The days were nearing towards Christmas 2022 and Sarah McDonald received a now familiar present. Again her body had failed her. Her hip for all signs pointed to another stress fracture. The latest in a string of injuries that had stalked her for over three years.
McDonald tries to remember them all:
“So my biggest foot one was my third metatarsal stress fracture. Three femoral stress responses, pretty severe ones. I had a iliopsoas tendinopathy, heel stress response, multiple first metatarsal stress responses. I tore my calf once getting out of the swimming pool when I was injured.”
Finally McDonald had reached her point of no return. No point seeing a scan, she’d grown accustomed to the shooting pains of a bone once more saying no.
Reluctantly, however, under the persistence of her coach she sought the doctor’s opinion. The answer wasn’t necessarily the one she was hoping for. Inflammation on her hip, the tendinopathy had stopped short of a fracture but it left McDonald facing another period of thankless rehab.
Time to forget it all:
“I actually went skiing because I was just so done with the whole thing that I was like I just want to live life like a normal human, do things that athletes can’t do. So then I did go skiing and I came back and actually I was like my hips so much better.”
McDonald figures the week on the slopes actually did a good job loading the tendon. Perhaps more importantly it gave her a reset and with it the temptation to keep going:
“I’d had probably six weeks, two months off at that point. It must’ve been the end of January, I decided to give it one last big go.”
“My soul is in that hotel room”
The Birchfield Harrier left 2019 a European champion. A mixed relay win at the European Cross Country Champs in Lisbon, backing up 2017 gold. A British 1500m champion in the summer she had held off the challenge of Jemma Reekie that day. A few weeks after she came within a quarter of a second of a first World Championship final.
0.1 seconds off the Olympic standard in 2016, McDonald could not have been more strongly placed for a Tokyo place in 2020.
“I was due to race indoors in 2020 and I flew to Boston to race at the New Balance Grand Prix. I got sick. I presume it was COVID. That was kind of like the start of my disaster. I always joke to people that my soul is in that hotel room.”
As McDonald puts it then the world broke. Tokyo postponed, by the time of the Olympic trials in 2021 the then 27-year-old could not have been in a more different situation.
One foot on the plane
Suffering a metatarsal stress fracture eleven weeks before the trials, McDonald tried to do everything possible to give herself a chance.
“I lived in Bishop Abbey for six, seven weeks in that period at the rehab centre. Everything about life right then was just trying to get to the Olympic start line. I had so many people helping me to get there, but ultimately it did take its toll mentally on me. Up until 10 days before the trials, I was still cycling with a boot on. I ran probably in total a mile outside before the trials.
I think it was really tough at that point because I had the Olympic standard. I’d qualified and there was only Laura Muir and Katie (Snowdon) who had the standard. So there was a spot on the team and it was just a weird situation because the opportunity was there. It was just a case of having to try and show form. It was difficult because I’d already kind of sat myself on the plane.”
For all her efforts, McDonald exited the trials in the heats.
Keeping on, keeping on
McDonald’s problems didn’t end with disappointment in Manchester.
“I was injured again by Christmas. I just went quiet on social media because ultimately I had nothing positive to say whatsoever. There were times words couldn’t really explain how shit a situation could be.”
Persistent injury can lead to some pointing fingers. Add the physical pain to the accusations somehow a series of injuries is your own fault and you start to question why any athlete would choose to keep going:
“I was going through a lot of consultations and getting a lot of advice into how I could improve that. Ultimately it was no fault of my own. Throughout my career I’ve never under eaten. I’ve never had an eating disorder. I just simply had a bit of a hormonal issue that was having to be dealt with and was mismanaged earlier in my running career. That had led to effects further down the line.”
McDonald admits many have questioned why she continued, why after three years with only one heart-breaking venture onto the track she would be willing to put herself through it all over again.
Not to mention the financial stress of trying to keep a professional contract and being dropped from British Athletics funding in 2021.
Bit by bit
Yet instead of giving up hope, McDonald chose instead to focus on the short-term:
“I never saw everything as a big problem. I kind of just broke it down and did little problem-solving. Similar to like if you went on a run and focus on just little bits of the run. Oh, I’ll just get through the first mile, or I’ll just get to the end of this road. I kind of just saw it like that and broke everything down to little chunks to make it more manageable. What can I do right now that’ll help?”
A health-led coaching solution
Ever-present throughout McDonald’s struggles has been former British Athletics Endurance Physio Andy Walling. The pair had met when McDonald was on British Athletics funding but kept in touch when Walling moved to become first team physio at Manchester United.
Each time McDonald would face fresh troubles often Walling would be the one to help nurse her back to health.
“He always rehabbed me and got me back to my feet, did my return to run and then would hand me over. Then I’d get injured again. So then we were just like, this doesn’t work. Why don’t you just do it all the time?”
The pair linked up permanently in late 2022. After three years of anguish McDonald can now look back on a 2023 that has exceeded all expectations.
2023 in review
Injured in January, by July McDonald had come within 0.03s of an Olympic qualifying mark.
“We’d had such a short build up. I went out to Font Romeu on an altitude camp in April, May time. It felt like we having to do December work in April, because we were just so behind on what I needed to do. We kind of just had to hyper speed everything, but also make sure we were still doing all of the stuff that I don’t really enjoy doing.
So then with the season, it was just such a good feeling to get back on the start line and actually finish a race and put on a pair of spikes for a start. Everything grew from there.”
A 2:04 800m in May to win the Trafford BMC A race, by the end of the season she was just 0.02s off her 2019 best. In the 1500m she showed similar form, with three performances of 4:03 or better:
“My goalposts moved so much throughout the time. And actually I finished the season disappointed for not breaking four minutes. But on reflection, I ran the world standard three times, I was 0.03s off the Olympic standard and I probably was more consistent than I’ve ever been. More confident in my own racing than ever before.”
McDonald comes alive when talking about her 2017 World Championship experience:
“I think going to the World Champs in 2017 for me was was like an Olympics because the crowds were so good. The atmosphere was incredible. I would say actually throughout my career that those two days of the heat and semi-final were the best two days of my life.”
You get the sense that moments like that kept her going through some of the darker times. Why four years later she did everything possible to experience that at an Olympics.
Here we sit in 2023 and that same hunger exists. That same desire to test herself at the global level.
On Sunday October 1 McDonald competes in the Road Mile at the World Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia. Her first GB vest since 2019.
McDonald puts it lightly:
“It makes it seem a bit more worth it after all of the crap.”
Earned by blood, sweat and a fair few tears, come 2024 and a Paris Olympic tilt, she’ll hope to add another to her collection.
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Featured images courtesy of Mark Hookway.