Women's Sports: Meet Steph Twell, Scotland's fastest marathon runner with eyes on Tokyo 2020

When Stephanie Twell toed the line at the Frankfurt Marathon she had three goals: running a PB, meeting the Olympic Qualifying time of 2:29:30 and running as fast as she could.

There was the possibility too that if she ran quickly enough she would get the Scottish record which was set by Liz McColgan 22 years ago.

Twell met every goal. She crossed the line in 2:26:40, shaving 12 seconds off the Scottish record and becoming fifth-fastest on the UK all-time rankings, behind Paula Radcliffe, Mara Yamauchi, Charlie Purdue and Veronique Marot. All this in only her second time competing in a marathon. 

Twell has spent most of her career competing across middle distances. She won a European bronze medal for the 5,000m in 2016 and has competed at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics in the 1,500 metres and the 5,000m respectively.

She hasn’t put her track running career entirely on hold for the marathon either. She took a break in her Frankfurt training to compete in the 10,000m at the World Championships in Doha where she placed 15th, achieving her second-fastest time at the distance. Focusing on two distances isn’t proving to be too much for the athlete.

Reflecting on her record-breaking marathon run, Twell says: “Frankfurt was a gem of a marathon, there was a great atmosphere in quite a relaxed city. I think that contributed to my performance on the day. I’m delighted that I was able to execute all of my hard work in training and preparation.”

Marathons are unpredictable and Twell says running that quickly wasn’t a foregone conclusion, having suffered a cold in the weeks heading into the marathon. On the day, however, Twell tried to zone everything out: “I know it sounds cliché to say one foot in front of the other, but actually, I think to focus on your biomechanics and realising your breathing rate and the posture that you’re running in is important. I try to get into a zen-like mindset so I’m focused.”

Traditionally you wouldn’t compete at a World Championships midway through your marathon training programme but for Twell juggling the two wasn’t a problem. She explains: “I have to do what my mind motivates me to do. I love racing.”

Spending 12 weeks focused on training for a single race is new territory for Twell who is accustomed to regular racing across shorter distances. She says: “The race is the most fun part and racing regularly gives me feedback on how my training’s going.” Whether the performance goes well or not, Twell finds racing is a helpful way of assessing what she needs to tweak in training. 

Preparing for an Olympic year

With both a marathon and a 10,000m Olympic qualifying time under her belt – Twell ran 31:08 at the Night of the 10,000m PBs in July – it’s a waiting game now. Olympic pre-selection for Team GB athletes takes place across December and January when up to two out of the three places available for each discipline could be decided. For however many places remain (it could even be that no one is preselected) athletes must compete at selection events next year.

This means Twell is in limbo with her training when we speak – it is possible she could be selected to run the Olympic marathon, she might also run the London Marathon which will likely be the selection event and she may even choose to focus on the 10,000 metres.

Waiting is hard: “It is a subjective pre-selection where it is whether the panel of judges feel you are Olympic medal potential. That’s tough because I’ve got the Olympic qualifying time and who knows what could happen in conditions in Japan.”

She adds: “Ultimately I need my sport to support me and that is the decision by the people that select you. That’s hard because I’ve done everything in my power to be selected, but they still choose and it might not be me selected.” 

The fact that Twell is unable to forward plan is also challenging. She says: “I wish the selectors were more open to communicating with athletes but they’re not. I have to make broad assumptions of what my training should be until January and then I’ll make tweaks based on what I think can get me selected.” Twell adds: “For an Olympic year they should be communicating with athletes more.”

As well as the impact of pre-selection, deciding which event to focus on is personal too: “I do have to be realistic with myself. I want to have the best Olympic experience I can and the best impact for Great Britain I can.”

Twell mentions that she would consider competing in both of her events, something that is rare but not unheard of. “I think it would be a case of if no one else got the places I would still put myself forward,” she says. “I do think it is best for an Olympic Games to have the best performance by focusing on one event.”

She won’t decide either way until January at the earliest, but one thing that makes next year’s marathon appealing for Twell is the Japanese running culture. Tokyo hosts one of the World Marathon Majors every year and Twell describes running as one of their national sports: “It will be an extra special experience racing on roads where people understand marathon running and see it as a way of life in their culture already.”

