Gemma Steel in action in the senior women's race (© Getty Images)
Less than a month after winning her first continental title, European cross-country champion Gemma Steel has already set her sights on making her mark at two global championships in 2015 as well as tackling a new distance.
The 29-year-old will lead the British team at this weekend’s Great Edinburgh Cross Country, where she will be aiming to defend her title from last year. She hopes that another strong showing will put her in good standing heading into the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the Chinese city of Guiyang on 28 March.
“I am aiming to run well at the World Cross,” said Steel, who finished 31st at the 2013 edition. “A top-10 finish is a realistic target and a medal would be a dream. Anything is possible.”
When Steel captured her first major international title at the European Cross Country Championships in Samokov last month, she had arrived in Bulgaria at 3am on race day. But she eventually triumphed in a fierce battle with team-mate and NCAA champion Kate Avery, leading the British women to the team gold medal.
“The duel with Kate was a bit of a surprise,” said Steel, who took bronze at the European Cross in 2011 and silver in 2013. “We had the race to ourselves and neither of us was giving an inch. I was glad I walked the course twice as every step counted and I couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong.
“It was just pure determination at the end and the sprint was timed perfectly. My tactics were to sprint from behind as I’ve learned rather painfully from past experience that it’s easier to win from there.”
Huge step forward
Steel celebrated the turn of the year with another triumph, on this occasion at the San Silvestre Vallecana in Madrid on New Year’s Eve to record her third-fastest 10km time with 31:52 in a race with snow foam culminating in the Real Madrid football stadium.
Guided by former Commonwealth 5000m bronze medallist John Nuttall, the head athletics coach at Doha’s ASPIRE Academy in Qatar, and watched over by 1994 Commonwealth 5000m champion Rob Denmark, the head endurance coach at their National Performance Institute base in Loughborough, Steel trains alongside world steeplechase finalist Eilish McColgan and mixes her sessions between the track, hills and cricket pitch.
With her 80-85 miles per week completed at a pace no slower than six minutes per mile, it is little wonder that Steel has made huge strides in recent times.
Since finishing a surprise seventh at the 2012 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, Steel has continued to progress. She ended 2014 as the equal-10th-fastest woman in the world – and the fastest non-African – over both 10km and the half marathon.
Steel clocked a lifetime best of 31:27 at the Beach to Beacon 10km in Cape Elizabeth in August, taking the scalp of 2011 world cross-country bronze medallist Shalane Flanagan in a tight finish. One month later, she ran a PB of 1:08:13 when finishing second to Mary Keitany at the Great North Run.
Both her 10km and half-marathon PBs now make her the third-fastest Briton of all time behind marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe and former world 10,000m champion Liz McColgan.
“Beach to Beacon was amazing,” said Steel. “It has a special place in my heart as it was my breakthrough race on the world stage in 2013 with second place and I topped that this year by running a PB and beating Shalane on home soil. It was a huge confidence boost.
“The Great North Run was also a huge step forward as it is such an iconic race and I never dreamed I'd one day finish runner up.”
On the roads, Steel made it on to the podium in all of her races in 2014. She finished second to three-time Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba at the Great Manchester Run, and then finished a close second to world 10,000m bronze medallist Belaynesh Oljira at the Great South Run.
Unquestionably, 2014 was Steel’s best year to date.
Earning respect from rivals
Steel’s sole disappointment of 2014 came when she tore her calf at the New York City Half Marathon in March, which prevented her from making her marathon debut in London one month later.
It was an experience which she claims taught her to take nothing for granted and a reminder that, even at her best, she is not indestructible.
Fortunately, she has healthy distractions to help her through the tough times, such as creating the illustrations for books written by her twin sister Louise. But she is adamant that she will make her eagerly anticipated step up to the 26.2-mile distance purely on her own terms.
“I need to be fully prepared and ready for that challenge so an autumn marathon would suit me better than London,” she said.
“Running London on my debut adds pressure on my performance that I don’t want for my first marathon, so either Amsterdam or Berlin would be favourite if I decide to debut this year.”
Although her recent successes may result in more pressure in her future performance, they have also given Steel renewed confidence and determination, something she will take with her to Guiyang and beyond.
“I want to be the best and I love being fearless,” she said. “I used to have too much respect for my rivals and now I feel I've earned their respect and am starting to see myself as less of the underdog, which has been hard to come to terms with.
“I'm gradually getting rid of the 'club runner who came good' tag and seeing myself as a genuine world-class athlete now.”
Nicola Bamford for the IAAF