Cycling star: “I love the freedom of running”

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SPIKES meets Emma Pooley, the 2010 cycling time trial world champion and 2008 Olympic silver medallist, to discuss swapping her spokes for spikes and her recent marathon triumph in Lausanne.

Emma Pooley just loves to run. Always has done. Always will. Even as an international cyclist, winning races on the global stage. As soon as the big event finished she would return home, put on a set of trainers, and go for a run.

Running has always been her number one passion.

“I love the total freedom,” Pooley tells SPIKES, while being interviewed on a train. “When you believe you are running well, it is just the best feeling in the world.”

Emma started her competitive sporting career as a runner. She was good enough to be crowned Norfolk cross country champion at the age of 15.

Later studying at Cambridge University, she describes finishing 13th at the Southern Cross Country Championships as one of her career highlights.

Her running ambitions were put on hold, at least for a decade, after a persistent injury forced her to quit the sport aged 20.

“I was devastated to give up,” she says. “If I can’t run, it drives me nuts.”

She tried swimming to fill the gap but found it “too boring.” She only started cycling by chance, as a way of exercising outside the gym.

Slowly, Pooley, who came from a strong endurance background, adapted to her new-found sport. She finished a surprising fourth at the 2005 national road championships, and was quickly snapped up by a professional team.

Just three years later she pocketed an Olympic silver medal in the road time trial at the Beijing Games. Two year later she was crowned world road time trial champion in Melbourne.

Yet the London-born cyclist could never totally divorce herself from running.

“It depended what time of year it was, and if I had a big race coming up, but I’d always find the time to go for a run,” she says.

Pooley endured a difficult 2012 on the bike. Disappointed to finish sixth in the Olympic road time trial, she decided to scale back her cycling commitments and focus more on her passion for running and triathlon.

Last October – after just three weeks training – she entered the Lucerne Marathon. She finished second in 2:55 and was understandably delighted with the time.

“I obviously had the base fitness from cycling, which I transferred from one sport to the other,” she says. “That marathon was run in snow. It was really dreadful weather and I couldn’t walk for a week afterwards, but I really wanted to go under three hours, so I was really pleased. I finished second and won a cake.”

This year Pooley, who is studying a PhD in geotechnical engineering at Zurich University, is juggling her sporting commitments between cycling, triathlon and running. 

With cycling playing less of a central role, this has allowed the 31-year-old more time to devote to marathoning. She managed to run most days of the week in preparation for last month’s Lausanne Marathon, and clocked around 100km a week during her heaviest training period. 

“My training was a bit ad-hoc,” she says. “I didn’t do as many interval sessions as I would have liked. I also did a 19km run the week before the [Lausanne] marathon, so I went into the race a bit knackered.”

Come race day, and drawing upon her considerable competitive qualities, the diminutive 1.57m (5ft 2ins) Pooley enjoyed a dream run in her adopted homeland of Switzerland.

She set out positively and clocked a winning time of 2:44:29, a time which ranks her the 19th quickest British female marathoner for 2013. Not bad going for a woman more commonly associated with her accomplishments on a bike.

“Yes, without sounding too big headed: I’m really pleased with the time,” she says. “I was concerned I would hit the wall at 25km, like I did in Lucerne, but I was a bit wiser this time so I drank and ate something on the run. I was also in the lead for much of the race and when you are out front, it is easier to hang on.”

Pooley also bagged a cool 2000 Swiss Francs (around €1625 or $2210) for her efforts. And as elated as she is with her performance, she dismisses suggestions that she could harbour international marathon ambitions.

“I don’t think I’m anywhere near British teams standard, no way,” she says. “I know how much it takes to take a minute off your PB. There’s no way I’d go 15 minutes quicker [the sort of time needed to contend for British marathon teams]. I’m pleased with my time, but I know it is not a proper time.”

For 2014, Pooley has signed for a professional cycling team, the Belgian-based Lotto Belisol, but it doesn’t mean an end to her running ambitions.

“I only signed with them because they allowed me to continue my triathlon and running,” she says. “To be honest, that was my main negotiating criteria.”

So having secured a 2:44 marathon time, what next for the multi-talented sportswoman?

“I’d like to try mountain running,” she says. “I did alright this year in the Jungfrau Marathon [one of the world’s leading mountain marathons. She finished sixth].

“I’m not quick enough on the flat, and I’m more of a mountain runner. I’m realistic about my lack of running ability.”