Gemma Steel: Focusing on a couple of championships, by Cathal Dennehy

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Gemma Steel, Edinburgh 2014, photo by PhotoRun.net

Cathal Dennehy wrote this piece on European Cross Country Champion Gemma Steel, and her goals for 2015...


As she entered the final stretch in the senior women's race at the European Cross Country in Samokov, Bulgaria, last month - lying in second place behind British teammate Kate Avery - Gemma Steel had one thought on her mind: "I can't let this happen".

Or in other words, can't let this happen again. The 29-year-old had won bronze in the event in 2011 and upgraded that to silver in 2013, but even then, it felt like a bit of a failure. She wanted gold. "No one remembers second place," she says, "so the only thing to do was to win it." 

She made good on that promise in Samokov, edging Avery in the final run to the line to take her first European title, a performance all the more impressive when you consider that the British team only arrived in Samokov at 3am on the morning of the race due a flight problem. "I had a drugs test at 9am, then walked the course at 10:30," says Steel. "I had to just take a step back then and focus. I didn't feel my best while running, but it was the same for everyone; you just get on with it."

A few weeks later, Steel rang in the new year in the best way possible, by taking victory at the San Silvestre Vallecana 10km road race in Madrid in 31:52. Indeed, up until now it has been on the roads where Steel has usually been seen to best effect. 

Her much-anticipated marathon debut in London last April had to be postponed, though, as Steel injured her calf at the New York City Half Marathon in March. "It was a good year, but missing the marathon through injury messed up my plans. My goal was to win the European cross country, though, so to do that was great."

Steel has shown continued progress over the last four years under the coaching instruction of John Nuttall, who is based in Doha and who she keeps in contact with through Skype. 

Old-School Approach

Her training, which she does alongside steeplechaser Eilish McColgan at Loughborough University, is overseen by Rob Denmark. It involves lots of steady running, but mileage is kept to manageable levels [usually 80-85 per week], with Steel's long run never exceeding 90 minutes. The week is built around two key sessions, with the other days usually involving two seven-mile runs (at 6-6:30/mile), along with one rest day. 

Steel never monitors heart rate in training, preferring the traditional method of just paying attention to her body's signals. "I couldn't even tell you what my resting heart rate is," she says. "I don't like to get too wrapped up in that. I go off my breathing and how I feel, and I think that's more important. Maybe in the future when I get into marathons I might have to do a bit more monitoring."

Indeed, Steel is likely to make her re-arranged marathon debut this year, but it won't happen, she says, until the autumn. "I'm trying to work towards it, but the transition is a big step," she says. 

Besides her injury last year, the thing that has always delayed a move to the marathon is Steel's curiosity to see what she can achieve on the track. 

As a Lottery-funded, Nike-sponsored athlete, she's lucky enough that she isn't obliged to move to the more lucrative realms of the marathon to earn a living just yet. 

Alongside her running, Steel works as a freelance illustrator for children's books, the latest of which was recently released and which, appropriately, tells the story of animals having a race. "It's proving to be quite popular," she says. "I've always been quite creative, and it's a nice hobby. It's a nice side to a career; obviously, running is my main career."

Scaling New Heights

Indeed, it looks set to stay that way for a number of years if Steel continues on her current upward trajectory. With the confidence of the European Cross Country win behind her, she has big plans for 2015. She's not certain yet, but she thinks they'll include an indoor 3,000m in Birmingham, the renowned Cinque Mulini cross country in Italy in February, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China, in March, and then possibly a return to China - this time Beijing - in August for a crack at the 10,000m at the World Championships. 

"It was nice to win the gold medal," she says. "It's made me want to move on to bigger and better things." And having now reached the summit of European distance running, the journey to even greater heights can now get under way.

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