“Running for many people is quite cathartic and for me a little bit of a spiritual journey. I think the Japanese culture understands what life means to endure and I think it would be just electric, special games.”  

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic marathon isn’t without controversy. It is being moved to Sapporo following the high drop-out rate in Doha where only 40 of the 68 runners who started finished the race due to the heat. The more northerly city should be cooler for competitors than Tokyo.

Twell explains she is disappointed that the host city won’t be able to celebrate one of their most popular sports: “I think it would have been fair and right for the people to have a free event that would have showcased their city in the best possible way.”

This has impacted her desire to compete in the marathon too: “It motivated me to think I was going to finish in an Olympic stadium, I was excited to think about that. That probably would have confirmed my beliefs to do the marathon but now I can question whether that is the right thing I want to do.”

There should have been more athlete input into the decision, says Twell: “I think Doha wasn’t a totally accurate reflection of what an athlete’s mindset would be for an Olympic marathon and I think some people possibly may have considered pulling out of the race early to save themselves for the Olympic year.”

Athletes may have fared better in the heat of Tokyo after learning from Doha, thinks Twell: “I think they’ve have had the ability to respond taken away, pulled from under their feet really, which is a real shame.”

What’s in a shoe

There’s another controversy dogging marathon running: the shoe athletes wear. This is because Nike athletes have access to the Nike Vaporfly Next% trainers that claim to improve running efficiency by five per cent, at a marathon distance that could in theory knock minutes off the wearer’s time. Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei both wore them in their recent record-breaking runs.

Twell is sponsored by New Balance and so for a long time wasn’t allowed to access or run in them. She is conflicted about the developments: “To me, I do think it raises concerns, however, I am excited by the prospect of seeing how shoe companies can evolve.”

Not running in them means an unequal playing field but it doesn’t deter Twell: “Initially I had to see it as oversight and think: ‘Well I’m going to let my legs do the talking.’” 

One thing that comes through talking to Twell is her unequivocal love of running, whatever the distance. This is evident in her thoughts on Nike’s shoes. It’s not so much the complicated state of play that bothers her but the spiritual side: “We’re in this new space, which is confusing things, where you don’t know if that athlete performed from their physical ability, or if it was more the shoe. You don’t know if it’s the humanity and the athlete’s spirit that got them to that time or if it was the shoes. I do think it takes a bit of romance away.”

Twell’s solution is simple: shared practise among companies. “I believe if there’s not a cap on this it could become like there are roller blades in the bottom of shoes,” she says, insisting that she is still formulating an opinion on this ever-changing landscape.

Going the distance

Adding the marathon to her repertoire has been a joyful journey so far for Twell. She says that she has enjoyed learning and feels less pressure as a newbie to the distance. It helps too that she already runs far when training for the 10,000m covering up to 18 miles in the build-up to a race. The furthest she ran when training for Frankfurt was 22 miles. 

For long runs, Twell goes out with friends, turning it into a social activity. She also says she prioritises quality over quantity: “I know that marathon runners can be going up to 100 miles but I don’t like to put arbitrary numbers on things. I think if you’re feeling good and you’re recovering from quality sessions that’s what I’m focused on.”

The big difference in training for a marathon versus a ten-kilometre race is that there is less pressure to hit certain splits on a track. Twell says: “I think the beauty of marathon running is that you shouldn’t feel guilty from not doing enough training because you’re always going to feel satisfied that you’ve probably gone longer than you ever had before or even further than you ever had before.”

Hearing Twell talks about her running and the clear passion she has for the sport makes me want to lace up too. “When I zone into this place where my body is working on a level slightly higher than my mind or my mind is tapped into a zone that enables me to feel stronger, it makes my mind more open and alive. I know that sounds crazy but when I’m running and I’m tapped into a pace, I feel invincible,” reflects Twell.

It might sound a little crazy, but it also sounds pretty desirable. Whatever Tokyo 2020 has in store for Twell, I’m sure the Frankfurt Marathon won’t be her last.

News Now - Sport News