British 10,000m champion admits being picked to compete over the marathon distance in Sapporo is even sweeter than making it to Beijing and Rio
Tokyo will be Steph Twell’s third Olympics, but that doesn’t mean the joy of being selected is in any way diluted. Quite the opposite in fact.
The 31-year-old has been picked, alongside fellow Scot Steph Davis and Jess Piasecki, to compete in the women’s marathon for Great Britain in August and admits the feeling is even better than when she featured at Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 in the 1500m and 5000m respectively.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like it’s even better than my first and my second,” says the Scottish marathon record-holder. “I feel like a third Olympics symbolises my love for the sport.”
Twell’s career has already been a long one and, whether it be competing in major championships or overcoming career-threatening injury, there is little she has not experienced or had to contend with.
Coaching herself more recently and overcoming her latest injury struggles – a plantar fasciitis issue contributed to the high hamstring tendinopathy problems she then suffered when being forced to pull out midway through October’s London Marathon – have made booking that ticket to Tokyo all the more satisfying.
“I can’t express how hard it was,” says Twell of her journey back to fitness. “Covid was the hardest thing I’ve probably dealt with in my career, if I’m being really honest, because you are working around restrictions of rehab accessibility, like gym accessibility and lack of physios.
“I know that to be the consummate athlete at this level you’re making sure you are getting your conditioning right, making sure you’re getting regular check-ups and when you’re also injured, it’s just the hardest thing.
“For me running is more than just the performance as well. It’s the social aspect and my community – and I feel very much that was cut off. When you’re injured, that is really hard. But even though it was tough, I still persisted – making sure it was open water swimming or cross training. I adapted, like most people did.”
She adds: “It’s taken me a long time to get to this point but, now that I’m here, I just think it’s amazing to know firstly that there’s going to be an actual race going ahead.
“It really has been such a dry spell, like a drought for endurance running, and I’ve had a rough year with not being able to race in this new event that I’ve just moved to.
“But there has also been the injury aspect of it. So this means even more, it really does, to know that all the work I invested in before this qualification period has come to fruition and is paying off because it hasn’t just been a flash in the pan. It has been a long-term plan for me.”
Twell’s marathon debut came in 2018 when she clocked 2:30:11 in Valencia on what was essentially a run to try out the distance. Paced by her husband Joe Morwood, she followed it up a year later in Frankfurt with a time of 2:26:40 which broke Liz McColgan’s long-standing Scottish record.
“I’m just super happy because there are lots of pressures and decisions that people don’t see behind the scenes,” she adds. “My husband took time off work last year and paced me in Frankfurt, and it was my first opportunity to coach myself in this time.
“That really kind of helped me grow as an athlete, actually. I think as an individual as well, but it’s kind of just sealing off how hard I worked to get into that position. It’s incredible.”
The absence of Twell’s clubmate Charlotte Purdue from the marathon selection has raised some eyebrows and Twell knows all too well how difficult it can be to be on the other side of a selection decision.
Neither opted to race the British marathon trials, which were won by Davis, but Twell insists it was a decision that was not taken lightly – and one which had her longer-term health still very much in mind.
“I was at peace with the decision but it was very hard for me,” she says. “I’ve been to many trials in British history – I’m five times British champ and the current 10,000m champion. I don’t take it lightly to not show myself and perform and qualify in my own right. But I didn’t want to risk my health and wellbeing over performance, which I think a lot of performance athletes do.”
She adds: “I think, because I haven’t just had an out of the blue marathon performance – I can back it up with my half marathon and 10km – I think evidence does suggest that my data points are probably more suited to the marathon and there’s more to come.
“I think that’s the exciting thing and that’s what I have just got to focus on but it’s hard because I’m looking at both sides of story. I know exactly how other people are feeling. And other people later in summer will also be like this. It’s not an easy situation.”
Twell now has the luxury of time. Time to plan, to train, to become accustomed to the kind of humidity and conditions which will greet competitors in Sapporo later this summer.
She will remain based in America for the coming weeks to get used to operating at altitude and in the heat.
“I won’t be overwhelmed by the Olympics now,” she adds. “I want to execute my best build-up and be ready on the start line knowing what to expect, because I have been there before, which should give me an advantage.”
Twell will be using coach Steve Vernon as a “sounding board” as she taps into his knowledge in her Olympic build-up, but her marathon selection brought to mind someone who was there at the very earliest stages of her career.
“I have been in the sport since I was a very young girl and I always remember my first coach, Mick [Woods], planting the seed that I would one day run the marathon,” says Twell.
“That seed that was sown many years ago is growing and blossoming and it is all part of the journey that I’ve been on.
“We all know that an Olympic Games spearheads the focus for any athlete and it spearheads that drive and that passion. For me, it’s the exact challenge I think I need in my career. I’ve made two already and this is the sort of arena I want to be part of.”
Ryan Thomas Williams