Elite athletes can be pretty serious people. Think of top runners and you’re likely to have an image of people doing endless runs, having early nights and eating a strict diet.
So meeting Holly Rush – ultra runner, sub-2:40 marathoner and ASICS FrontRunner ambassador – could come as a surprise. On our photoshoot, it takes a fair bit of persuasion to stop Holly gurning, or trying to sit on her very patient dog, Mole. Visit her twitter feed and you’ll see she’s not exactly down with the strict diet thing, either – you’re more likely to find her singing the praises of a decent bit of cake than you are to see a neatly arranged fan of avocado.
But then, Holly’s route to the world of elite athletics wasn’t exactly standard. She freely admits that she wasn’t a sporty child – although, growing up on a farm, she wasn’t exactly a couch potato either. “I was very free range,” she says. “We went out in the morning and came back in the evening; Mum had a school bell that she’d ring for lunch.”
She loved riding, but quickly realised there wasn’t much of a living in it (“I knew that a career in racing is tough if you’re female,” she says). So, general fitness aside, Holly wasn’t an obvious candidate to wind up representing her country at athletics; and never more so than at the moment she first decided to run a marathon. She was watching the London Marathon with friends, a Stella in one hand and a burger in the other, when she announced her intention to take part. “I’d never watched the marathon before and I was amazed at all the different people doing it. I just thought that if they could do it, then I’d have a go.”
The next year, aged 19, Holly finished the marathon in well under four hours – although it wasn’t all plain sailing. “The chafing was appalling. It was the year it dumped it down with rain and I was wearing a cotton t-shirt and rugby shorts. Everything rubbed. I don’t think I could wear a bra for two weeks afterwards because it was so painful.”
Even so, Holly was hooked, and soon realised she could run faster. But what happened next might help to explain why she now refuses to take the elite training lifestyle too seriously: her commitment to running faster led to an eating disorder that defined the next few years of her life. “When I did my first marathon, I never thought about what I looked like or how heavy I was,” she says. “And then after that race, something clicked in my head. I was losing weight and getting faster, and I became obsessive with the food I was eating.”
Holly lost a stone and a half before her next marathon, which she finished in 3hrs 15mins, creating an association in her mind between lower weight and faster running. A downward spiral of restricted eating and obsessive training saw her health start to deteriorate. Not too long afterwards, she had her first stress fracture – and, after three or four, she eventually visited a sports doctor. “The doctor asked me about my periods – I’d had no periods for about six years – and said he thought I needed a bone scan. I had osteoporosis in my back and osteopaenia in my hip. That was a massive wake-up call.”
It wasn’t just the physical impact that affected her. “I still loved food – that was the problem. I was getting depressed because I didn’t feel there was way out. Eating had always been such a big part of my life; it was a social thing and a happy thing.”
The stress fractures meant that, for a time, Holly had to stop competing. She carried on running for fitness and fun, moving to Bath in her mid-twenties, and it was here that she met Martin Rush, who became her coach (and, later, her husband). Her training became more organised. “It was all new to me in terms of split times, lactate testing, heart rates – it was all really exciting,” she says.
Mixing with other fast athletes, Holly was still conscious of her weight, but Martin encouraged her to focus on training and let her body shape take care of itself. With his guidance, she went from running 2hrs 59mins at the Berlin Marathon, to finishing London in 2hrs 48mins six months later. Most importantly, she enjoyed it. “I ran London high fiving people. I class that as one of my best races, in terms of how I felt. I didn’t care what I looked like or what size I was; I just ran.”
Holly continued to speed up, qualifying to race at the Commonwealth Games, but became frustrated when her marathon time reached a plateau at 2hrs 37mins. “I gave it one last go,” she says. “But I came round the corner and was two seconds outside my PB. I took my shoes off and said to Martin, ‘I don’t know if I’m enjoying this any more.’”
She decided to try something completely different, and travelled to Nepal to take part in her first trail race. “The first day, I just kept falling over,” she laughs. “I said, ‘I’m definitely going back to the roads!’ After a few days I was completely in love with it.”
She decided ultrarunning was the way forward and now describes herself as a trail convert. It’s clear that the more relaxed atmosphere of longer, off-road races is part of the appeal – that and the healthy dose of masochism that comes with it. “This sounds crazy, but I love the suffering. You go in and out of these places of hideousness and feeling sick, then you have good patches. When you finish, you feel completely spent. And I love that.”
She also feels a real affinity with her fellow competitors. “Ultra runners are a different species,” she says. “They are genuinely happy that you’re there and really want you to do well. In mountain races and ultras, you are suffering together – it’s a real community.”
And, of course, running so far means that she gets plenty of pies and cake. “I will always have an eating disorder,” she says, “but I don’t restrict myself. I love food and I don’t want to go down that path… that’s why I get upset about all this ‘clean eating’ stuff. It’s just an excuse for people to eliminate food groups. And it’s really bloody expensive!”
This year, Holly’s running plans are undecided – although she’s planning a big run for her 40th birthday. In the meantime, she’s helping to head up the ASICS FrontRunners, a group of 45 athletes chosen from members of the public. “It’s a mixture of people from different walks of life,” she says. “It’s going to be really exciting to meet everyone.”
One thing’s for sure – they won’t be short of post-run cake recommendations…
Hear Holly’s tips for first-time marathoners here: