Yelling spurred by painful Beijing memories - update on the British women in Olympic marathon conte

Liz YellingYou could be forgiven for thinking Liz Yelling might take a relaxed attitude to qualifying for the London Olympics. Aged 37, with two Olympic marathons behind her, a medal from the Commonwealth Games in her locker, and a successful business to fall back on – what more does she have to prove?

A lot, by the sound of it. Despite some 15 years as a British international, Yelling is as driven as ever to represent her country at another Games. More driven.

Like her childhood friend and long-term training partner Paula Radcliffe, Yelling remains deeply frustrated by her Olympic experiences, and the magnet of a home Olympics is a powerful attraction.

Yelling finished 25th at the Athens Games in 2004 and 26th in Beijing four years later when she ran most of the race with a broken rib. It remains every bit as painful a memory for her as Radcliffe’s more famous, tearful Olympic tribulations.

“Beijing was sheer frustration,” she said on Thursday, three days before she takes one last shot at 2012 selection in Sunday’s Virgin London Marathon.

“In Beijing I really missed an opportunity to place highly at an Olympics, and the lure of a London Games is a massive draw. With those two things in mind, I’m really motivated to qualify for my third Olympics.

“I was in the best shape of my life in 2008. I was racing really well and I went there fully prepared physically and mentally. I was very confident and led for the first nine miles.

“But then I got tripped at 10 miles by [the Ethiopian] Gete Wami. It wasn’t her fault but I went down hard and cracked a rib. I didn’t realise at the time but I was struggling to breath, and in a marathon it’s quite important to breath.

“In Athens it was only my second marathon so I don’t feel I’ve done my best at an Olympics. The Games are so special it would be nice to prove what I’m capable of.”

Yelling has been training hard for London at a high altitude base in Boulder, Colorado, and believes she’s done everything she can to be ready for the challenge. Her task is simple. Not easy, but simple.

With Radclliffe and Mara Yamauchi selected, there’s just one place available on the British team. To join them on the London 2012 start line on 5 August, Yelling must be the first British woman home in Sunday’s race and beats Jo Pavey’s time from last year – 2 hours 28 minutes 24 seconds.

For Yelling it’s what you might call ‘a tough ask’. Her quickest is 2:28:33 from London in 2008. But her best time since giving birth to her daughter, Ruby, two years ago is 2:34:58 from Frankfurt last October, a performance she described as “a disaster”.

“It was my best for two years but it was no means good enough,” she said. “There were lots of reasons I ran like that – I had injuries before the race, and so on – but it still wasn’t good.

“Hopefully, my chances are better here. I’m quite excited about it and really looking forward to racing and racing well.”

Yelling’s task is made tougher still by the presence of two women who are younger, faster (recently anyway), and just as hungry.

Claire Hallissey ranked fourth in the UK last year behind Radcliffe, Yamauchi and Pavey thanks to her performance at the Chicago Marathon where she was sixth in 2:29:27, taking seven minutes from her previous best.

Not surprisingly, given such a breakthrough, she has followed her Chicago regime when preparing for Sunday. Based in Virginia, near Washington DC, she too trained at Boulder before making her way to London.

“I went there before Chicago and that seemed to pay off so it seemed to make sense to go back this time,” she said. “Obviously there’s going to be strong competition and a real battle between the Britons on Sunday, but my training has gone well and I’m confident to see what happens on the day.

“We all know what time we have to go for and if we’re all together then it will come down to racing each other as well.”

At 29, Hallissey is relatively young for a British woman marathon runner, and believes she’ll have at least one more chance, in Rio in 2016, maybe two - not that she isn’t just as keen to make the London team.

“You can’t get away from it, a home Olympics is a really big thing,” she said. “You can’t escape the stuff in the media. Every time you open a paper there is another article about the Olympics. Everyone wants to be on the start line. It will be an amazing experience.”

Like Hallissey, Louise Damen put herself in contention last year with a breakthrough performance. She beat the Olympic qualifying time by exactly a minute when she ran 2:30:00 in London, finishing second Briton behind Pavey.

But last November she dropped out of the Yokohama Marathon at half way with heat exhaustion and returns to London with something to prove.

“I’ve probably experienced both ends of the marathon spectrum,” she said. “It was a good experience on my debut here and horrible in Yokohama. It taught me that things do go wrong over 26.2 miles. I hope I’ve taken that on board and London will be another progression in my marathon career.”

Damen certainly believes there’s room for improvement.

“Last year I think I was a bit naive and let the adrenaline get the better of me,” she said. “I started a bit too quickly and gradually slowed in the second half. I need to be more conservative and hope to get stronger.”

Damen’s new role as a potential Olympian has brought a touch of local fame, not least among the local tramps in her home town of Winchester who now break off from sipping their cans of strong lager to shout ‘Go Louise’ as she run past.

Yelling once had the opposite problem when out training – being mistaken for Radcliffe. Now she dreams of finishing her career alongside her old friend as both strive to banish the past.

“I’ve trained with Paula since I was 10 and know her so well,” said Yelling. “She’s been through her calamities in previous Olympics too.

“For me, it’s an extra drive, the thought of being on an Olympic start line again with her. It would be a great way to end both our careers.”

Final selections for the British Olympic marathon team will be announced on Monday 23 April.

First reported by the Virgin London Marathon website.