Trackstaa spoke exclusively to British marathon sensation, Charlotte Purdue, about how she became involved in long-distance running, her relationship with British Athletics after being snubbed for the 2021 Olympics and how she’s adapting her goals for 2021.
Club Aldershot, Farnham & District
Coach Nic Bideau
Charlotte recently posted on her Instagram, which incidentally includes the coveted blue tick and boasts over 33,000 followers, that asking her how tall she is the one question that annoys her the most. Despite that post coming after we sat down to talk to her, mercifully it was a question I refrained from asking. But it got me thinking; the overriding impression you get from talking to Charlotte, which we were fortunate enough to do, is that people have often underestimated her and whether she was doing ballet as a child, or later, taking up running as a teenager, essentially by chance, she takes great pleasure and, helpfully, has an impressive knack for, proving people wrong.
Where better to start than at the beginning. “I never ran when I was a kid but then when I went to secondary school, my friends signed me up for an inter-class cross country and, I think I came sixth overall in that race”, Charlotte says. In a way which perhaps demonstrates that everything does indeed happen for a reason, the top 6 finish, whilst hardly the initial makings of a teenage running prodigy, did mean that Charlotte would go on to represent the school and it was there that a wily and experienced coach spotted the raw talent.
“Mick Woods, my first coach, was at the race to watch some other athletes and he came over to ask me if I ran for a club and he said that he thought I had potential and that I should come along to his running club so, I did, and there was a couple of other girls from my school that went to this club too” she says, reminiscing. “I was pretty rubbish though, to be honest”, Charlotte admits, with a typical honesty, “but once I started racing, that’s when I enjoyed it more and I started doing more training and it sort of took off from there”, she adds.
I was keen to know whether, like I would certainly have been, she had been a little miffed at her friends for signing her up, unknowingly, to the school’s cross-country race. Laughing, she says, “To be honest, no, I didn’t mind. I didn’t hate running, I had done local fun runs in my village and really enjoyed that, I just never did any running in-between or signed up for anything. Honestly, I was just never really that good. It wasn’t until that coach came over to me that I realised that it might become more official. I just used to do all sports really just for fun.”
Charlotte and I found common ground early on; specifically, on the importance that should be placed on ensuring that children, first and foremost, just have fun. “I went to an all-girls school and the girls that my coach had gone to watch at that inter-schools race had been pushed into it at a really young age and their parents were really into it too. My mum and Dad were really supportive but they didn’t really have a clue about running, so they would just drop me off and go whereas other parents would stay and watch the whole session which would have been just too much.” She adds, “all of those girls now, bar one, don’t run at all and I think sometimes we just put too much pressure on children in sport.”
So why did Charlotte stick with the sport when so many of her friends were dropping out? “I think I just enjoyed the fact that every weekend, I seemed to be going to a different race, I made friends at the running club too so it became a bit of a social thing. Eventually, as I started getting better, I was able to do more exciting races like English schools and nationals, the road relays were always fun. Honestly, I just think I enjoyed it.”
Fast forward to today and as the Head Coach at Purdue Performance, it’s very clear that the importance of having fun, the thing that kept Charlotte in the sport as a teenager, plays a significant part in her coaching philosophy. “The final word to all my athletes before a race, is have fun and enjoy it because at the end of the day, the main reason we run is to enjoy it. I always think about that with my own running too. Just before the London marathon, my boyfriend asked me if I was nervous and honestly, I wasn’t because I was just excited to run.” The huge smile on her face as she’s explaining all this is physical proof of just how much she loves the sport.
From Nike to Adidas
For many, the fact that Charlotte signed for Nike, her long-time sponsor at the tender age of just 16, will come as a surprise. “Yes, it was quite young to sign a kit deal”, she tells me, “but I used to train with Steph Twell and Emma Pallant who were both really good runners and they’re 3 years older than me and so Steph and Emma already had Nike deals and because I was ‘up and coming’, the Nike agent said they wanted to sign me on a kit deal.”
