Summer 2014. Jo Pavey had already enjoyed a long career at the top of British athletics. But in the events of August and September she became an icon for mums and runners everywhere. Her autobiography captures the journey and the person behind the runner.
Just ten months after the birth of her second child, and almost at age 41, she lined up in the Commonwealth Games 5,000m final. Her utterly determined fight to the line for a bronze medal was warmly embraced by the home crowd. But when she followed this up only ten days later with her first major championships gold medal, with 10,000m victory in Zurich to become the oldest-ever female European Champion, she cemented her place in the roll call of athletics greats.
Her down-to-earth attitude, and “ordinary mum” persona, appeal to so many of us sporting mortals who need a hero who demonstrates that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.
She didn’t stop there. In the Rio Olympics, Pavey became the first British runner or track athlete to compete in five Olympic Games, and the oldest British track competitor. Her 10,000m time in Rio of 31:33.44 is the official world record for over-40s.
And in 2017 she is planning to run the London Marathon in April, already stating her aim of breaking her PB (2:28:24) with the goal of qualifying for a British team spot in the World Championships in London this summer.
Determination Against the Odds
Her book is a light, easy read, but reveals the depth of character and determination that has defined her. Her career has been a series of ups-and-downs with constant injury battles that have taken steely resilience to overcome.
Jo Pavey was a promising junior, and broke the English Schools 1500m record in 1988 (finishing several places ahead of Paula Radcliffe in the same race). It was as a teenager that Jo met Gavin who also ran for Exeter Harriers, and they became a permanent partnership. From then on, Gavin would become Jo’s constant support, eventual husband, and coach and manager, the other half of an incredibly successful team.
From 1990 Jo was hampered by a string of injuries which led to her missing the entire seasons 1991-1996 inclusive. She made it to the 1997 World Championships against the odds, but then suffered a knee injury that put her out for another two-and-a-half years.
During this period, a trip around the world with Gavin helped Jo to rebuild her strength and endurance and eventually overcome the injuries:
“We didn’t always know where we would be, whether we could train there, what the terrain would be like. There was no set schedule… We’d travel and when we saw a good spot we’d put down our bags and run.
“Sometimes on that trip it was tough to run owing to perilously steep or tricky surfaces, or it was just ridiculously hot – but we took the view that anything harder would toughen us up. When we visited Ayers Rock we couldn’t resist breaking into a run there too at 4:30am. The other people in our group though we were completely nuts.”
While in Australia in 1997, Jo and Gavin peeped through the fences into the construction site of the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, and set their sights on Jo running there in 2000. Jo struggled back and despite further setbacks with knee surgery, she made it to those Olympics, finishing 12th in the 5,000m final in a PB of 14:58.27.
After that she became remarkably consistent, making the final at every major outdoors championships between 2000 and 2008. But things still didn’t come easy. She was diagnosed with hyperglycaemia which caused problems for her in longer races.
As always, she didn’t let this stop her, consistently making championship finals. Her best times of 14:39.96 for 5,000m and 30:53.20 for 10,000m rank her second behind Paula Radcliffe on the UK all-time list for both distances.
Medals and Misses
In the book, Jo talks candidly about the impact of doping and drugs cheats in her events. She had several 4th and 5th place finishes which included athletes ahead of her who were subsequently banned. At times she suffered a great deal in her confidence by not understanding how athletes could fly past her so comfortably in the last lap, only to find out years later that they had been using banned substances.
“Athletes who cheat deprive clean runners of crossing the line knowing they’ve won a medal… Those are special moments, and you can never get them back.
“It has a hidden impact on your career. To finish fourth or fifth, rather than on the podium, affects your confidence as an athlete. It makes you feel like everyone thinks you’re always getting it wrong when it matters. It can also affect the way that you train, making you take risks, trying to attain their superhuman levels and overdoing it.”
This Mum Runs
The book also contains plenty of personal insights into Jo Pavey, who comes across as a very grounded individual able to place her running into context and see the bigger picture.
She talks of her delight at finding she was pregnant for the first time. She also shares openly the emotional experiences around a very difficult birth when her son nearly died, as well as his serious illness and hospitalisation at four months old.
Becoming a mother clearly brought a tremendous amount of happiness to her, and she is clear that she will always prioritise her children above any competition or medal.