Looking at our cover star Gemma Hockett – the image of a serious runner, with her lean, training-sculpted physique, ever-present sports watch and compression socks – it’s hard to picture her crossing the finish line of a 10K dressed as Father Christmas, chuffed to bits to have made it around the course in an hour. Yet Gemma has made the journey from first-time 10K runner to sub-three-hour marathoner, wiping an hour off her marathon time in a few short years, to become one of a select group of British women whose marathon times start with a two. Sounds impossible? Gemma’s message is clear: “I really believe anyone can do this. If you want it enough, you’ll find a way.”
Like so many of us, Gemma’s sporting history has had ups and downs. At school, she was a good sprinter, reaching the county championships, but as she reached her late teens and other girls became bigger and stronger, Gemma decided it wasn’t for her. Fast forward to her 20s, and she was living in London, working long hours in the financial sector. Her running days were behind her until, one day, an initiative by her employer to improve staff fitness levels found Gemma in the gym being coerced to run 5K on the treadmill. “I got to about 4K, and I was like, ‘Oh my god – I can’t run 5K!’,” says Gemma. “This gym was heaving with people who looked way more out of shape than I was, and it was a bit of a wake-up call.”
The gym trainer reassured Gemma that, with a bit of work, she’d soon pick up fitness. She was paired with another woman and set the challenge of completing a 10K race. “I was dressed up as Father Christmas and I came through the line and that feeling… I was so chuffed with myself. It wasn’t about the time, it was about the achievement.”
She immediately wanted more, so signed up for a half-marathon, while her training partner went for the full marathon. “I was like, ‘Good luck with that!’” she remembers, laughing. Gemma trained for the half, still under the supervision of her gym PT and running just three times a week, and completed the race in about two hours. “It was a painful experience. I hated it, but I loved it. The feeling I got was pure satisfaction.”
Still harbouring no desire to run a marathon herself, about six weeks later, she went to support her training partner as she took on the full distance. What finally inspired her to go further herself wasn’t watching her friend race, though – it was seeing a man she’s nicknamed Dave. “I was at mile 20 and watching all the dead people come through. I’d had a few glasses of wine and I saw this man – I don’t know what he was called, but I always say his name was Dave – and he was hanging on for dear life. He was in agony, and because I was drunk and a bit emotional, I was like, ‘Come on, you can do this!’ and he was like, ‘I can’t!’ And then he just grew a pair of balls and started running. I was crying my eyes out and I just thought, ‘If you can do it, I can do it’. The next day I was like – bang, I want to run a marathon.”
Gemma’s personality wouldn’t allow her to just complete the marathon, though. She was determined to run her rst 26.2-miler in under four hours. “Everyone told me I was nuts. They were saying, ‘It’s your first marathon, you need to enjoy it’ and I said, ‘I will enjoy it – if I do it in four hours!’”
Sure enough, despite sticking to her three-days-a-week training, Gemma did hit her target time at the 2013 race. On holiday afterwards, her thoughts soon turned to targeting a sub-3:30 time. The following year, still following the guidance of her PT, she smashed out a 3hrs 21mins marathon. “Even Craig [my PT] was like, ‘I don’t know how you did that.’ As I got through the finish line, I was sick all over someone, I was laying on the floor and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just thought to myself, ‘I want to run under three hours.’”
Gemma’s sub-three journey had begun in earnest. Her first attempt, ending with 3hrs 11mins, showed her that she’d need to change her approach, and she teamed up with a new coach. Dropping her time first to 3hrs 8mins, then 3hrs 7mins, Gemma was disappointed but still determined.
Then, in 2016, disaster struck, when an injury forced Gemma to drop out of the Boston Marathon. “I’d lost confidence with my journey,” says Gemma. “I’d been so successful and then I’d hit a wall and I didn’t really know who I could trust.”
It felt like she’d hit rock bottom – but fate was about to step in. Not wanting to waste her training, Gemma’s then-coach advised her to sign up for the Edinburgh Marathon in May, and Gemma reached out on Twitter for someone to pace her round the race. “This man called Colin came forward, who turned out to be a coach. He ran it with me and it was the worst marathon I’d ever had. Colin said, ‘I think I can help you – I know you’re going to go sub three in the next 12 months if you just do as I say.’”
Over the months that followed, Gemma’s new coach Colin Thomas looked at every aspect of her preparation, from her running style to her nutrition and her mindset. Many of his training ideas came from working with Kenyan athletes: Gemma’s slow runs slowed right down, and she spent much more time building her base fitness, tuning up her speed only just before the target marathon. Gemma consolidated this by spending three weeks living on a compound in Kenya, training with Colin and other British athletes, as well as some world- class Kenyan runners. “The Kenyan runners have always fascinated me,” she says.
“I was always looking at what they were doing that I wasn’t, to see if there was anything – even small things – that I could be doing.”
The time in Kenya transformed Gemma’s way of thinking. “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” she says. “It hardened me up. It made me realise I wasn’t channelling my energy in the right way. If I wanted to be serious I had to adopt some of this energy and desire that they have. I need to get uncomfortable every single day: to eat, sleep and dream it.”
Colin also helped Gemma – who he describes as being “like an electric fence” – to harness her high emotional energy. “My mind is so strong, but it flips and can be my worst enemy as well,” she says. “Colin advised me to read The Chimp Paradox. I have to talk to the chimp side of my brain and tell it to calm down. And I’ve learned that I train so much better if I give myself extra time. I can help myself if I take a step back and stop panicking, and take the pressure off myself.”
This April, Gemma used that incredible drive and desire to finally achieve her sub- three dream at the ASICS Greater Manchester Marathon. “I realised at about mile 22 that sub-three was on. My Kenyan friend, Tarus, was supposed to join me at halfway, but he jumped out a bush on the home straight, and he was screaming at me, effing and blinding, telling me to pick my legs up and use my arms. I just remember him saying, ‘Stare at the clock, what does it say?’ And I’m going, ‘Two fifty-nine!’ So it was myself, Tarus, my friend, Jon, who was running with me, and a team GB cross-country runner – all running in a line of shouting! As I crossed the line, I collapsed on the floor, but it was a massive feeling of euphoria. It was everything I imagined and more.”
With that huge milestone passed, Gemma now has her sights set on running even faster, targeting a 2:50 marathon. On her way, she’ll be running our WRRS event in Finsbury Park, London, on 8 October, and says she’d love to see Women’s Running readers joining her there at the start of their own marathon journeys. “I started my first 10K dressed as Father Christmas – you could start your journey at the Women’s Running 10K and you decide how far you want to go from there. You can achieve anything!