Words & Interview: Max Willcock
Emma Stepto is a well-accomplished elite runner based in Cornwall. In this interview, we talk to her about her epic journey from running at school, to running for England and her most memorable moments along the way. Emma also explains how she balances her intensive daily training and her job at Falmouth University.
From Toronto to Frankfurt, Emma tells us how her past achievements around the world have informed her future ambitions and gives her advice for anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps.
How did you get into running and why?
I took part in every type of sport I could all through my childhood and afterwards, I just loved being active. I especially loved running at school but as I enjoyed everything, I never really focused on it then.
It was in my early 30s I started to run on the treadmill at the gym and got hooked again. I ran a Race for Life for charity and although it wasn’t a competitive race I wanted to do my best and when I finished 3rd, I thought ‘I wonder what else I can do?’ So I signed up for a half marathon next and went from there.
Running has helped me cope with some incredibly difficult times too and I’m really keen to help other people get into it, not just for the physical health benefits, but because I know mentally it makes you stronger, more determined and focused (and a lot less stressed!).
The biggest leap forwards for my running was definitely joining Cornwall Athletic Club as I suddenly had training advice and knowledgeable people to run with (from beginners to International level), plus the fantastic Cornwall Grand Prix race series to take part in, to make me try new distances and challenges.
And I guess it all boils down to the feeling that running gives me- when the sun is out and you are out in the fresh air, training, or racing, and you are fit and it feels almost effortless, there is no feeling like it for experiencing freedom and being alive.
What is your greatest achievement within your sport?
I don’t see them as ‘my’ achievements, because so many people supported and advised me along the way, and I couldn’t have done of this without them- especially my coach, family and club teammates. The ones I consider my most memorable events, which I cherish and feel really incredibly lucky to have experienced are; becoming British Half Marathon Champion in 2014, running my marathon PB of 2:32:40 (1st European Lady) at Frankfurt Marathon and also becoming English 10k Champion.
Being selected to run for England was magical every time to; I was so proud to wear the kit! Also being part of the Ladies Elite race at the London marathon –twice- (to finish as 2nd British lady in 2014) felt like I was imagining it. Even looking back now it seems surreal- to be taking part with the world class runners, I could never believe I was there.
Breaking the Ladies All Time British 5,000m record in two age groups (40-44 and 45-49) was really special, as I had to work incredibly hard and keep racing and getting closer to the record, for two seasons. I don’t have much experience of track, so that was a true challenge to me to progress.
How do you balance your working life and running aspirations?
Working full time does impact on the quality of my training- mainly because I can’t build in recovery and rest time that full time athletes can. I usually run before work (recovery run), go to the gym, yoga or a spinning class at lunchtime and then do my main training run or speed session in the evening.
Most weekends I travel to races around the country, so I have to squeeze in the housework and everyday ‘life things’ when I can. I am also Secretary (and Ladies Captain) of Cornwall AC and Secretary of the Duchy Athletics Network and help to organise races throughout the year. I want to give back to the athletics community and not just focus on me and my ambitions.
Finding a balance to me generally means being very organised (needing 3 lots of training kit a day alone takes planning- and carrying!) Do doing everything very quickly, is the easy answer!
When work is not so busy I can definitely focus on my races more thoroughly- mentally as much as anything. Being psychologically prepared for the big races is massively important and that takes practise too.
I do wonder how different things might have been if I had been able to train full time, but you have to make the most of your circumstances, because nothing is ever perfect! Having a supportive and understanding husband has been priceless- most men would have divorced me by now I think!!
Which race of your career has been the toughest and why?
Toronto Marathon was one of the toughest. It was my debut running for England, and my husband, mother and step dad had travelled all that way to watch me too- it was quite a lot of pressure and anything can happen in a marathon. As it turned out, it was a really blustery day, on a very exposed course and with few elite runners in the field I ran most of it alone- that’s hard work as there’s no shelter and no one to chase either. I felt my calf twinge badly at 13 miles and had pain for the rest of the race. It was a mental battle to finish, but I couldn’t travel all that way, run for my country and not finish! I was in so much pain when I did finish (albeit it somehow in a Personal Best time!), I had to walk backwards to get to the elite bus. That was a bit embarrassing!!
Do you have any future ambitions in your sport and how will you prepare for them?
Yes I always have new targets. I’d like to keep moving up the UK All Time rankings at all distances in my age group, and if possible break some more of the records. I was very close to breaking the 3000m record last Summer but I feel I have a lot of progress still to make in the 10k/Half Marathon rankings too.
It’s the World Masters Track and Field Champs in Malaga in September and I am weighing up if I can be in shape for that. That would involve a lot of very fast speed sessions throughout the summer training- which is a really high injury risk- but I’d love the opportunity to take part and do my best at that level! Fingers crossed.
What advice would you give to anyone aiming to reach a competitive level in running?
I would say definitely join a running or athletics club that has fully qualified coaches (speed and endurance), as their guidance and the structured training you will get will ensure you progress at a sensible rate and avoid injuries and unnecessary or unhelpful training. Having other runners around you of different abilities is essential- it helps you feel one of the team, but also encourages you to aspire to higher performances, and makes it seem achievable.
Any progress takes dedication and hard work and some of it is uncomfortable and even daunting- but the more you put in, the more you will get back. But most of all- keep enjoying it and run because you love to!
Do you have any interesting or unusual stories within your running?
SO MANY! I’ve been running seriously for about 12 years and have had so many experiences and met so many amazing people- athletes, coaches, inspirational people, celebrities- that I would never have done without running.
Being interviewed on live TV by Colin Jackson before the London Marathon, in the elite tent was really special and then at the finish Gaby Logan also interviewed me (which delighted my husband, as she spoke to him too… and he still mentions it…a lot!) Both Colin and Gaby were such lovely, genuine people, but I still found it hard to see why they were talking to me- I was just me!
You get some very funny experiences too- one night I was running at the track with club mates and there was something flapping on my friends shoulder as she ran. I shouted to her “Is that your hood flapping around?” She reached across and pulled at it- and it turned out to be a pair of her son’s pants that had stuck to the Velcro on her running top hood, in the laundry!! The same friend lost the elastic in her shorts during one race and had to run most of it holding them up! She’s a star- we’ve had so many funny times!
Thanks to running, I’ve travelled all over the world and had times of the highest elation ( dreamlike races, PB’s, Records, International selection and feeling incredibly fit and inspired) to the lowest lows (with broken bones, injuries, borderline hyperthermia, accidents and a lot of pain and disappointment). I value every single experience and am so grateful that they have made life feel so fulfilling.
I hope to become a coach in the future and help other runners reach their potential- I’m really excited about that too!