Ask most running fans familiar with Jenny Meadows and they’ll tell you about her talent and incredible resilience as an athlete; Meadows has faced more obstacles than most during her athletics career. Her achievements are many; first representing Great Britain in 2000, the 800m runner went on to become an Olympian, World and European medallist and today she holds the title as the forth fastest British woman over 800m. Yet despite these successes, Meadows’ career hasn’t been quite as prosperous as it could have been. On all-too-many occasions, the 34-year-old athlete has been denied the opportunity of picking up hard-earned medals at the hands of athletes who have subsequently failed drugs tests. The repercussions of this left her unable to reach her full potential and the professional heights she would have earned. Injury hasn’t been kind to her either. A cruel tear to her achilles in 2012 forced her to miss competing in her home Olympics and, despite a stunning comeback in 2015, further injuries lead Meadows to retire in July last year. While such setbacks have been difficult for Meadows, both physically and physiologically, it was clear when we caught up with her that her fierce love of running has not been shaken…
What does running mean to you now that your competitive career has come to an end?
I think running will always define me, I’ve lived with it for 27 years – it’s been my thing. I thought when I retired I’d have a free schedule but I still run six days a week. It’s one of those habits I can’t get out of. For the first six to eight weeks, when I first retired I was kind of like, “Ha! Everyone else is training and I don’t need to!” But after getting over the initial excitement of not being tied to that routine, my intrinsic need to still feel like myself kicked in. I don’t have the competitive desire like I used to, but I had this need to maintain that sense of normality in my life. I’ve been doing some pacemaking as well, so I have to keep up a certain level of fitness for that. I’m doing it with a different frame of mind now. I’m doing it because I want to. Not because I have to.
What is it like to pace for races all around the world?
I get a real buzz from it. But it’s still quite a commitment, much more so than I imagined. I remember the first time I ever paced. I was really nervous. I’d never specifically practiced the split times that they wanted me to do and I had a total out-of-body experience at the start line. It was the last event of the evening in the Bislett Stadium, in Oslo. It’s an historic stadium so it has quite an aura about it. It was 9:50pm, the whole crowd were watching and it had been a big build up to that race. They call it ‘The Dream Mile’. I hardly remember any of that race. But I do remember looking at the clock at 400m, 800m and 1000m, which is when I had to drop out and it was like clockwork. It was so precise it was unbelievable. I loved it. I can’t believe how much training I still have to do to be in shape to run half the race. It’s absolutely mad! But it’s great to go back to some of the places where I’ve raced previously and enjoy the journey a little bit more. Rather than being in that bubble. I’m looking at things completely differently now than I did 10 years ago, when I maybe didn’t appreciate it as much.
How does training compare for pacing to elite competition?
I used to train twice a day, every day, I now train every day once a day and, every couple of days, I’ll train twice a day. My training now is not as intense as it was. But I’m looking forward to taking a back step this winter and enjoying running a little less seriously and a little more recreationally.
You do a lot of coaching and mentoring in schools, what is the number one thing you try to get across to young people?
The main thing I try to get across to them is that they need to have belief in themselves. I often use this example from my own experience: I went to a competition when I was 13, the English Schools Competition. All the best kids from all around England were competing. I did really well in the heat and made the final and, then, the next day, I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience I came last. The shock in kids faces when I tell them that is amazing. What I explain to them is, I didn’t give up, I worked really hard, worked on my weaknesses and, the next year, I went back to the same competition and I won it. You’re not just born a certain way and everything is easy, you have to work really hard on your weaknesses. Those are my two key messages; believe in yourself, know you’re in it for the long haul and don’t expect quick success.
Was competing at the Olympics always a dream of yours?
When I was seven, I went to my local athletics club and the coach said to me, “What is it you want to do?” and I said to him, “I want to go to the Olympics!” I remember watching the Olympics as a kid and I just thought it was possible. I saw people in a British vest at the games and I was the fastest runner in my class at school so I thought, “I’ll go to the Olympics.” It wasn’t as easy as that, of course.
What’s the proudest moment of your career?
I think my proudest moment was in 2009 when I got the bronze medal at the World Championships. That was a time in my career that I was running really well and not too many people realised, apart from myself and my coach. I made the Championships in Berlin and everyone was congratulating me for making the final. But I knew there was something else there. I thought, “I shouldn’t just be content with making this final, there’s another level, there’s more I can do.” I tried not to think too much about the medal. My optimum goal was just to walk off that track, after that final and know that I gave it my best. I didn’t want to be a coward, I didn’t want to have any regrets. I ran really bravely and I got the bronze medal. I couldn’t believe it. That was probably my proudest moment.
Who is your running hero?
Sally Gunnell was my first running hero. She won the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the 400m hurdles. I was 11 at that time and seeing a female British athlete win on that world stage was really important to me. It showed me that you could be a successful female British runner. My running hero as I’ve gotten older is Paula Radcliffe. She’s so motivational. She just refused to believe that she wasn’t going to be the best. She’s not a fluent athlete; she’s working every step. You can see the physical effort on her face when she’s running the marathons. She’s done so much for the British running scene. Not just for female athletes but for male athletes, too. The times she ran are decent male times. She broke all the barriers down.
What advice would you give to athletes recovering from injury?
I say to athletes, especially younger athletes, use your setbacks as an opportunity to work on your weaknesses. You could sit and sulk, get unfit, or you can use it. When I was injured at London 2012, I had this perspective: “I’ve been competing from age seven to age 31 and this is the first injury I’ve ever had – I’ve done well.” It’s unbelievable that it happened right when it did – at what could have been the pinnacle of my athletic career – but I had a positive perspective on it. I remember the morning after the diagnosis; I woke up and thought to myself, “OK, so I can’t run, and I’m not going to the Olympics, what do I do?” I went to the fridge, cut myself a piece of chocolate cake and had that for my breakfast. I ate the cake and about 20 minutes later I thought again, “OK. Now, what can I do?” and I mapped out this whole plan. I was thinking, “I can swim, bike, I can do this, I can do that, I’m going to really use this as an opportunity and then, when I can run, I’m going to be better than ever.”
What would be your one piece of advice to someone just starting out running?
Concentrate on yourself. It’s so easy to look at others and start comparing yourself. Set yourself a goal; don’t get sidetracked by other people’s journeys. Concentrate on yourself and the progression will come naturally.
Finally, describe yourself as a runner in one word.
Jenny is an ambassador for BackBaller and will be appearing at the Triathlon Show London, which takes place at ExCel London from 16th – 19th February.
The Triathlon Show: London will be host to the latest and greatest in running, cycling and swimming, giving visitors the chance to see and try out the latest innovations, as well as hear from experts in their field. For more visit http://www.triathlonshowlondon.co.uk