Erika Kelly reflects on her experience at the Olympic race walking trials
I received my invitation to compete at the Olympic Trials, which later doubled up as the British Championships, at the start of January, and it led to a host of emotions.
Prior to this, I hadn’t raced 20km since 1st September 2019, and due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my 2020 season was essentially written off due to cancellations, postponements and travel restrictions. The thought of racing brought about feelings of fear and worry – I knew deep down I hadn’t forgotten how to race, but it definitely felt like being thrown into the unknown.
Very fortunately, I had the opportunity through IOM Sport to spend the following weeks working closely with their Sports Psychologist – Rich Sille, in conjunction with my coach Tom Craggs, and simply having the chance to sit and discuss thoughts, feelings and emotions led to huge shifts in mindset – they really helped to prepare me for standing back on a start line!
I travelled to London 48 hours prior to the race, and that in itself was an extremely odd experience. I’ve never been on such an empty aeroplane, let alone seen Heathrow airport so desolate. Moreover, arriving at the hotel was far from normal – with access limited to your designated room only.
The day before the race started with a stretch of the legs – a short, easy walk along the canal, before heading off for Covid-testing. To be eligible to race, every athlete had to provide a negative test result, in which you were then presented with a green armband to be worn for the remaining duration of the event. It was a relatively straight forward procedure and over pretty quickly – an absolute relief to get the go ahead to race!
Following this, we headed off to walk the course at Kew Gardens – a 1659.1m lap set in beautiful surroundings! It was a great opportunity to get a feel for the course and catch up with teammates who I hadn’t seen for so long.
Race day calm
Friday 26th February 2021 had finally arrived, and I’m pretty sure I saw every hour on the clock until my alarm went off at 3:45am. Before this event, I’d never experienced such an early race start, but I knew adrenaline and excitement would carry me through. I’d also somewhat prepared myself and practiced this untimely start only weeks earlier, taking to the roads at 6:00am and witnessing a beautiful sunrise in the process – every cloud!
I successfully ate my breakfast, felt well fuelled, pulled my racing kit on and left the hotel at 4:40am arriving at the course just before 5:00am. It was pitch black and difficult to navigate the surroundings but we managed to find the building for athletes, where socially distanced, we were left to pin on numbers, tie timing chips to trainers, stretch and warm up. At 5:40am, we were all led out to the start line at Palm House (approx. 600m away), and I used it as a final opportunity to do some drills and strides. I felt surprisingly calm, and in hindsight… maybe too calm.
Stay in control, keep moving forwards
The gun went off and the countdown of 12 laps began. The plan had been to start conservatively and progress pace throughout, but 5km in, I found myself really struggling to engage my brain with my legs, and couldn’t seem to get my body to speed up. It felt extremely frustrating and I knew I wasn’t hitting my splits. Now we had two options: 1) Get upset and angry, which would probably lead to unwanted tension and negative emotions, and perhaps even thoughts to give up, or 2) Don’t react – simply observe and focus on what can be done.
“When people panic, they make mistakes and stop thinking clearly…” – I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I knew it was in my control to keep moving forwards, and ultimately the process goal of standing on that starting line, managing the race as it went on and choosing to smile and enjoy the huge opportunity in front of me, was more important. So we kept going – we got through every single lap, every bout of nausea, every twinge of pain, before hitting the final obstacle… I was aware my knee had been feeling a bit iffy only 24 hours prior to the race.
Despite making positive progress with rehab over the last year since having surgery in March 2020, it felt like it was letting me down all over again, and this had resulted in 3 red cards to my name during the latter stages of the race. On my final lap and only metres from the finishing line, I was pit-laned and suffered a 2-minute time penalty. I knew this was another ‘laugh-or-cry’ moment, and somehow found myself choosing to smile – in the moment, I think I was somewhat aware of a sense of pride stemming from facing a fear and challenging myself to step back out into an elite racing environment, when it had felt impossible.
Fuelling the fire
I finished the race in a time that felt disappointing, but in the knowledge that a lot could be learnt and carried forwards. It was a complete bonus to find out I’d come 3rd, and receive a Bronze medal!
More than anything, this experience has relit the fire in my belly to really hope to race again soon – and to demonstrate all the hard work, time and efforts invested over the last year by my coach and the most incredible support team including RL360! I really couldn’t ask for more.
I have recently left ‘Project Indoor Training Camp’ (my 21 day self-isolation after retaining to IOM) and I can’t wait to get back out racing.