Mhairi MacLennan on finding her “calling” in life

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The British International has found the best of both worlds after becoming a teacher at University. (C)Bobby Gavin

In a loud, busy lecture theatre at the end of a Spanish lesson at Edinburgh University, lecturer Mhairi MacLennan rushes out of the room with her hands stacked full of paper as she prepares to sit down for a chat about the many big changes that have happened over the past year.

Throughout 2019, the 24-year-old runner/teacher has overcome multiple illnesses and injuries to represent Great Britain at the World Cross Country Championships and the European 10,000m Cup, while also running a plethora of PBs.

And there has also been no signs of slowing down off the track either, with the Falkirk born athlete finding what she describes as her “calling”, after taking on a role at Edinburgh University lecturing in Spanish during her Masters Degree while also tutoring Year Five Maths and English during the evening.

It’s not the simplest of combination, constantly switching between lectures and long distance running, but for the Northern Cross Country champion, the differences between the two are in fact what make it all so worthwhile.

“It’s full on but I love it,” says MacLennan, “it’s definitely my calling and it’s such a nice break from running because it’s totally different. Having this job also means that if I’m injured then I still have something else that I can focus on.

“It’s important that running doesn’t become all-consuming, because I like to give my all to everything and if I put all my eggs in one basket then I find that I hold on too tightly onto those eggs and they start to crack.

“But it’s a great balance, I don’t actually start teaching until 12 noon either so it means I can train in the morning and then teach in the afternoon. There’s a group I run with on a Saturday and I really love that but during the week I train alone because no-one want to get up and run at 7am on a Monday!”

While balancing the two roles together has certainly worked well for MacLennan so far, it was also an arrangement that came almost out of the blue, when the opportunity arose after she had completed her undergraduate scheme in Edinburgh.

“I kind of fell into it I guess,” says MacLennan, “my mum and my granny are both teachers but I never really want to be one. Then I started doing my masters and was asked if I wanted to teach some classes whilst I was doing it, so I said yes and in the end it was actually my favourite part of the masters.

“It was crazy because I was barely out of my undergraduate and had hardly any experience. I did my degree here and had only just finished doing what the students I teach now are doing and now suddenly I was teaching them.

“So it felt really surreal and I often got mistaken for a student myself, I shared loads of stories with the other PHD students about it because we were so young the students just had no idea that we were the teachers and I think they have this perception that it’s going to be old people teaching them and that’s not the case at all.”

Despite the balance and stability that teaching currently gives her with athletics, MacLennan certainly didn’t have the easiest of rides throughout last season.

Alongside more regular issues, MacLennan’s season saw her suffer from niggles in both the cross country and track season, causing a cloud of uncertainty to linger over her for most of the season.

“I didn’t actually know whether to go for the worlds in March or not,” says MacLennan, “because I suffer from chest infections quite a lot and I’ve also had Bronchitis four times so far this year, which I also got just after I did BUCS cross country in February.

“But I didn’t actually decide to do the trials for the worlds until the actual week of the race. It was on the Tuesday after a session and I’d been training on my own so I had no real indication of how fit I was or anything, but I just thought I’ll regret it if I don’t go for it.

“So it was one of those times where it all went to plan and it paid off. I went into the race with nothing to lose and no fear at all so I just kind of threw myself at it and thought ‘well if I blow up I blow up’ so it paid off and I was very happy with that.”

A third place at the Inter Counties in Loughborough was enough to send MacLennan to her first ever world championships, in a race that neither she or any of the British team will ever forget.

One of the toughest ever world championship courses at Aarhus in Denmark saw the Scot having to dig deep as she and the team went head to head with some of the best runners across the globe.

Growing up in Scotland had certainly hardened MacLennan to some tough courses, but this one was a different matter altogether.

“It was just such a strange experience,” says MacLennan “the course was so tough that you almost didn’t even feel like you were racing, you were just sort of getting through it. It felt like you were grinding each hill and there was no letup it was just relentless.

“So during the race I had no idea where I was because there was no time to overthink the race because you were in so much pain all the time from the course, so I just remember having my head down and trying to pick people off as best I could.”

MacLennan was in for quite a surprise however when she finally crossed the line. With all their efforts combined, the women’s team produced an overall finishing position of fourth, the highest Europeans at the event and the best performance by a British senior team for 15 years.

“We were ecstatic,” says MacLennan, “we knew we might be high up because we all finished so close together, but we just had no idea we were going to be fourth because I think going into it we weren’t sure whether we would even take a team and it’s so hard when you’re competing against Kenya and Ethiopia because their physical prowess is just astounding and you can’t even begin to compare yourself to them.”

 

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It was a great result for MacLennan considering the conditions the uncertainty that had surrounded her run at the trials.

