Elite sport is a hard taskmaster. To race against the best requires toughness and a ruthless competitive edge. But despite her background as one of the country’s top junior middle-distance runners, there’s little evidence of those traits in Rachel Stringer these days. It’s easy to see how her personality has helped her translate her sport background into a career as a sport presenter: a warm, constantly positive presence, she’s relaxed and clearly in her element leaping through the mud on Hampstead Heath, London, for our cover shoot. “Maybe I’m just more chilled in my old age!” she jokes when asked about it.
Of course, this is all relative. Rachel’s “old age” is 26, but she’s already fitted in half a lifetime of running, beginning her competitive career aged 12. And, although she’s no longer studying her competitors’ form when she lines up for a race, she’s clearly still a disciplined runner and sets herself high standards – like the sub-three-hour marathon she’s keen to achieve next year.
It’s still a world away from travelling the globe to compete in international track meets, though. “Now, I run because I want to run,” she says. “I did used to want to run, but there’d be mornings when I didn’t want to get out of bed because it was cold and then it would stress me out if I hadn’t done it. Now, if I miss a run, it’s no big deal. I will do another run tomorrow or when I feel like it. Running now is a way to clear my head and get out and enjoy it.”
In fact, Rachel’s competitive career was born out of love for the sport, when she was just 12 years old. She remembers clearly how it all began. “I did a 200m race against a girl at school who I thought was the fastest girl on the planet and I ended up beating her. I was so happy and excited, I ran home and told my dad that I’d won this race and that I was going to be an Olympic runner and I wanted to go to the City of Norwich Athletics then and there!”
They may not have quite taken her on the spot, but Rachel’s parents did take her to train with City of Norwich AC and she soon found herself regularly competing, with her family’s support. Quickly beginning to realise her potential, Rachel became a middle-distance specialist in her teens, winning the English Schools at 800m and competing internationally. It meant growing up faster than many of her peers, as the stress of travelling, training without her family and having to be ready for round after round on the track meant she needed to be a pretty tough teen – but Rachel says she’s still benefiting from that experience today. “I am so glad I did sport as a youngster. I find that anyone who has done sport is quite similar to me in terms of what they do now. I think what I got out of it is, firstly, I made loads of friends and you learn social skills because your parents weren’t holding your hand either at a training session or at a competition; and secondly, I learned how to set goals. From a young age, I was like, ‘Right, this year I want to set this PB or get to this competition.’ It made me very focused and dedicated.”
Even as her elite athletics career was taking off, Rachel learned that running could help her to cope with life’s stresses – none more so than when her brother Andrew – who was also a keen runner – died from a brain tumour, when Rachel was just 16. “I was going through a lot of difficult times but it gave me something to focus on. I remember the day he passed away I went running. People might look and say I was really weird to do that. But you want to keep going because life doesn’t stop.”
Looking to continue her sport, as well as to get a good degree, Rachel went to Loughborough University, which is a UK Athletics High Performance Athletics Centre that has trained countless Olympic stars across many sports. In her final year, though, she began to reconsider her direction. “I got glandular fever, I got a stress fracture the year before in my sacrum and, mentally, from my brother not being here, I wasn’t 100 per cent,” she says. “It was that transitional period where you either take a year out to be a full-time athlete after graduating, or get a bit of work experience and see what you want to do.”
Rachel applied for a sports reporter internship at BBC Leicester and got it, leading to opportunities to work on the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. She decided to take a year or two out from athletics to see where her broadcasting work would take her, initially aiming to work behind the camera before an opportunity to present came her way. “It’s something I never thought I’d do, but someone asked if I wanted to work in front of the camera and not behind it. I was like, ‘Mum, do I want to do this?’ and she said, ‘Rach, give it a go, if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t matter.’ I found something l loved equally as much as I did running and then felt I didn’t need to be an elite athlete, because I could be something else.”
Now Rachel works across a variety of sport programmes, presenting Nick Kicks, a football show on Nickelodeon, and sections on BBC’s Football Focus; she’s also worked for the FA and ITV – and, as you might expect, she’d love to move into working on more athletics coverage. Despite such a varied job, she still makes sure she runs. “Running fits into it when it can. So if I go away, I’ll take my trainers because you can run anywhere. I get up quite early to go for a run. That gets me up and out the door.”
Moving to London for her TV work in 2013 has meant Rachel’s discovered a whole new side of her sport. “I hadn’t been running much, because I’d made a conscious effort for work and then, finding myself getting in with London running clubs to make friends, I found myself completely in love with it. The London running scene is super social, I now know London like no other because I’ve run round it and know all the cool places to go.”
Rachel’s 2017 running goals are still to be confirmed: she plans to run the Gran Canaria Half Marathon, and is hankering after a sub-three-hour marathon finish, having run London in 3:00:14 last year. If that sounds pretty hardcore, rest assured that Rachel’s number one running goal is to keep enjoying it. “Running’s not stressful at all now,” she says. “I do it because I like it. I did the Amsterdam half [in 2016] and I said to my friend, ‘I want to enjoy this race, I don’t want to come away thinking that was awful, I want to think, that was great fun, I want to do another one.’ Maybe that means I don’t push myself as much but I’m not going to try and get on the Olympic team, I’m going because I want to get a certain time or achieve something, rather than to qualify for a championship or because a girl in the age group above is running a certain time. Now I run because I enjoy it and it makes me feel good about myself to do it.
“Ultimately, [my elite running] has made me the person I am and given me the career that I’ve got. It’s made running quite an easy thing for me to do and I’ve made a lot of friends now in London through running. I wouldn’t change being a runner for the world. I love it!”
This piece appears in the February 2016 issue of Women’s Running magazine (UK). Get your fix of training advice, workouts and inspiration every month – subscribe today!