When Great Britain’s Eilish McColgan takes to the track in the Olympic 10,000m next year, it will be exactly 30 years since her mother won gold in the same event at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.
The unforgettable stride
It had been 24 years since Eilish McColgan last travelled to Tokyo. The last time she was there she was nine months old, but the city she describes as “so special to me” still holds great sentimental value to her.
The year was 2015 and McColgan was in Tokyo for an anti-doping conference. But as an athlete who was preparing for her second Olympics in Rio a year later, so she decided to take a run in the local park.
“When I was running around the park a man stopped me and asked me if I was a relation of Liz McColgan,” Eilish recalled to Tokyo 2020.
“It was mad! I’d travelled all the way to Tokyo, completely on my own and I didn’t have any family with me. And I just went out for a run one day and somebody had recognised my style because of my mum.”
You see, while McColgan is now a two-time Olympian preparing for her third Games in Tokyo next year, her mother also has quite a history in Japan.
In 1991, exactly 30 years before the Olympic Games will take place next year, Liz McColgan (now McColgan-Nuttall) stormed home in a time of 31:14.31 to win gold in the 10,000m race at the World Championships in Tokyo.
And if her daughter Eilish’s experience in the park is anything to go by, the impact of that run - all long strides, powerful arm movements and high shoulders - can still be felt in the city until this day.
Remarkably, Eilish, who was born in November 1990, was less than a year old at the time of those World Championships.
“Tokyo is a city that’s close to my family’s hearts because that’s where my mum won the World Championship in 1991, and I was only born November 1990, so it was less than a year after I was born and I don’t remember it, but I was out there with my mum.”
Now almost three decades later, she is preparing to return to the site of her mother’s greatest victory to compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in the very same race she witnessed her mum triumph in all that time ago.
Images courtesy of Eilish McColgan.
One of my last races was the Scottish University Championships with about five people in the stands.
And then all of a sudden here I was in London on the start line of an Olympic Games.
Three Olympics, three events
There is a beautiful symmetry about McColgan going back to compete in Tokyo next year. But the fact that she will be competing in the 10,000m is something quite unique in itself.
McColgan raced her first Olympics in London 2012 as a 3,000m steeplechaser. At the time she was an inexperienced runner with little international experience.
“I think one of my last races was the Scottish University Championships with about five people in the stands,” McColgan said, only half-jokingly. “And then all of a sudden here I was in London on the start line of an Olympic Games.”
While McColgan failed to make the final in her first Games, the experience itself is something she describes as “far above anything that I could have ever imagined or planned for”.
Four years later in Rio, McColgan was back, but this time she was racing in another event: the 5,000m.
Injury had brought her love affair with the 3000m steeplechase to a premature end, but her experiences in London meant she wasn’t the “nervous and panicky” athlete she had been four years earlier. She reached the final of the 5,000m in Rio and finished 13th in a time of 15:12.09.
“The fact it was a bit more relaxed actually worked in my favour,” she explained. “I had a good run out, I had a good heat, a good final and I think I qualified for the final and ran close to a PB (personal best).”
Now with Tokyo on the horizon, McColgan is looking to compete in yet another event - the same one her mum competed in 30 years earlier. It’s something that the postponement of the Games has helped her to achieve.
“Being a 3,000m runner, to move up to a 10k was a huge jump,” McColgan explained. “But actually having another year to prepare, looking at it now it’s probably been a bit of a blessing because it’s given me an extra year to get stronger, to build up my endurance - and just mentally to get round the idea as well of running a 10k on the track.”
It’s just a really nice thing to have those in the family,
to keep records like that and pass it down from my mum to me.
A family affair
In October 2019, McColgan broke a record that had stood since 1997.
It was a record that belonged to her mum.
When she ran home in the Great South Run in a time of 51:38, she not only became the second fastest British woman over the distance (the first being Paula Radcliffe), she also broke her mother’s Scottish 10-mile record by nearly 30 seconds.
You might think there is a degree of friendly rivalry between mother and daughter. But the record is in fact the result of years of hard work and collaboration between the two. Because Liz McColgan is her daughter Eilish’s trainer.
“My mum has always said to me that I should be able to break her PBs,” explained Eilish. “I’ve always been probably quite unconfident with that side of things because I know how much of an incredible athlete my mum was and the work she put into it.”
And as McColgan began to beat the times her mum set down decades before, there is a satisfaction that the duo are able to keep those marks in the family.
“I feel that just over the last couple of years it’s been really nice to just start racing at a level that my mum’s always told me I could compete at,” said McColgan.
“It’s nice to feel like she wasn’t just saying that because she was just being my mum, she was being completely honest with me. It’s just a really nice thing to have those in the family, to keep records like that and pass it down from my mum to me. We like to have that as a special thing between us.”
Going the distance
When the Tokyo 2020 Games take place next year, it will represent the closure of a circle for Eilish. But she won’t go out seeking the glory her mum achieved 30 years before. For Eilish, the main satisfaction she draws is from leaving everything on the track.
“As long as I can focus on running a personal best, to me it doesn’t really matter if I come first, second, third or come last. If I’ve given it my absolute all then that’s all I can wish for.”
And McColgan’s ambitions don’t end in Tokyo. Looking further afield to Paris 2024, the Scottish runner is planning something that may well be unique - a fourth event at a fourth Olympics.
This time, the marathon.
It is a distance that her mother and others have been convinced she would excel at, but at one point just the thought of it was devastating for McColgan.
“When I first made the GB team, we did a physiological test - it was Barry Fudge who did it, the head of endurance at the time - and he wrote to my mum to say that I had the perfect physiological aspects for a marathoner."
“And for me at that point it was heartbreaking! I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have to do a marathon at some point in my life!’”
But first up for the multi-distance maestro is Tokyo 2020 and a 10,000 metre race that gives her the opportunity to make her own history in the city.
And who knows? Maybe in 25 years someone might recognise a young member of the McColgan clan running around a Tokyo park and ask them if they’re related to their Olympic hero Eilish.