“If I’m honest I don’t relish the winter training, but I do it and moan loudly about the cold”. Not every athlete will be so frank about their hard work over the next few months in preparation for the 2016 season, but Faye Fullerton pulls no punches.
Having belief in your ability can be such an important thing in athletics. The British middle-distance runner won many plaudits for her success as a teenager. But, now 31 and working as a teacher, she confesses that she was once a “couch potato”, who contemplated giving up after repeated injuries as an adult.
A remarkable return to form in 2015 saw her beat her seven-year-old personal best in the 1500m. Following that up with sixth place and another lifetime best in the 5000m at the Sainsbury’s British Championships the week after, was well received among UK athletics fans.
Speaking to TrackField97.com, she reveals the battles she’s faced, along with her ambitions to build on this season and put the past behind her: “I’d love to be a force in women’s middle distance running. I’d be lying if I said it’s not a permanent struggle. Being a Science teacher is hard work. It’s demanding and under-16’s are demanding, so each day training at a decent level is a trial. Having said that, the potato did get off the couch and very slowly came back to the game.”
Her blunt reflections provide a refreshingly honest account of what she’s been through, starting from the very beginning. “I wasn’t inspired by a particular athlete. From the age of seven or eight, when we had visitors to the house, as they left I would race their car down our road. At Junior School every year I would be second in the sprint race to the same winner each time until the very last year, when I finally beat the girl who I was second to, but another girl came up and beat both of us, so I was second again.”
After joining Havering Athletics Club, she stepped up her game with the support of her parents, especially her mum and coach, Georgina. “My mother only ever ran sprint hurdles for her school but she watched me in training and races from the age of eleven. She watches my food, organizes race entries, chauffeurs me and sets my sessions, where she stands blowing the whistle. It’s a difficult relationship at times (a bit like a parent teaching you to drive), and we don’t see eye to eye always as she is demanding, but I’ve had my best results when she’s been involved in my coaching.”
It’s now fourteen years since a then 17-year-old Fullerton finished second in the 1500m at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Hungary. Soon after that, injuries started to surface. “Not one injury of any kind until I was 17 or so. I have a very high threshold of pain and it was my mum who noticed I was running strangely on the track, mentioned it to my coach, and then pulled me off. I was referred to a senior UKA doctor. She referred me for a scan and then told me I had a stress fracture in my femur – one of the most impressive she’d seen – in fact a hole located right in the middle.
“I had no significant soft tissue injuries until past my mid-twenties, when I had three consecutive calf tears and then got going again and swerved to avoid a youngster on track. I injured my hamstring and I totally threw in the towel on that very evening and messed about for three years, eight months, totally avoiding exercise of any kind. I put on a stone and became a potato.”
These persistent problems have been a clear source of frustration for her, making her progression from being a promising junior to a senior athlete all the more difficult. Three successive finishes in the top 50 of the junior race at the IAAF Cross Country Championships followed, but with hindsight she looks back on how tough the transition was. “I didn’t acknowledge any difficulty at all until I reflected on it all and thought when I was younger I was on funding and was sponsored by Nike (they approached me because I never ask for stuff). I represented GB as a junior and as a senior, but you are quickly dropped because these organisations and corporations, by necessity, have to be run as a business.
“Being a senior is definitely more challenging, because ultimately you have to financially support yourself, so now I have to contend with a 45 hour week and a training schedule that keeps me competitive with people who have enough support and can devote themselves to athletics, or just work part-time.”
One of the main highlights of her senior career to date was winning the World Universities Cross Country Championships in 2008.
After taking time out, her form improved significantly this season – but it’s been a long road to recovery that she says was down to starting to “run with purpose, following a friend and athlete, who asked me what was I going to do with my running now (I was well down the field as I was only doing slightly more than keep fit training).
“This year, I did the Gainsborough and Morton 10k in the spring. My training had been improving. I went in and ran a low 34 minutes. It’s a great race and the locals are lovely and treat me like running royalty. I was thrilled with that result and it made me think I could get back to my best.”
From there, consistent improvement heading into the summer helped her build crucial confidence. Even so, setting a new 4:10 personal best at the British Milers’ Club race in Watford exceeded everyone’s expectations. “I was lucky at that time to have someone who could get me into some of the better races and so I found myself in the A race. I wasn’t too confident about this. I’d run a season’s best about 10 days before of 4:22 – so average time-wise. My mum predicted 4:15 and I thought that was a bit optimistic. I arrived and I felt good in warmup. I hung back in the midfield throughout. As it went on I got more confident. With 400m, to go the race was on.
“Half way down the back straight, I started to make a positive move but was thwarted and I lost my momentum. I chased our girls all the way down the finishing straight and kicked myself after for not making a decisive move earlier. I was catching them with every stride.
“I warmed down and when I got back the results had been put up and my mum was elated to know I’d run a PB! The race gave me such confidence. I found I was really competitive again.”
After the thrill of that result in the Grand Prix, there was little time to relax, with the IAAF World Championship trials the following weekend. Ultimately, the sixth place she achieved wasn’t what she wanted, but Fullerton takes some positives from her disappointment.
“I wasn’t too happy if I’m honest, but I’d gone into the summer with very low expectations. It was to be a year where I was going to see what I could do off a mediocre winter by my previous standards.
“However, conditions on the day were awful. We were left on the line for ages, with thunder and lightning and cold driving rain, thanks to the demands of TV scheduling. I think I was one of only two of us who got a PB and for me it was about 13 seconds and only my third ever over 5000. I also beat some fairly decent experienced 5000 runners, so that was very positive, but I feel unhappy there were five ladies in front of me, and those were the important ones on the day.”
Remaining sincere until the end, she is open about the size of the task ahead, as she sets her sights on Rio de Janeiro next summer. “The ultimate for every athlete must be the Olympic Games. Could couch potato to Olympian be a possibility?
“You need an iron will, a strong body and a lot of luck. I’d love to run the qualifiers for 1500m and 5000m. As a first step I’d like to be a contender.”
“I don’t want to fizzle out. My goal is to go out on a high.”
Facts about Faye Fullerton
Personal Best Performances:
Ultimate goals – “Everybody wants to go to the Olympics and perform well but it is a big ask, especially if you work full time and have nobody sponsoring you. However, I intend to give the track a good shot next year.”
Feature by: Alex Seftel for TrackField97.com
Photography by TrackField97.com