When you watch Mhairi Hendry run, you see a confident athlete who is always up for a battle.
She often leads from the front of the 800 metres, a strategy that has won the Scottish champion many domestic track and field honours over the last few years. But the 22-year-old also works for the NHS as an orthotist, a clinician that prescribes things like braces or splints to support the body. This could be to reduce pain or improve mobility because of defect or injury.
To complete her degree and qualify, she had to try and finish her dissertation on a warm weather training camp in Tenerife.
There is one important thing to clarify. Mhairi is pronounced ‘Vaa-ree’ with a v, but it is not straightforward. “It’s more difficult because you’ve got my name and Mhairi Patience (another Scottish athlete) whose name is pronounced ‘Maa-ree’ with an m.”
“I am going to say mine is right and hers is wrong! Mine is the traditional gaelic way of saying it. I have heard an array of different ways of pronouncing my name, ‘Ma-hairy’, ‘Mahira’, especially abroad they are like ‘what is that?’ The mh in Niamh is a v, so it is like that.”
Fortunately, more fans and broadcasters are starting to get it right and take notice of the young Scot, who admits she is “too polite to correct people,” including one peer she had known for four years.
A huge breakthrough came early in 2018 when she made her global debut at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. It followed second place at the national trials with a time of 2:01.30, two seconds faster than her best from the previous year.
Mhairi puts this development down to being in a settled environment where she loves training, but she is aware of how much of a difference it can make to be among faster runners.
“It’s hard for me to get high quality races because I’m that in-between where I’m not quite good enough for the top meets, but the smaller meets don’t quite have the standard, so it’s often a race against the clock.”
A first ever 2:02 run after clinging to the back of Laura Muir at January’s Scottish Indoors proved the point. That left Mhairi “quietly confident” when stepping up to the British Indoors.
But taking the silver medal was unexpected new territory. “I was just shocked, so ecstatic and didn’t expect to take so much time off. I didn’t put pressure on myself and maybe the other girls had added pressures.”
What followed typified Mhairi’s dedication to balancing her studies with being an athlete. “The next day I was straight back in the library finishing off my dissertation. Emotionally, it was like a really big high and then crash because I’d spent that weekend off the books.”
2 and a half years ago someone told me I’d never graduate from University 🎓 today I got my results in and I’m graduating with a Bsc Hons degree in Prosthetics and Orthotics! Never let someone put you down 💪🏼— Mhairi Hendry (@mhairi_hendry) May 30, 2018
She did not expect the frenzy of attention as those around her tried to grasp what qualifying for the World Indoors meant. “I remember telling my tutor in a lecture theatre and she said ‘what does that mean for your dissertation?’ My class mates burst out laughing like ‘that’s brought you back to reality!’ ”
Reflecting on the experience, Mhairi says getting her first Great Britain vest in a major international tournament was a “bonus”, because she anticipated 2018 would be a “dud year”.
“It was my final year of uni. I expected a lot of work. I continued training without aiming for anything as I knew I’d be stressed.”
Finishing third in her World Indoor heat – one and a half tenths behind a Jamaican athlete – meant she was eliminated. Yet this first taste has given her a hunger for more. Close competition is what Mhairi really thrives upon.
“I raced Jess Judd at the British Universities’ (BUCS, in 2017) and it came down to the line. If I’d only just pushed a little further forward! But it makes you strive for more. I enjoy training – not so much going out on the runs myself – it’s the races I get the most from because I’m competitive.”
A matter of weeks after that BUCS silver, she was up against Revee Walcott-Nolan in the national under 23 final. Another thrilling battle in the home straight saw her crowned champion.
“In the same stadium in Bedford I was playing (BUCS) back in my head thinking ‘don’t let it happen again!’ But it was different because I was closing in on Judd and Revee was coming up on me. Luckily the line came. I think if it was a few metres more, she could have beaten me.”
The drive back from Bedford is an all-too-familiar one, and brings to mind the added challenge of travelling regularly from Scotland to compete in England. “My dad drives and it’s around five hours. I cannot imagine how many times he has been down that road! But I have been doing it since such a young age and I know how to recover.”
The journey provides an opportunity to reflect and Mhairi admits she “couldn’t shut up” after her British Indoor success in Birmingham. By contrast, she admits “I’m not very good when I haven’t done well! I’m normally just silent and my parents always ask me questions and I say ‘can you let me wallow in peace?’ “
This summer’s under-23 final was particularly challenging as the Glasgow athlete was hoping to defend her title. “Getting second was tough for me and afterwards I was in blood doping control and had to wait two hours. I know it had to be done and I’m all for promoting clean sport, but I was just like ‘I want to be home…I didn’t win…and I’ve got a long journey!”
Thankfully there is a chance to run internationally in her home city at the 2019 European Indoor Championships. The former Strathclyde student is excited about building on what she’s achieved. “It’d be amazing to compete in front of that home crowd.”
“Even where I was younger, my best times were indoors. I think it’s because it’s usually a faster race. Perhaps it can’t be as tactical as there’s less space.
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BALANCE 🏃🏽♀️👩🏽⚕️ • So today was my first day at work! I graduated from University on the 25th June. I have had a few big decisions to make: What do I do next with my life? Do I focus on athletics full time? What do I want to do with my degree? Being a full time athlete does sound great, however I’ve learned it’s not something that would work for me. At least not at the moment. I know that I need to keep my mind busy and not solely focused on running. Especially when things aren’t going as well as expected like this outdoor season! I am now working as an orthotist, which is what I studied for and I’m super excited about it! 💃 I’m hoping to juggle both Athletics and adulting, I managed to balance Athletics with university, even though it was at times extremely difficult. It is important to find the right path for yourself, and this is the one I have chosen to take. I want to ensure I can have a successful career in both athletics and orthotics and I’m excited to see what the future holds for me. BRING ON THIS NEXT CHAPTER 💪 #adulting #athletics #balance #growingup
“Then there are the worlds (IAAF World Championships in Doha) late in the year. I need to think about how to structure training to do well early in the season and then hopefully peak around the trials.”
Whatever happens now will be part of an exciting “next chapter“. Having started her job in orthotics in July, the runner who coped well with studying, now has her work life to juggle.
“So far it’s going ok, I work for the NHS four days a week from 8.30am until 4.30pm. In season, it could go down to three days a week. If I wanted to go training on a camp, I could get it off if I give enough notice as our clinics are planned in advance.”
It may sound busy, but she insists there is a need to keep your “mind busy and not solely focused on running”. Looking ahead, Mhairi is aware of the challenge posed by multi-tasking, especially as the standard of British female middle-distance running is high.
“Obviously there are a lot of other girls I’m competing with. For 800 and 1500, you look at the (qualifying) standard and then you see how many athletes are in the same position. You can only do as much as you’re able to. But I like competition and it’s what I strive towards.”
Hendry, who has four senior Scottish indoor and outdoor titles, is held in high regard in her homeland. She was recently awarded lifetime membership of her Victoria Park City of Glasgow club, and was one of the main athletes to launch a new Scotland kit earlier this year.
Her commitment to pursuits outside of sport aren’t unlike golden girl and fellow Scot Laura Muir, who is a qualified vet. Naturally, her family are quite proud. “Both my parents were into sport, my grandpa was a half miler back in the day. He was perhaps my biggest fan before he passed away, but I think they’re all really proud.”
If Mhairi continues down the same path, those family members, classmates and colleagues may yet see her on a bigger stage in a Great Britain or a Scotland vest.