Interview: Exeter runner Jo Pavey
PUBLISHED: 09:54 06 January 2015 | UPDATED: 09:54 06 January 2015
Matt Austin Images 2013
She’s the Devonian athlete whose doggedness has been rewarded at last with a place in the world spotlight.
Jo Pavey tells DOMINIC BLISS her home grown story
The finish line of an athletics track in Yeovil. It’s not your typical crèche. But when Emily Pavey, daughter of the European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey, was a little baby, that was often where she would hang out.
“Emily was such a happy, settled baby, so we’d lay out a rug next to the finish line and she’d sit there playing with her toys,” Jo remembers. “She was very chilled out.”
On other occasions Emily would sit on her father Gavin’s back in a baby carrier while he jogged trackside, coaching his wife in the finer points of long-distance running.
It was a system that obviously worked. Just 11 months after giving birth to Emily, this Devon supermum, now 41 years old, had won a gold medal at the 2014 European Athletics Championships – the oldest champion in the event’s history. Ten days before that, she took bronze at the Commonwealth Games 5,000m. And Emily is her second child – she has an older brother called Jacob.
“Maybe runners retire too soon,” Jo says when reminded she’s the wrong side of 40 – a decade in which runners rarely win gold medals. “Maybe I’ve just taken a long time to learn how to race. It sounds crazy but I feel mechanically better now. Maybe my body is getting used to the movements.”
Don’t underestimate the hours she sacrifices to training, however. Like all superheroes, even supermums have to work hard on staying at the top of their game. Jo is all too familiar with the athletics track at Exeter Arena (Yeovil was a stop-gap while Exeter was being resurfaced) and the towpath alongside the Grand Western Canal.
She continued training until three weeks before Emily was born (“I imagined she would feel like she was bumping around but it felt very natural”), and she was back on the treadmill just six weeks after; albeit gently at first since the birth was Caesarean section.
A post-natal return to the track was never a guarantee. “With both my pregnancies I didn’t know if it might signify the end of my career,” she says. “I just didn’t know if it would work for us as a family.”
She says the desire to have children was much stronger than the desire to continue running professionally. “Being a mum had to happen for me, whatever. I got to a point in my career where I wasn’t enjoying my running because I desperately wanted to be a mum.
“Now that I have two lovely children and a supportive husband, I feel my running can be just what it wants to be.”
Tough training schedules notwithstanding, Jo is incredibly lucky that she can combine such a physical job with motherhood. And in such winning style. Very few professional female athletes manage this.
Flexibility is crucial, she says. “People say to me ‘You must be so organised to be a mum and a runner’. But I’m not organised. I’m just flexible with my time. Say I was hoping to be at the track at 10am. It might not actually be until midday that I get there. In the evening I might end up running on the treadmill instead of outside. It’s not a big deal.”
Home for the Pavey family is in West Hill, a village between Exeter and Honiton. It’s very much Jo’s old stomping ground. She was born in Honiton, went to school at Feniton Primary and The King’s School in Ottery St Mary, and did her A-levels at Exeter College.
Gavin, who used to be an accomplished runner himself but nowadays coaches his wife, is local, too. The couple met while training at Exeter Harriers.
As a junior, Jo often shone at a national level in middle- and long-distance. Her former coach Tony White recalls how dogged and determined she always was, regularly pushing herself beyond the call of duty. “I know for a fact when I was asking her to do five miles, the little madam was doing seven,” he once said.
At one event, she finished the 800m with seriously bloody feet but refused to pull out of the 1,500m later that day. “She strapped up, toed the line and broke the junior record,” White recalls. “She must have been in agony.”
Jo made her Olympic debut at Sydney, in 2000, finishing 12th in the 5,000m final. There were solid Olympic performances in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, as well, but no medals.
You might call her a late developer – the best result of her entire career was the 10,000m gold medal at the European Championships this summer. 40 and fading? Not quite.
Now Jo is aiming for a fifth Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. “I’ve got to qualify, though,” she says. “I’m not complacent about it. There are very good young girls coming through, and I have to remain injury-free to qualify.”
Another possible ambition is a third child. Jo says it’s not out of the question.
“I’m still hoarding all the baby stuff. Pram, pushchairs, baby baths, all the boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes. If I was sure there wouldn’t be more children then I would gradually be getting rid of it. But I’m not. I’m stashing it all in the loft.” n
Jo Pavey is an ambassador for the Cancer Research UK London Winter Run, a 10k-run in February 2015. More details at londonwinterrun.co.uk