Talented runner and writer Verity Ockenden had a year to remember in 2017 and is continuing to reach new heights this year.
Swansea’s Ockenden annihilated every single one of her personal bests last year on the track, from 800m up to 10,000m, as well as announcing herself as a name to contend with in cross country and roads in recent months.
It really was a breakthrough year for the Dorset-based runner who has successfully ridden a tide of significant change and upheaval to emerge as an exciting British talent to watch this season.
She has continued her form into the new year, setting a new 9:14 3k road PB in Armagh, where she finished third in the vest of England.
Prior to racing on the road, there were impressive performances on the country, including first European with fourth at the Antrim International and eighth at both the Great Edinburgh XCountry and the Cross International in Spain.
How has the 26-year-old improved so much to transform herself from a promising talent to one of GB’s brightest new prospects on track and country?
Training and competing Stateside
Two years spent competing on the highly competitive American collegiate circuit while on an athletics scholarship (2014-2016) certainly helped develop her stamina and speed, while her relatively high weekly mileage has ensured she has been able to consistently build her fitness without significant interruption.
“I was so fortunate to spend two years at Lamar University studying for a masters in English, I lived the life of a professional athlete and was lucky to thrive under pressure,” she reveals. “The training and racing were a real adrenalin kick for me, and I loved the team element of competing.
“It gave me a reason to do well, as I sometimes find it hard to motivate myself when the results are just for me.”
Ockenden is modest about her obvious ability, and admits the offer to take up the US scholarship took her by surprise, despite having won BUCS 1500m bronze the day before the stateside call came through.
“Winning a BUCS medal was a huge goal for me, but my coach at the time from Poole Runners (Ockenden’s first club) believed I could do it – I was still shocked!”, she says. “I then had very little time to decide as I was sitting my university finals at the time!”
Her decision to take up the offer clearly paid off, giving her the chance to travel all over the country (14 states in total), racing in a variety of conditions and allowing her to experience competing in multiple events on the same weekend – ideal preparation for the major championships back home.
She cites the points-based Southland Conference League as one of her racing highlights in the US – which included competing over every distance from 800m to 5000m and distance medley relays too – as well as competing in the NCAA track and cross country championships.
Ockenden recalls her last outing at the NCAA cross championships, which surprisingly initially promised to provide British-like muddy conditions following heavy rain in the preceding days.
Sadly it wasn’t to be as the terrain dried up in time for the event, although Ockenden adds: “There were rumours going around that because it was such a major event in America, and there was so much money at stake, the organisers had used helicopters to fly low over the course to ‘blow dry’ it with their blades!
“I can’t confirm those rumours but it was certainly dry on the day!”
A year building foundations in Siena, Italy
Ockenden’s time in Texas followed on from a four-year first class combined honours degree at Swansea, during which she spent a year abroad in Siena, Italy, in 2013.
The Kent-born student travelled to the small cobbled town having revised her 800m and 1500m PBs to promising marks of 2:10.38 and 4:30.99 respectively, but unfortunately she arrived in Italy with injury issues.
The aforementioned cobbles and her understandable lack of local knowledge about the town’s athletics set up meant it took time for her to adjust to training in her Erasmus year.
However, she eventually found a track to train on, hooked up with the local club – UISP Atletica Siena – and was taken under the wing of the club’s coach, Maurizio Cito, who took over her training until she traveled to America, where she met her current coach, Tony Houchin, who she credits for much of her success.
Returning to the UK to live and train
“Since I’ve returned to the UK all of my coaching is sent to me over the internet and Skype,” she explains. “Tony is amazing at getting my sessions absolutely right, he interprets my training figures perfectly, it works really well for me. I use a stopwatch for my Tuesday sessions and a Garmin watch for my tempo runs.”
She admits that she found it difficult to adjust when she returned to Dorset in 2016 – her last race in America had been the NCAA national track championships 5000m in Oregon, the biggest race of her career, but the event was overshadowed by the death of her grandmother, who had lived with her and her mother.
“When I got back home, we had to move unexpectedly after she died, so after such a lot of change and upheaval I needed a period of quiet and stability for a while,” she explains. “I turned to writing poetry, cooking and running for therapy, and finally joined the club I’d trained with during my BA degree at Swansea, the city’s Harriers.”
However, managing her training over the last 18 months – during which time she has improved immeasurably – hasn’t been plain sailing at all.
“I am very lucky to have a great group to train with, in a dark alley next to the nearest track to me in Salisbury,” she explains. “Sadly we haven’t been able to use the track itself since last November, when the council gave the local school ownership, who in turn decided the club couldn’t use it at all!
“We are a determined bunch though, and haven’t let it stop us training.”
Race highlights so far and aims for 2018
Those dark alley sessions played a key role in her improvements last year, including a 15:46.11 5000m best at the British championships, which earned her a fourth-place finish.
She cites that race and her NCAA-qualifying 5000m race the previous year as her best performances so far, “because I executed them the best I could and I know I couldn’t have run any better on either occasion”.
That was certainly true of the latter event, when she blacked out on the finish line having raced herself to the limit on a searingly hot day in Kansas.
Ockenden will again aim to peak for this year’s British championships 5000m, where she hopes to break 15:30 for the first time. Before then, though, she is looking forward to revising her 33:23.31 PB at the Highgate Harriers 10,000m in May, and, she says brightly, “I would like to PB across all the other distances too.”
In the meantime, the gifted writer is looking forward to her poem ‘Young Bodies’ being published within the ‘Inside The Bell Jar’s anthology on the theme of mental health entitled ‘We Run Through The Dark Together’.
“My poem is about the pressures on young athletes to look a certain way, encouraging growth and strength as something to aspire to instead,” she explains, clearly already aware of her burgeoning position as a role model for young up and coming athletes.