Prior to the world championships in March, MacLennan’s season had been a mixed bag, with her return for a niggle after the European trials featuring positives such as second Northern title and a win at Great Stirling cross, but also saw her surrender Scottish title to Steph Twell despite battling through illness to race on the day in Falkirk.

“I definitely shouldn’t have raced (at the nationals),” says MacLennan, “but I’m so stubborn and I say that I’ll learn from my mistakes but I just can’t resist a race and sometimes I make the right decision and sometimes I don’t.”

It was this approach of racing regardless of the conditions that in the end earned MacLennan the race of a lifetime at the world championships, with the lack of pressure and expectation working to her advantage at the trials.

“I can be quite bad for (overthinking races),” says MacLennan, “it’s definitely something I’m trying to work on but the trials was just a race where I didn’t event feel quite nervous beforehand, I’d done everything I could have done going into it and even though I didn’t even know what shape I was in I think the unknown almost relaxed me.

“When you know that you’re really fit you put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform and sometimes it backfires and that’s certainly been the case for me in the past.”

It is these experiences of feeling pressure, expectations and injuries that have moulded MacLennan into a more well-rounded athlete, with her approach at the world championships being very different from how she managed her British cross country debut at the European Championships in 2017.

“You always remember your first British vest.” says MacLennan “When I went to Samorin in 2017 it was amazing but I definitely felt overwhelmed and quite out of my depth and I questioned a few times whether I really belonged there.

“At worlds however that just wasn’t the case I definitely felt more comfortable and a bit more accustomed to competing internationally and representing my country, so it was all about just focussing on the task ahead and not being blown away by the momentous occasion that is an international competition like that.”

And the mental strength was also needed for MacLennan during her switch to the track season, which also provided no letup from of the injuries.

“I found it difficult this summer,” says MacLennan “because I had an injury that was misdiagnosed three times and eventually found out that I had inflammation in my Insertional Achilles tendon, so I just had to try and manage that and focus on other things until I was able to perform again.

“It didn’t really ruin my track season because I still PB’d in my favourite distances, but it was still frustrating trying to deal and cope with it.”

Despite the season being cut short, signs were definitely encouraging for the British international.

Now with the European trials once again on the horizon, the Euro 2017 competitor will have all her focus on grabbing another British vest to give the continental competition a second go.

Mhairi MacLennan at the 2019 European 10,000m Cup. Photo: Lissgphotography

But while it is a big target for her this season, cross country will by no means be the be-all and end all for the Edinburgh University lecturer, as she looks to delve into other areas of athletics throughout the season.

“This season’s just another step up,” says MacLennan “so I’m specifically not doing some races that I did last year so that I can explore other avenues and test myself over other competitions like the Barcelona Half Marathon. That’s going to be new territory for me so I’m very excited about that but at the same time I’m very sad that I’m going to be lessening my focus on cross country this time, because that’s my first love. I’ll still be focussing on qualifying for Europeans but after that I’ll be looking elsewhere.

“I think it’s always the same when you approach a new season, you can’t compare it to the last because every day and every week in every season you’re a different athlete to last year so it’s pointless to compare yourself to what you’ve done before.”

Old habits will still ring true in some areas however, with MacLennan making a return to one particular cross country race in February that hits very close to home.

“I would love to try and take my Scottish title back this season.” says MacLennan “I love Falkirk it’s a very important race to me and it’s where I first entered the competitive cross country season as a 12-year-old.

“I love watching the younger kids race there as well, my club Inverness are doing really well on the Scottish scene at the moment and Ross Cairns is up there doing a really great job coaching the juniors. They’re all so enthusiastic and we actually had two individual medals and some team medals at the Scottish Champs last year so hopefully they’ll keep doing the same.

“I go back there a couple of times a year and some of the athletes always muck in with my reps and then I’ll do some warm-up sessions with them before or afterwards and normally give a little motivational talk or Q&A and just try to spend some time with them.

“It’s really important because it’s quite difficult living so far up north and travelling to races, a lot of kids lose their love for the sport as they hit their teens so it’s important for me to make sure that doesn’t happen. Once I hit my teens I didn’t have a team to train with anymore and was the sole representative at competitions, I’ve got a lot of friends who chose to leave the sport for many reasons as well.

“At the moment there does seem to be a lot of talent around and if I can play a part in helping to keep them in the sport then I’ll do all I can.”

Despite the difficulties and the drop-out rate that teenagers often face competing for Northern clubs like Inverness, the club’s own British international and former Scottish champion is living proof that youngsters at the club can still achieve great things.

The future is never certain for anyone in athletics and the dedication required is huge. But with her more measured, balanced approach, and the desire to expand her avenues as a runner and a student at University, there may be a few more new surprises in store for MacLennan both on and off the track.

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First published on: 7 January, 2020 1:06 pm

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