Eilish McColgan: I was partying all the time at university, then it became all about the Olympics

Eilish McColgan wraps herself in the flag
Eilish McColgan has emulated her mum at the Commonwealths and European championships and would love to go further in the Paris Olympics - REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Things you would not expect in an interview with Eilish McColgan: To be discussing the merits of the “Helicopter Burger” – bacon, chips, Lorne sausage, beef patty and fried egg packed into a giant floury bread roll – sold by a 24-hour bakery called Clark’s that was once voted the best place to get “drunk food” in Scotland. 2. To hear “Corfu” and “Istanbul” in the context of fast-food restaurants rather than warm-weather training bases.

Britain’s best female long-distance runner since Paula Radcliffe, however, is simply reliving her student days in Dundee, when alcohol, nightclubs and fast food were as much a part of the routine as an ice bath now.

“I had a normal university experience, going to student nights and fresher weeks… drinking, eating kebabs and partying all the time,” she says. “I wasn’t a professional athlete, running was a hobby. I had no real ambitions to go to the Olympics. I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t feel like there was anything to jeopardise. We used to go to this place called Corfu Kebabs. There was another one called Istanbul Grill. We’d get all sorts.”

There was, however, a caveat. No matter how late McColgan might stay out, she would never miss the thrice-weekly training sessions that her mother, Liz, the 1991 world 10,000 metres champion, put on at the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers athletics club.

It was a routine that they had established since Liz took over the training group when Eilish was 13 and it is refreshing to hear how this legend of Scottish athletics approached her coaching role.

“My mum let me decide if I wanted to do it,” McColgan, 33, says. “The sessions were tough – strict – but at the same time we had a lot of fun. One thing she did really well was hold us back. I remember coming back from races, being upset because I’d come, say, sixth and I was only allowed to train one or two days a week. My mum would be, ‘Tough – you are not going to train like an adult until your body is ready’. There are a lot of coaches and athletes who get that wrong.”

McColgan competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games shortly before moving out of home to start a maths and accountancy degree. She was 17, an age that could easily be considered make-or-break for an aspiring athlete. How did her mother react when she decided to embrace the full student experience?

“She could see me spiralling away from the sport, just not living a healthy lifestyle whatsoever, but never once did she say to me: ‘Stop doing that.’ She just said: ‘That’s your decision, if you come back to the sport, then great and I’ll be there to help but, if you choose another path, then don’t worry.’”

Eilish and Liz McColgan
Eilish and her mother, Liz, feature in a new BBC documentary - Stuart Nicol for The Telegraph

That McColgan could maintain even a foundation of training would confuse some of her athletics friends. “They were thinking, ‘Why the hell are you at training when you have just been up until 3am dancing all night!?’ I wasn’t sleeping and recovering how I should – a lot of sore throats, sore heads and colds. But I suppose deep down somewhere I believed that maybe I could compete for Great Britain. I had a voice saying, ‘Keep at it’ even though it wasn’t 100 per cent commitment.”

This mindset would hold for well over two years until a switch was flicked in 2011 as both the end of her degree and the London 2012 Olympics Games came into view. McColgan began wondering if a place in the 3,000m steeplechase might be possible and made an overnight decision to stop going out. Having seen her regularly in the nightclubs and takeaways, it was now the turn of her friends at the University of Dundee to get a shock when they tuned in for the 2012 Olympics.

“They didn’t even know I was trying to become an athlete – it was complete confusion for them when they saw me at an Olympics,” she says, laughing. “They were just wondering where the hell I was.”

With Liz’s largely remote coaching assistance, as well as the devoted help of partner Michael Rimmer, McColgan has since kept incrementally improving over the past decade.

There was a European silver medal at 5,000m in 2018 but, as the distances have increased, so too have her relative performances and the summer of 2022 memorably peaked with 10,000m gold at the Commonwealth Games. Her mum had won the very same title in 1986 and 1990 so as McColgan embraced Liz at the side of the track a wonderful family story turned full circle.

‘I still speak to my mum every day’

She spent seven weeks recently with her mum in Qatar, a trip that would end in tragedy last month when Liz’s husband and Eilish’s step-father John Nuttall died suddenly from a heart attack. Such was the shock at his unexpected loss that Eilish admits that she does not think that it has all sunk in yet. Nuttall’s children from his first marriage – Hannah and Luke – are both aiming to reach Paris in the Olympics and Paralympics respectively. “We would always speak about his kids’ athletics which I really enjoyed – he was so passionate about the sport,” says Eilish.

The McColgans’ mother/daughter/coach/athlete relationships are the focus of an excellent new BBC documentary, Eilish McColgan: Running in the Family, and they have long been plotting a path both to the Olympics next summer in Paris and a tilt at a major marathon.

“I still speak to my mum probably every day,” she says. “We’ve never had a real argument. I don’t feel like I’ve had to sacrifice any of my life in order to get to this level… whereas a lot of other people don’t feel the same way. Yes, I don’t have any global medals, like Olympic or world, but that’s not all my worth.

“I read an interview with Holly Bradshaw, the pole vaulter, and she questioned whether winning her bronze medal at the Olympic Games was worth all the sacrifices. I felt so sad reading that because Holly is an incredible person. She’s a good friend of mine, her worth is way above a bronze medal, and yet she put everything on to just that one idea. It made me really reflect.”

Injury curtailed her 2023 after early-season times over 10,000m and the half-marathon had been respectively first and second in the British all-time list and in the top 10 in the world for the year. “That’s given me hope to know that it’s not that far away – I’m still getting faster,” she says.

She would, of course, love to win an Olympic medal next summer, over 10,000m or the marathon, but there is the sense that she has something more valuable – an ability still to savour the journey. “I don’t overthink it,” she says. “If I win, brilliant, but if I can run a PB, or at least finish knowing I’ve done absolutely everything, there is no point being disheartened. Whether my best is good enough for first, fifth or 10th, I’ll be more than happy. It’s just trying to make small improvements every year and getting closer to the top in the world.”

‘Eilish McColgan: Running in the Family’ is on BBC iPlayer