from Times Online


Optician Morris coping with life in the public eye

By David Powell, Athletics Correspondent - 22 May 2004

FIVE weeks ago, Tracey Morris could push her trolley unnoticed at supermarkets, drive up to roundabouts without other motorists winding down their windows to shout “good luck in Athens”, and, if anybody asked, quote a best marathon time of 3hr 39min. What she did not do was go to parties with Lord Coe and Sir Roger Bannister and press conferences with Paul Tergat, the fastest marathon runner the world has known.

Now back home in the north after a day in the company of Coe and Bannister at a 2012 London Olympic bid gathering on Tuesday, Morris will this weekend have her first race since her extraordinary performance in the Flora London Marathon on April 18. That was the day that the optician became a spectacle, improving by more than an hour to run into the Great Britain Olympic team.

Tomorrow, Morris lines up in the Bupa Great Manchester Run, Britain’s biggest 10km race with 16,000 runners. Never mind that Margaret Okayo, Berhane Adere and Sonia O’Sullivan, three of the world’s leading distance runners, will be appearing, Morris was the woman chosen to share the pre-race press conference with Tergat yesterday.

It was not so much what Morris said as what she heard that stood out. “I went around the course in Athens two days ago — it’s a killer,” Tergat said. Morris has enough to cope with as the new team-mate of Paula Radcliffe and a former fun-runner on a storybook journey, but to hear Tergat give the Athens course an X certificate only adds to the challenge facing her.

Morris would rather not know. “Heat . . . hills . . . biggest competition ever . . . I have only London on a wet day in April to compare it to,” she said. It came as a surprise to hear that, more than a month after London and with her 12-week build-up to Athens about to commence, she has no definite plans for warm-weather training.

Although the celebrity aspect of her life has moved forward at pace — she has an agent, a newspaper tie-up and is receiving appearance money for the first time tomorrow — the nuts and bolts of her Olympic preparations are dragging behind. Her training schedule, she said, was still being worked on, although she has decided not to experiment with altitude training. Having recorded 2:33.52 in London, a slight increase in her mileage, more hill work and warm-weather training is the combination she should be seeking.

She has taken the wise precaution of not switching from full-time optician to full-time athlete. “You need something else in your life,” Morris said, recognising the potential danger of overtraining. “Anyway, I love my job.”

Not that she is the invisible optician any more. “One woman came in and said that, while she was waiting, she kept thinking: ‘Who do you look like?’ She asked me if I had watched the London Marathon. ‘You look just like that British girl.’ I smiled and she said: ‘Why are you smiling? Does everybody say that?’ ” Still Morris kept her guessing. “I laughed again and she said: ‘I suppose everybody has said that to you over the last month.’ At that point I admitted I was that girl. She was so embarrassed.”

What’s the point of being a celebrity if you can’t have fun with it? Others though, such as Liz Yelling, the other member of Britain’s three-woman marathon team for Athens, are not amused. Yelling said that she felt that the way the media had presented Morris’s rise from fun-runner to Olympian belittled the work Yelling had done to make the team. Yelling is among Morris’s opponents tomorrow.

Understandably, Morris is nervous that her public may expect too much. Ten kilometres is not her distance. How does she expect to fare against Okayo, Adere and O’Sullivan? “I don’t,” she said. Fair enough.