Liz McColgan is an Olympic runner that needs little introduction inside her native Britain. In 2014, Liz moved to Qatar where she coaches her daughter, Eilish—also an elite runner—from afar, We caught up with the mother-daughter pair to learn about their relationship on and off the track.
When not coaching expat kids in Al Sadd or leading adult running groups around the Pearl, Liz works on Eilish’s training plan. Though Eilish is based in Manchester, she dutifully sends her mother details from her daily training regimen, with Liz offering feedback from Doha.
It’s going to be a busy year for the pair—Eilish is bouncing around the globe, from Kenya all the way to Australia, while squeezing in training sessions back home in the UK.
From medallist to mum
By the time Liz McColgan decided to start a family, she was already a world-class runner having won multiple medals in middle-distance events. After a near win at gold at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Liz was ready to ease up on her running and start trying to have a child. But the baby just wasn’t happening, so she went back to the sport despite misgivings.
Yet, she soon started to feel lethargic—and this wasn’t due to her 100-plus mile weekly training regimen. It turned out that Liz was already about four months pregnant. “I was really worried. I’d been really pushing myself,” she says.
Scans proved that the baby was healthy, so she continued to run throughout her pregnancy. She had absolutely no intention to wrap up her career. But in the early 90s, it was unusual for a female athlete to return after pregnancy. No one expected her to make any attempt at a comeback, including her sponsors. Undeterred, she still went to the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo just nine months after giving birth to Eilish.
And it was in Tokyo that she proved her running career was far from over; she won the gold in the 10k in a feat which BBC commentator and 1976 Olympic 10k bronze medallist Brendan Foster called “the greatest performance by a British distance runner.”
Getting back on track
“Until Eilish came along, I was very, very focused on me and my running,” says Liz. “Having her was a good thing. It took away a lot of the pressure I used to put on myself as an athlete.”
Eilish travelled everywhere with her parents, both of whom were elite athletes, but Liz kept her running and family life quite separate. “I never took her to my training sessions or anything, because that was work. [After training] I would give her the attention that I needed to give her.”
This arrangement wasn’t always ideal— Eilish once suffered an ear infection in the days leading up to a big race. “I was up for three nights, walking the floor with her,” Liz recalls. “I got to the point where I was so tired the morning of the race, I thought, I don’t really care about this.”
She came in first anyway.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really aware of it all,” admits Eilish. “For me, [competitive running] is a job, and I thought it was a normal job!” As a teenager, however, she finally realised that her mother’s running career was, in fact, a big deal. By then, both her parents had retired from athletics—and she was only just starting to explore running as a hobby.
“When you get into sport yourself, you realise how difficult it is to become the best in your school… then the best in your country… and the best in the world. You start to think, wow, that’s such an amazing thing!”
Finding her own path
You might think that running is something that, well, simply runs in the family. But it was a deliberate—and somewhat late—choice for Eilish. She certainly looks the part of an elite cross-country athlete: tall, whip-thin with long, strong-looking limbs. But it wasn’t inevitable she’d become a runner like her parents, as Liz had vowed not to become a pushy parent. Running was completely Liz’s choice, and she wanted Eilish to have the chance to make her own choice.
Eilish freely explored a variety of sports, including golf, show jumping and field hockey. It wasn’t until a gym teacher at school stuck her in a cross-country race, solely because of her family name, that she tried out the sport. She had never run before, and she didn’t end up winning, but that hardly mattered—she was hooked.
Eilish started her running career at her mother’s old club, the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers, and at first, Liz simply drove her daughter to and from practice. But she promised to become more involved if her daughter stuck with the club for an entire year. The promise was easily kept, and Liz started coaching at the club.
It was Liz’s first serious coaching experience, and the squad became one of the more competitive running groups in Britain. While Eilish found her footing within the club—and made lifelong friends—Liz was figuring out how to coach kids dealing with awkward growth spurts. She brought those years of coaching experience to Doha, filling in a critical gap among sporty kids here. “As a coach, it was a really good [experience] and I learned loads from that group. [When I was competing] I self-coached myself, but to deal with kids growing up is completely different!”
Eilish had yet to really shine on the track. Finally, at university, in the midst of balancing a part-time job with her studies, she suddenly felt a tug towards the track. “I thought, I’m almost wasting it, not seeing what I could really do. I was just playing at [racing], as my mom always used to say.”
She pushed herself more than ever and made the British team for the 2011 European Team Championships. She competed in the steeplechase, an obstacle course race consisting of barrier and water jumps. Eilish’s father (Liz’s ex-husband) was a steeplechase runner back in the day, and she found she also had a talent for it.
Suddenly, an elite running career was a possibility, especially with the 2012 London Olympics just around the corner. Eilish was having a great year and qualified for the British team. But an injury nearly derailed her career. She slipped on the track and broke her foot, and ended up needing a metal plate and screws to piece it back together.
Recovery wasn’t a guarantee, but Eilish slowly resumed her training and managed to make the Olympics. “It was an amazing experience to be a part of Team London, but I wasn’t in shape at all. But me and my mum knew that because of where I’d come from, the chances of me being there were slim. The fact I’d made it was an achievement in itself.”
A difficult decision
As a mother, Liz always had reservations about the steeplechase. It required hurdling ability, and the potential for injury was obviously very high.
When Eilish broke her foot a second time in 2015, Liz made a final push to steer her towards “flat” running. “It took an awful lot of tears and discussion for her to leave the steeplechase behind,” she admits.
When Eilish made the switch to medium-distance running, she finally had a consistent training regime. She made big strides, with 2017 turning out to be a landmark year. She won her first medal at the European Championships. “I’d always been on the outskirts of medalling, but never quite done it before,” she explains. “To come home with a medal… [that] gave me lots of confidence moving forward.”
The ultimate confidence booster? Beating her mother’s personal best in the 3k, and then going on to break the Scottish record in the 5k by running faster than her mother.
“I’ve not always been the most confident of people,” admits Eilish. “I just enjoyed running. Maybe that’s because of who my mum is and where I’ve come from. It’s nice to start believing in myself a little more!” Liz, however, was always confident that Eilish could perform at an elite level despite her late start. “Endurance running is an older sport,” explains Liz. “It’s not a young kid’s sport. You’ve got to grow into your endurance.”
“[Now she’s got] world-class times. Her ghost in me is far gone, and I’m pleased to see it. Even now, on television back home, they’ll call her Liz, but this girl has got her own identity and is far, far better than her mum ever was!”
The mother-daughter team is looking forward to the 2019 World Championships in Qatar next summer. This year, Eilish is looking ahead to the European Championships in August. As she’s ranked fourth and fifth going into these events, a medal is a big possibility, but Eilish prefers to track her progress by running personal bests. “[That is] always something I’ve aimed for, never aimed for medals, because I wasn’t amazing growing up. If you make improvements, you’re heading in the right direction,” she says. If, however, those personal bests happen to bring a medal, she definitely won’t complain.