finest achievements included placing second in the Bupa Great Ireland Run against a top international field, a twenty-eight second improvement over 10km with 32:48 in London, a forty-seven second personal best over 5km with 16:00 in Norwich in July and winning the Bristol half-marathon in – at the time – a lifetime best of over five minutes.
Such scintillating performances somewhat overshadowed her runs on the track which included reducing her 3,000m best by a minute to 9:29.28 at the Loughborough International in May, a 15:47.21 5,000m debut in the Watford BMC Grand Prix in June and finishing seventh in the Aviva World trials and UK Championships over 5,000m in Birmingham in July.
“I’m surprising myself all the time as I seem to be getting stronger and quicker over all the distances,” Steel revealed.
“I think I’ve improved by targeting different athletes all the time and now it’s Charlotte and Helen Clitheroe (the European indoor 3,000m champion) – I’m taking inspiration from them.
“I’m getting better at shifting up through the gears and I’ve added more volume – I’ve gone from 60 to 75/80 miles per week this year – still only running once a day and it’s suiting me.
Adding that she believes she can run 70-minutes for the half-marathon next year, perhaps in the Reading event in April, Steel continued:
“I train mostly on my own especially now a lot of the Loughborough-based athletes are in Kenya at the minute on the UK Athletics altitude camp but I’m good at motivating myself and training here works for me.”
Fresh from clocking the fastest time at the national cross-country relays in Mansfield last weekend, Steel – who turns 26 on Saturday – intends to give herself a belated present in the form of victory at the UKA McCain Bristol Cross Challenge on Sunday before targeting the European trials in Liverpool a fortnight later.
“I was third in the trials last year and I hope to win it this time – hopefully the European’s will be in similar conditions to here and I hope to do myself justice and make it into the top ten,” she explained on the continental championships in Slovenia next month.
“Then, I’d really like to qualify for the 5,000m at the Olympics but my coach thinks the 10,000m is more realistic,” she revealed.
“I’ve not been racing for too long so I’ll need to work on the psychology to run twenty-five laps in the right way - although I need the experience, I think my strength and speed will help me in the event, maybe the 10,000m will suit me more.
“I’ve not got any pressure on me to qualify for the Olympics as I’m under the radar and I prefer it that way.
“I’ve not got a reputation on the track yet but I hope to change that in the summer – it certainly would be a fairytale to make it after coming from nowhere.”