26 Aug

Steeled For Action

Gemma SteelShe might be an internationally-acclaimed runner, but European Cross Country Champion Gemma Steel is anything but the archetypal elite athlete. Unlike nearly every other top runner, she is as reluctant to race on the track as even the most standard of joggers. 

Gemma had no junior athletics career to speak of and came to the sport aged 19 in 2004 just purely for the fun of it. She joined local club Hermitage Harriers in Leicestershire and took part in 10k runs and club cross country races. The elite domain of track running was far from her mind. 

“I just ran in league races and ran in any race I could find up and down the country,” she recalls. “Anything from Christmas Pudding Runs to Turkey Trots and league races - anything that was going. 

“At the time my coach didn’t really tell me anything about Europeans or any big event, it was just a case of making sure my shoe laces were tied and going and running.” 

In her early attempts at 10k she would clock around 40 minutes. Not elite standard, but enough to demonstrate she had some talent. But then she began to improve and improve rapidly, taking chunks off her times and then winning events. “I then started taking it a bit more seriously, got a new coach and everything went from strength to strength.” 

By 2010 and now a member of Loughborough club Charnwood AAC, she broke into the British team and finished 27th at the European Cross Country. 
 
12 months later she was the bronze medallist. She then won silver in 2013 and completed the set in December in Samokov, Bulgaria. She was second in this year’s Great North Run in 68:31, a half marathon time that places her behind only Paula Radcliffe and Liz McColgan in the UK’s all-time lists.

“I’d like to try and to replicate things I have seen in past runners like Paula Radcliffe and Liz McColgan and try and better the times they have run. I’d like to win medals at major championships. The World Half Marathon is one I could possibly get a medal at in the future,” she says.

Despite her success, she sticks close to her roots of road and cross country running. “It’s all I have ever known,” she says. “I have never done a proper track season.  I can’t be something I am not.  I enjoy the track, but I have never done it as a youngster.  It’s a bit confined. I prefer the road where I can run free. 
 
“I have said to my coach (former Commonwealth 5000m champion Rob Denmark) ‘Do you think I should have a go at 5000m?’ He says there is no point really because you are improving doing what you are doing.”

A more likely venture might be the marathon for the 29-year-old. She was originally mooted for the last year’s (2014) London Marathon, but injury put paid to it. Having missed out on competing for the first half of 2014, she has re-evaluated and has looked to another European champion for guidance.  
 
“Jo Pavey has really inspired me,” says Steel. “I thought if she can do it, then I can do it one day.  There’s no rush for me and there is hope yet.  She advised to take my time and not rush into marathons too soon if you want a long career. 

“Because I have started later, I think I can carry on like Jo has.  There’s a lot left in me yet and Jo’s really set the standard. I think age is just a number. I don’t feel my age, I still feel like a junior.  I’ve still got the enthusiasm there. I’m 30 next year, but I still feel like I am 20.”

Her unconventional approach to the sport carries through to her personal life too.  For example, her diet relies heavily on home-grown vegetables from the family allotment.  They also keep chickens, but only for their eggs. “I don’t eat my pets,” says Steel.  
 
With twin sister Louise, she also co-writes and illustrates children’s books. “We sell quite a few over Christmas, but my main focus is the running. The books are more a hobby,” she says. 

Although close, the twins’ interests have diverged in recent years with Louise choosing a more artistic than sporting route.  “My sister sings a lot. I went to watch her in a pantomime the other week. She was playing Cinderella and I was getting ready to run cross country, so it was a bit of a contrast.”

Gemma is unlikely to be joining her sister in panto anytime soon. But she too could have a few more years on the centre stage and for this runner at least, it will be the opposition who will be behind her.