This season has seen the welcome return of Sarah McDonald to the track. After three years disrupted by injury and setback, the 30-year-old is returning to her best form. With Paris on the horizon, work is underway to make an Olympic dream – once so distant at the height of injury – a reality. Sarah spoke to James Rhodes about her season to date, future goals and her new partnership with On.
1,321. That is the number of days between 3 October 2019 and 16 May 2023. Those are not random dates picked from thin air. Rather, the first is the semi-finals of the 1500m at the World Championships in Doha. The second is perhaps slightly more innocuous, a Tuesday evening and otherwise ordinary BMC meeting in Trafford.
What makes those occasions particularly noteworthy? They, in a way, represent the closing of one chapter of Sarah McDonald’s career and the opening of the other. The former her last track race before injury (and COVID) took hold. The latter, the opener to a season that has got faster with every race.
The three and a half years in between? Just one race, at the 2021 British Championships. A roll-of-the-dice at qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. It was a long shot, but the journey that could include the Paris Olympics next summer looks a little smoother.
Entering the Unknown
Regardless of the level, returning to racing is a daunting task after such a long absence. Regardless of how training has been going, there is an element of unknown until you step onto the track and the gun goes off.
It was a simultaneously exciting yet nerve wracking experience for Sarah, who started the season with little idea of how it might play out. As it turned out, pretty well was the answer.
“It’s really good to be back. I came into the season having no idea what was going to happen. I really had no idea, and it’s hard to go into races not having any idea what shape you’re in. Racing yourself fit is never a pleasant way of doing it, but it’s been good to build race-on-race and see such big improvements. Not only improvements in performance but improvements in my confidence and how I approach things”.
By her side throughout has been her coach (and “physio extraordinaire” Andy Walling. Perhaps best known as the physio for Manchester United, Andy’s working relationship with Sarah dates back to 2018. It has been quite a journey.
“He has stuck with me through all my terrible injuries. He’s the one person that’s always the one to call me on a bad day and text me on a good day. He’s been by my side for every injury I ever had, and throughout the whole shitty four years I’ve had.
When I came back from America, a mess, he just took me under his wing. He knows me so well and knows my body so well. We work together really well as a team, we throw ideas off each other and he’s a really, really good friend of mine”.
Nearly the End
It was not always easy to see the light at the end of the running tunnel whilst navigating through numerous injuries and setbacks. Following a new injury in December, Sarah decided to step back from running in favour of a pair of skis. As it turned out, it was the perfect remedy.
“Over December, I had a really niggly hip. At first I thought I had a stress fracture, but it was a soleus injury and needed loads of loading. I was like, ‘how have I possibly got injured again?’. I was in a really bad frame of mind about it and didn’t really know what to do, I didn’t know if I could face rehabbing again.
So I spoke to Andy and I said ‘my partner’s going skiing, there’s space in the chalet, can I go?’ I could just go and enjoy it. I think it was nerve wracking for him because every evening he was worried I was going to be in a hospital bed, having fallen off the side of a mountain.
It was actually the perfect loading because I was always in a quarter or half squat. I came back pain free, ran and it was pretty perfect. I was like; ‘you know what, I’ve reset, had some time away, I’m gonna give this one last shot’”.
Sarah decided a run out at Walsall Arboretum Parkrun would be a good tester. It was a promising sign for what might come; she finished in 16:38 (a time that topped the Fast Running Parkrun Top Ten that weekend).
The track season opened with two British Milers Club meetings. An 800m (2:04.24) to start followed by a 1500m win at the Sportcity Grand Prix (4:10.67) eleven days later.
After four weeks in Font Romeu where training had been “solid but nothing spectacular”, they were welcome starts. A flurry of races followed that, with two exceptions, were faster than the one before. 4:10 became 4:06; 4:06 turned to 4:05, and 4:03 soon followed. With every race, every lap, confidence grew.
“I just built into races. I had to find my feet again and work out how to race and be my old self. With every race that went by, I was like; ‘oh, well, if I’m in that shape, I can clearly train a bit quicker!’. It’s been really good just to see the times come down. I built on everything, got my old confidence back and could approach things a bit differently”.
For the two races that didn’t follow the trajectory, there was a clear explanation. A messy race at the Czeslaw Cybulski Memorial in Poznan (4:08.99) saw Sarah tripped and aggravate her hamstring, withdrawing from the British Championships as a result. The Morton Games in Dublin (4:08.20) were hampered by the weather (“honestly the worst weather I have ever competed in! It was like hurricane season mixed with monsoon season all rolled into one”).
The best race of the season (so far) came at the Meeting Madrid at the end of July. Sarah finished third in 4:02.53, her third fastest ever, almost four years to the day since setting her PB. It was a fantastic time, but agonisingly just three hundredths of a second she of the Olympic qualifying standard (4:02.50).
“It was a really good run for me and I knew it, I couldn’t complain because it was quicker than anything I had run for four years. I thought I’ll just go with it and if I die, I die, if I don’t die then I haven’t gone hard enough. But I did swear and slap the ground afterwards when I saw the time come up because it was so close! I wish I’d dipped on the line!”.
The tough conditions in Madrid – hot, dry air and partial altitude – have given confidence that it is only a matter of time before the Olympic standard is ticked off. As Sarah points out, however, getting into a race that allows for such times to be run can be a challenge. It is one of many goals going forward:
“Paris is the main goal. For me to make the team for Paris, I probably have to run sub-four. I know that’s well within my capability and I know that I’m in shape for that now. I want to have an injury-free winter and bounce into indoors, have a decent indoor season and go for it in the summer next year”.
That race in Madrid signalled a new chapter in other ways too, as Sarah signed with On last week. Having been without a sponsor since January (“I was still wearing New Balance kit to stay loyal hoping that something would come through”), it is an exciting partnership that opens a new chapter to her running career.
Time moves fast. But @SarahAMcDonald moves faster. Welcome to our new On athlete, the British former 1500m champ 🇬🇧
Can’t wait to see you back on the track, flying that On flag. pic.twitter.com/6FF9NWkprV
— On (@on_running) August 9, 2023
“It almost happened overnight! After my race in Madrid it was almost like people were interested again. I just turned 30 and I thought people would think I was too old now, so I was really flattered. On are doing great things, actually investing into track, it’s really cool brand to be a part of. It’s exciting to start with a new brand and go forward with a bit of a change”.
After a “crazy but fun season”, the journey continues. The change is certainly looking like a good one.