Exclusive: Eilish McColgan discusses altitude training, body image and being burgled

  • Kobe Tong

It was with that familiar Scottish accent, spoken through a crackly phone signal, that Britain’s Eilish McColgan answered my call. 

Just a few weeks after chatting with her in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium, McColgan was now speaking from halfway up a mountain in Switzerland, as you do. Such is the nature of the Olympian’s gruelling line of work that perhaps it made sense that such an indefatigable soul would choose to grab a ski lift in the Alps on their ‘day off’ from training.

McColgan is now enjoying her third stint in central Europe’s snowy heart, benefitting from a comfortable level of altitude that gives her a cutting edge on competition day. It also happens to boast some incredible scenery that, and I’m very sorry Eilish, probably takes a victory over both Dundee and Manchester.

Speaking exclusively with GiveMeSport, the 28-year-old explained to us: “I think 1,800 metres where I train in Saint Moritz is a really good height for me. I’ve experimented with higher altitudes over the years, but I’ve just found that I’ll either really struggle to recover or I’ll get sick. It’s always just more of a stress than at this height, where I cope better with training and recover well.

“I’m really happy actually. I had a cold before the London Diamond League, which was a bit disappointing, and my first few days out here were a little bit tricky. But I honestly couldn’t have asked for more from training, this is probably the best 10 weeks of training that I’ve ever had. I feel like I’ve gone up to a new level now!”

Burglary before Stockholm

The fact McColgan has recently garnered personal bests in the 1500m and 10,000m, as well as a slew of World and Olympic qualifying standards, shows that all the hard work is paying off. However, that isn’t to say that 2019 has been a perfect ride for McColgan, who suffered the shock of her Manchester home being burgled the day before the Stockholm Diamond League.

It’s credit to the mental fortitude of the British champion that she was able to maintain her focus, take her frustration out on the track and shine against a world-class field. McColgan recalled earnestly: “My boyfriend came into the room and he was looking really upset and I was really shocked because he’s not one to be particularly emotional. He said that we’d been burgled. 

“Of course, it was frustrating and upsetting to know that someone had been through all your stuff and just in your house. It’s a horrible feeling of being violated. We’re lucky in the sense that we’re not like footballers, we don’t have anything flashy, designer clothes or anything like that. It’s just annoying that they took stuff that doesn’t mean anything to anybody else.

A family of athletes

“All my jewellery, they took: one that my granny had given me for my 16th birthday that I’ve kept and my mum had two necklaces handmade for me. It’s frustrating, but I’m just glad that we weren’t in the house and that they didn’t hurt our dog.” It was a traumatic experience that, when McColgan explained on social media, prompted a rally of support from the athletics community.

There’s a special camaraderie amongst the British team and one that can easily be quantified by the response to that pre-Stockholm debasement. McColgan is even lucky enough to have a powerful link to track and field within her own family. Her mother, Elizabeth, was crowned the 10,000m World Champion in 1991 and garnered an Olympic silver medal three years previously. 

However, there was never any stress for Eilish – who is now overhauling more and more of her mother’s times – to follow in her illustrious footsteps. “For me, running was always just a hobby and I never put too much pressure on it,” McColgan explained. “It was only until I had journalists asking me: ‘your mum has done this and this, do you think you’ll ever reach those heights?’

Chasing her mother’s times

“Over the years, people have now started making comparisons between me and my mum. If I’m honest, it’s only over the last two years or so that I’ve started comparing myself and started getting closer to those times. Before, I just never believed that I could run as fast as that, so I just thought never thought about it much. 

“Obviously it’s amazing now to be breaking some of my mum’s PB’s and moving into that sort of territory is really exciting. My mum is the only coach I’ve ever had and I just feel like we’re a team trying to break her previous records and see how fast we can possibly go.” That unfaltering stride for betterment also bleeds into McColgan’s philosophy and wider message away from the track.

The Scot has always been an exponent of the fight against body-shaming and hit national headlines just this week after calling out a Twitter troll who branded her ‘too skinny.’ The nonsensical comment, spoken at none other than a double Olympian, was quickly silenced by McColgan’s plea for her followers to take pride in: ‘YOUR fabulous body.’ Too right.

The fight against body-shaming

It was a topic that McColgan and I had discussed just the week before, extolling the virtues of understanding that it’s what your body can do and not what it looks like. “I’ve just accepted that I was going to be really tall and skinny,” the Dundee-born athlete admitted. “Perhaps I didn’t have a ‘womanly’ figure like many girls, but I just accepted that that was me and that was it.

“Now, I just view my body as what it needs to be to be healthy and to put in a good performance. My body is my job at the end of the day. It needs to be functioning correctly in order for me to run as fast as I possibly can and have the job that I do. I don’t particularly worry about my appearance, as long as I know that I’m healthy and managing it correctly, then I’m happy.”

Never mind the laughable ‘too skinny’, it would seem as though McColgan is actually ‘too strong’ for some of her more naive followers to handle. Already one of the jewels in British Athletics’ pre-Olympic crown, McColgan is an example to young athletes both for her incredible work ethic and unflappability when both criminals and trolls cruelly intervene.

It was for that reason that it came as little surprise to hear McColgan’s trademark placidity as she looks to summit – in the same vein of that Swiss mountain – a World Championship challenge this summer. There is, for sure, strength and courage by every definition in the McColgan genome.

Double Olympian Eilish McColgan is a sporting ambassador for wearable sports and fitness technology brand Polar. For more information about Polar’s full product range, visit: polar.com/uk-en.

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