October 10, 2004

Happiness of a long-distance runner

Barely six months ago Tracey Morris was an unknown fun runner. Today she is an Olympic athlete with ambitions to fulfil.

By Richard Lewis

It is 5.30am in Leeds, a world away from Athens and temperatures of 40C, and Tracey Morris has taken herself back six months. The rain is lashing down, but if she does not go for a run, she will not have another chance this morning.

She braves the elements because otherwise she will be out of her routine. In April, waking early and jogging through the cold was the norm for the 36-year-old optician. She never expected it to be any different. It seemed her chance of making anything like an Olympic Games had passed her by until an extraordinary day at  this year’s Flora London Marathon.

Eighteen months ago, Morris decided to take up running seriously again. She had competed for Wales as a youngster, but did not start to make an impression until she passed the official veteran’s age of 35 — and then never in a marathon. Her improvement over the 10km and half- marathon distances saw her gain an elite entry for London, yet few people expected to be talking about her in the same breath as Paula Radcliffe.

Her only previous marathon had been five years earlier, when she jogged around in 3hr 39min 21sec for charity. This time she was the first British woman in, finishing 10th overall. Her time of 2:33.02 was inside the Olympic qualifying time. When she crossed the line and people told her what she had achieved, she asked about the other British women who she thought were in front of her; during the race and turning towards the finish in The Mall, she had not realised the extent of what she was achieving.

“Even now, I have to pinch myself,” she says. “I never thought I would get anywhere near the Olympic qualifying time, and my biggest fear was hitting the wall in London.”

By lunchtime on that rainy day in April, she found herself in the same Olympic marathon team as Radcliffe and Liz Yelling, and in Athens she ran superbly, finishing 29th in 2hr 41min.

Now, six months on from her London experience, she is ready to seize this second chance in athletics and has set herself an 18-month target, which coincides with the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

“I know if I do two different part-time jobs (one as an optician, one as runner), I can take more time to train,” she says. “Before London, it was only on a Sunday that I ever ran in daylight. I would always be up at five, half-five, to go for a run, and then when I would get home from work at six o’clock, it would be dark again. It is slightly more pleasant now to train in the day.

“I have had real déjà vu this week. I have started running (after Athens) and have been working full-time. I set my alarm for 5.30. I could hear the rain bashing down and I thought, ‘Here we go again’. Some days there is the positive. side of going out in the dark. Unless it is pouring down with rain, you do not actually realise until you go outside what the weather is like. I am half-asleep and halfway down the road before I realise what the weather is like.

“I do not get lots of money out of running and I am not looking at that side of it. I have been given an opportunity where there are people who will help me. It is something I have never had before, and I would be mad to miss it. The support I have had from people within the sport has been fantastic.”

Along with that backing of her employers at Dollond & Aitchison, who gave her as much time as she needed to prepare for an Olympics in which her self-belief was constantly challenged.

She had not run for six weeks leading into the Games because of an injury. At one time she feared it might force her to miss out. But she says: “On the start line I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the Olympics’. I was dreading coming last.”

When she finished, she had no idea that Radcliffe had dropped out. Although her own Olympic experience was not quite as dramatic, it had its moments. “It was the hottest day of the year in Athens — the temperature on the ground was 49C. I got to my first drink station and someone had taken my drink.

“I was panicking that that person would take them all. I don’t know why. They must have missed their table and gone for mine. I think the girl actually dropped out at 10km. Liz (Yelling) and I came into the stadium at the same time. Sue Barker and Brendan Foster called us over. We were waiting to hear the good news, obviously about Paula, but they said, ‘Well, actually, this is what has happened’ Both of us were devastated for her. I did not see her for quite a while.”

Morris’s flirtation with celebrity goes on. Today, along with Colin Jackson, the 110m hurdles and 60m indoor hurdles world record-holder, she is the special guest at the Anglesey Marathon. She originates from there and is staying with her mother, who lives two miles from where the race ends.

“My life has changed,” she says. “But I have not changed. I still can’t understand why people want my autograph.”