My friends thought I was crazy
Published on 14 July 2023
She may be the golden girl of British athletics, but Eilish McColgan has a secret.
Long before breaking records and collecting medals became a regular occurrence, it turns out that the Commonwealth Games 10,000 metres gold medallist may not have adopted the sort of lifestyle you would expect of a champion long-distance runner.
“I did all the typical student things,” she said.
“Partying, drinking, eating kebabs at 3am. But I still got up for training the next morning.
“My friends all thought I was crazy, but I had some sort of internal drive that was telling me to keep going and to keep training. It was almost as if I knew that further down the line, when I decided to grow up and mature a little, that there was an opportunity waiting for me.”
Born in Dundee, Eilish began her degree in Mathematics and Accountancy in 2008. Already touted as a star of the future at that time, enjoying a student lifestyle while training to compete with the world’s best would not normally be considered compatible. However, with three Olympic Games behind her, as well as claiming Commonwealth gold in Birmingham last year, it is clear that the odd indulgence has never held her back. “I only really took my athletics a bit more professionally towards the end of my degree,” she recalled.
“I often wonder if it's something I regret – not taking my athletics more seriously a little sooner. I feel like I'm only just reaching my peak, and perhaps have only a few years left in top form, but I really enjoyed my time at university.
“I enjoyed a relatively normal student life and perhaps that's why I have had longevity within my athletics, because I don't feel I missed out. I have been very lucky to almost experience both sides.”
Regardless of her own doubts, Eilish’s talent clearly caught the eye of others. Indeed, it was her abilities on the track that would bring a premature end to her academic career when she was selected to represent Team GB for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Now 32, and despite a global profile, Eilish maintains close links to Dundee and her alma mater. She remains a member of Dundee Hawkhill Harriers running club, based at the city’s Caird Park, though in her student days could often be found running along Riverside and Perth Road. The University’s Institute of Sport and Exercise (ISE) facilities also helped keep her competition fit.
Today, she travels the globe for competitions and to participate in gruelling training camps. But away from the packed stadiums, press commitments and globe-trotting required of a world-class athlete, the connection between Eilish and her home city remains strong.
That reciprocal affection was displayed at Winter Graduation last year when Eilish returned to the University to receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws. While used to bringing stadium spectators to their feet, the ovation that day demonstrated the immense respect felt for the athlete and ended a marathon wait for the runner, who finally got to cross the Caird Hall stage.
“It was really special coming back to Dundee again and an honour to be alongside the graduating students. It will always be a really special place for me and I was a little overwhelmed with how kind everyone was. It’s something I'll remember for a very long time.”
“You only get one shot at being a professional athlete and I knew I could always come back and finish my studies later. I thought I'd be back within a year or two, but it's now been over a decade.”
While 2022 was a special year, 2023 is also shaping up as one to remember. Having smashed the British 10,000 metres record in March, Eilish recorded further success in April by winning the Berlin Half Marathon. Sadly, injury put paid to her taking part in her debut London Marathon in late April, an event her mother Liz won in 1996.
While destiny may have prevented her from completing her Honours degree, it is important to note that her studies have played a crucial role in her professional career. As well as starting her own coaching business, she has co-founded a not-for-profit – Giving Back to Track – that helps Scottish children fulfil their athletic potential.
“Being able to balance a degree and training during my university years has allowed me to time manage my other projects much more successfully,” she explained.
“Giving Back to Track is something that I’m really passionate about. We have five scholarships for young women across Scotland and another five travel grants. All of the British Championships are held in England so finances are a huge barrier for a lot of youngsters to attend – despite them being incredibly talented. So we just want to give them the chance to shine.
“We have also established an after- school club and hope to extend this to more schools in Dundee. My goal is to ensure that no child in Dundee is priced out of athletics. I know first-hand just how much sport can change lives.”
Away from the track, Eilish has hit yet another landmark this year after lending her support to a University initiative.
The Scottish Health Research Register (SHARE) is a unique project which aims to make it easier for researchers to identify suitable recruits to carry out ground-breaking medical research. Utilising blood left over from routine testing, SHARE aims to transform future healthcare delivery by improving treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and asthma.
Eilish became the 300,000th volunteer to join the programme, which has invited members of the public to get involved via invitations received through hospital appointments, being approached in doctors’ surgeries, and through social media.
It takes just a few moments to sign up to SHARE, with researchers saying that the benefits could be felt for generations to come.
“As an athlete, I know the difference that seconds can make,” said Eilish.
“It is incredible to think that in less than 60 seconds a person can sign up to SHARE and help doctors to discover new treatments for conditions like diabetes, cancer and dementia.
“It takes just a few seconds to register, requires minimal commitment, and could help transform outcomes for some of our most challenging health conditions.”