Trends & Features

Dame Kelly Holmes: why the double Olympic champion is still challenging herself

By Tony James

Dame Kelly Holmes didn’t have to run the London Marathon. A double Olympic gold medallist and a legendary figure in British athletics, she had nothing left to prove. Besides, she was 46, had been retired from professional running for over 10 years and had never been a marathon runner.

Was it really necessary to pound the pavements at dawn, in constant pain for every step of an 18-mile training run, which left her virtually unable to walk for five days?

“It was the hardest training I’ve ever done,” Holmes remembers. “The monotony of long runs is mental torture. Everything ached. My nerves were inflamed. It felt as though ants were crawling all over my body. I had to go to hospital for injections to release the tension.”

Against the odds
But there was no question of her not being among the 39,000 starters at last April’s 36th London Marathon because Holmes, even after more than 30 years of injury dogged competitive running, simply can’t resist a challenge. Battling against the odds is what she’s all about.

This time it was all about raising £250,000 for five charities, including her own Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and several cancer charities – her mother is currently in remission.

“I’ve missed not having a personal physical challenge because that’s what makes me,” Holmes explains. “I have to have challenges and go through the trauma of doing it. Thousands of people who run marathons have all done something I hadn’t, so I was inspired by that.

“Raising money for charity gave me the motivation to do my very best.”

She certainly did that – with a highly creditable time of three hours, 11 minutes. Afterwards she said: “My legs are aching beyond belief, but it’s an amazing feeling to think I’ve done it.”

In fact, urging people to move out of their comfort zones and fulfill their potential has become almost a way of life for the woman who rose from working in a sweet shop to become Britain’s first double gold medallist at the same Olympic Games since 1920.

Garmin global ambassador
As a global ambassador for Garmin, Holmes fronts the company’s Beat Yesterday campaign, which encourages people to improve their activity levels by monitoring their heart rate, distance run or walked, calories burned, sleep patterns and other guides to fitness with the latest Garmin tracker.

“Garmin is a brand I’ve trusted since I started using technology to track my performance,” Holmes says. “I’m excited to share my passion with others and inspire them to constantly challenge themselves to improve and stay active.

“Beat Yesterday is a simple challenge to people of all fitness and activity levels to better themselves, no matter who they are or how they live. The campaign positions Garmin as the brand that helps people move more, further and faster each day.

“One of the messages of the campaign is that everyone can focus on something they would like to develop or improve and which could eventually become life changing. It’s incredible what the latest monitoring equipment can do. When I became an athlete, there was a stopwatch and a lap counter and that was it.”

Battling through the pain
Holmes’ life has been one long journey of challenges and the marathon was the latest and one of the hardest. There was not much anyone could tell her about the downside of being a world class athlete – for years physiotherapy, acupuncture and injections for hip pain, lower back and calf spasms had become a way of life. But now she was older and the marathon was a new and unknown discipline.

“I had never been a distance runner and I haven’t the mentality I had when I was an elite athlete,” Holmes explains. “Because I was feeling pain everywhere, my stride was shortening and I had a lot of hip pains.”

But all this did was to make her even more determined: “I had lots of physical problems, but there is always a turning point if you stick at it and mine came about five weeks before the race, when I at last felt I was running more freely.

“Before that point, running 18 miles in training was the most painful experience ever. I can’t describe how awful it was. Then I reached the turning point and realised I’d cracked the problem.”

As one of the world’s most popular elite runners, Holmes specialised in the 800 and 1500 metres, won gold for both distances at the 2004 Athens Olympic – her final major championship – and still holds records for 600, 800, 1000 and 1500 metres.

Early years
Born in Kent and the daughter of a Jamaican-born car mechanic and an English mother, Holmes began athletics training at 12 and won the English schools 1500 metres in her second season.

Later she turned her back on athletics and after working in a sweet shop and as a nursing assistant joined the army and eventually became a sergeant in the Physical Training Corps.

By now she was back on the athletics track – she was also the army judo champion – and for some years combined being an athlete and a soldier, until she became a full-time professional runner in 1997.

With success came stress and injuries and she remembers times of black depression and self-doubt. No wonder she has described her life as “a journey and a half”, which went from despair to delight in just six days in 2004 when she became 800 and 1500 metre Olympic champion and the first Briton to achieve the Olympic middle distance double for 84 years.

Not surprisingly, it was the highlight of her life. After her Athens triumph, over 40,000 people welcomed her home to Kent, she became BBC Sports Personality of the Year and on her retirement a year later was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen. It was, said Holmes: “The culmination of 20 years of dreams.”

Improving lives
The hunt for challenges continued. She became a TV athletics pundit, appeared on chat shows, was runner-up on the Bear Grylls Mission Survive series and became president of Commonwealth Games England.

But her attention was increasingly focusing on her Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which she started in 2008 to support athletes and improve the lives of young people across the UK.

She explains: “I know about depression and the problems it can bring. We run personal development programmes led by trained mentors. When someone feels life has dealt them a raw deal, but can finish one of our programmes and stand up saying their life has just begun, it’s pretty sensational.”

Holmes originally started her charity to help athletes in transition after they had finished their sporting lives: “People don’t realise what you go through when you have spent most of your life doing what you love and suddenly you lose it and life becomes very different.

“Lots of athletes and sports people find they can’t cope because they have no alternative career to fall back on. I started helping them with that, but I also realised sports people can be good role models and their life skills can be transferable when they talk to other people.

“Now we’re proud to say we’ve helped nearly 300,000 young people. Nearly 450 sports men and women have been helped with retirement problems and many have become mentors for young people. It’s been a worthwhile project and there’s still a lot more to do.”

Did Holmes find it difficult when her glittering athletics career came to an end? “My dream was becoming an Olympic champion, so you don’t really think about what comes next until it happens,” she says.

“Yes it was hard, but nowadays my life is so interesting and busy you never know what new challenge might be just around the corner.”

Quick-fire questions

Proudest moments: winning my two Olympic medals and running the London Marathon.

Greatest influence: other people’s achievements drive me to do better.

Sporting hero: when I was 14, it was Seb Coe winning 1500 metre gold at the 1984 Olympics.

Best moment: receiving my Damehood from the Queen.

Worst moment: all my athletics injuries.

Hardest opponent: Maria Mutola of Mozambique in the 800 metres.

Remaining ambition: challenging myself and surprising and inspiring others.

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