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First lady of Scottish athletics never runs from a challenge

LIZ McCOLGAN was always a trailblazer.

Liz McColgan after defending her 10,000m title in Auckland in 1990. Picture: Bob Martin/Allsport
Liz McColgan after defending her 10,000m title in Auckland in 1990. Picture: Bob Martin/Allsport

With due deference to her arch-rival Yvonne Murray, who had McColgan's measure when they met on the track, the Dundee woman can perhaps lay the stronger claim to being the first lady of Scottish athletics. Her ground-breaking endeavours include having won the inaugural Commonwealth Games 10,000 metres gold in 1986; being the only British woman to win an Olympic medal at the distance or to have won th e world title; first to hold the world 10k record on the road (and six in all); first Scottish woman to set a world indoor record (5000m); first to win an NCAA track title (mile), first to win a world cross-country medal; being the inaugural UK women's 10k champion; and being the first female president of the sport in Scotland.

Now she has done it again: as inaugural head coach for women in a Muslim country which, prior to London 2012, had never selected a female for the Olympics.

Qatar, until recently, barred women from running and even Western women were abused there for watching men do so.

She is now heading a female revolution after something of a revolution in her own household: an unpleasantly public split with her husband, the former Northern Ireland international steeplechaser Peter. After a few traumatic years, she is now Liz Nuttall, wife of the former Commonwealth 5000m bronze medallist John, who recently quit as head UK endurance coach to take a similar post at the Aspire Academy in the Gulf. "I'm the lead coach for women, but the position does not really start until after Ramadan," she says.

"The first thing was just to chill out, because I have had such a hellish time these last four years. I have been using the first couple of months to get my energy back. I won't start until about September. That's with the federation."

She also is an ambassdor with phone-provider Ooredoo, who organise a running festival: marathon, half-marathon and 10k. "I will be giving a lot of help to the race director, on how to get the community involved and build it into a premier event."

And she is coaching her daughter, long-distance. Recently that has been fraught. Eilish suffered from a virus which compromised winter training, and then, far more worryingly, a heart issue. Despite this, Eilish won the UK steeplechase title 10 days ago, but has yet to clock the European Championship standard ahead of this weekend's Sainsbury's Glasgow Grand Prix. "I did it last year, but Hampden this weekend is my last chance. You don't want to be watching a championship at home on TV," says Eilish.

Mum has been through the wringer both as mother and coach, and will return to help her daughter in Glasgow.

"It has been difficult for Eilish," she says. "She's had problems because of the split, trying to keep both parents happy and keep her running going. She has done really well, but it's taken a toll with health problems. She was in Qatar when her heart went out of beat for 36 hours. She was rushed to hospital and then back to London. It's not been great.

"It's easy to coach her, because Eilish more or less does everything you say, and I get really good feedback. That's not a problem. The problem is her health, and I have to balance that as a coach and a mother. This last couple of months I have been more worried about her as a mother than pushing her as a coach.

"She is eager to get on and do stuff. Is she alright? Is her health alright? I worry whether I'm doing the right thing. It's been a difficult period. She made the decision to get stuck into training and get the problem attended to after the season. She's done really well to turn it round but because of her problems, it's catch-up.

"Training has come on well the last four or five weeks, but it's not been ideal for Commonwealth year. Still, she is a tough cookie and is riding it as best she can."

Mother had a well-earned reputation as a tough cookie during her career, and old habits die hard. Fifty in May, she is still training. "It's a bit different from back home, but I'm enjoying it and have adjusted to it. I run outside, I'm not really one for treadmills. I like to get out and go at my own pace. Some days I feel good, and run fast, and some days I run slow. I prefer to be outside, so I endure it. The hottest I have run in is 110. My eyeballs were actually burning, it was that hot.There are still women going around wearing the full Arab dress, but more and more you see women out exercising. They won't go about with midriffs showing, and I wouldn't go out in a crop top, or little shorts. I'm respectful of the different culture. I have knee-length tights and a T-shirt. It's kind of a meeting of both cultures."

When I first visited Doha, to report the inaugural grand prix there in 1997, only men competed. Western airline cabin crew who wore jeans and long-sleeved blouses, and head scarves, were spat upon and were the target of stones when they spectated.

"There is a massive change," Liz insists. "I think the next 10 years will see even more. It's still not right, still not there yet, but it is definitely evolving. If they are serious about Olympic and World championships, they have the facilities, but they have to open the doors to women.

"They will not get a major championship if there are restrictions on equality.

"I notice a massive difference. I go down the park, and there are so many women out there in track suits, jogging. There are good groups of women, hurdlers, sprinters, 13-to-20-year-olds. I've not seen anybody particularly good, but a lot of women are participating. It's my job to increase that."

Having shared a flat with a Muslim athlete at Loughborough, Eilish says she had been well briefed, but she was surprised by the close scrutiny when she trained on a track from which all women used to be excluded. "Within three reps, they were standing clapping her," says Liz. "They could see this girl could really run, was a proper athlete. When she flew home, masses of people were trying to add her on Facebook."

This is light years removed from Liz's rivalry with her compatriot Murray, another world-class athlete from a council estate. "The media were in overdrive about our rivalry," says Liz, "but off track we were good mates. Yvonne was at my wedding. What was good was that we were from very similar backgrounds. I possibly had less than Yvonne growing up, but we ran against each other from the age of 12. For the two of us to come out of that same group and reach the level we did was amazing. To do it with a team mate and compatriot was really good."

McColgan was still winning Scottish titles at 40, and even won the London Marathon with arthritis in a foot. "As I went more into the marathon it got worse, and harder to manage the pain. I was advised to have surgery, and was told I'd be back in six weeks, but that was the end of me - 15 operations later I'd nearly lost two toes. My retirement was enforced. I was not mentally ready. That's my biggest regret.

"Yeah, I think I could have gone faster, done another couple of marathons, and won them. But I think it's probably good to think you never reached your optimum.

"Running gave me the opportunity. Otherwise there would have been no way out of the jute mill. Running changed the person I was completely: lifestyle, mindset. Working in the factory I was a nobody. I'd no confidence whatsoever. I wasn't outgoing. I was very, very shy. Running turned my world upside down.

"Even when I look back on the personal problems, all the heartache does not outweigh the happy moments I got from running. I have a lot to look back on and be proud of, without regret."

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