Boxes and boxes of Nike apparel and shoes arriving like clockwork into the grateful arms of a 16-year-old. I would have been like a child at Christmas, unable contain my excitement. “It was cool, yes, and all 3 of us would obviously be matching at training and everything so that was fun. It wasn’t for money or anything, of course, but it was still cool just to get all this Nike kit all the time.”
Now an established professional and after being with Nike for 12 years, Charlotte recently announced that she had switched sponsors and signed for Adidas. “My contract was up for renewal and my agent was looking around for deals and it just turned out that Adidas was a better deal. I just decided that it was time to move for that reason really”, Charlotte explains, before adding, “obviously I did like the Nike shoes but to be honest, I actually really love the Adidas stuff now. You know it’s easy to get blinded by one brand, particularly because I was with Nike for so long. Adidas is awesome and I love being an Adidas athlete. I think everything happens for a reason.”
After being with a competitor brand for so long it must have taken some getting used to, but Charlotte does not strike me as the type to be phased by anything frankly. “I’m really getting on well with it. I’ve only been with Adidas for 4 months now, I’ve not even had the chance to race in the shoes, but I’ve trained in them a lot obviously. I just really like all the kit too though.”
For the shoe geeks, fear not, there’s more; Charlotte had nothing but positive words to say about the often-maligned Adidas shoe range. “Adidas have a great selection of racing flats and shoes to train in, whereas I think with Nike they’re quite limited to just carbon shoes so in the end training in carbon shoes so frequently just beat my body up a bit and I ended up picking up a few injuries. So, now with a wider selection of flats, I’m just finding it a bit better on my body so far.”
And on the question of the super-shoes, Charlotte was effusive in her praise for the exciting Adidas Adizero Adios Pro. “Yeah, I really like them. You can’t really tell the difference between them and shoes with the traditional carbon plate. They just feel very fast. They’re really comfy and snug on your foot. I think some of the Nike ones, I just didn’t get on with, particularly the Alphafly, I just thought it felt bulky and the Adios Pro just feels compact. Almost like you’re not running in a really big shoe, even though they have the normal stack height.”
GB Olympic Marathon selection
We were now over 20 minutes into our conversation and so far I had managed to avoid talking about the subject on everyone’s lips. My curiosity couldn’t wait any longer and so I cautiously steered us onto talking about the drama and disappointment surrounding Charlotte’s omission from the Olympic Marathon team.
With a wry smile and through a laugh that is perhaps hiding the true extent of her emotions, she says, “When I found out, I was pretty shocked and surprised, disappointed and upset, all mixed into one really. Then it quickly turned to anger though because when I saw the minutes from the selection meeting that showed they had all the incorrect information, I turned from being not upset anymore but to angry and pissed off. I felt hard done by really. Now, I would say I’m over it but I’m kind of not really over it too, if that makes sense. I just want to move on and focus on something new and get excited about a new goal. If someone asks me what I’m doing in August, the Olympics doesn’t even feature. To be honest, I’ve forgotten it’s even going ahead.”
It was widely reported, including by us at Trackstaa that following her exclusion from the squad, Charlotte submitted an appeal against the decision and I wanted to know whether, even if she didn’t necessarily agree with the decision, she had at least received the answers as to why others were picked in her place. “I’ve had the answers, but they still don’t make sense to me. The medical information they had in the meeting was incorrect and that’s been proven but yet nobody has taken responsibility for it. They seem to have just brushed over it and I just think it’s really unfair.”
“Has anyone from British Athletics apologised to you?” I asked, trying hard but failing miserably to keep my utter contempt for the way Charlotte was treated hidden. “I think if they apologised it would mean someone had to take responsibility for it and so, no, no apology and no explanation”, she replies. Inexplicably, she adds, “To be honest, though, I’ve not really had any communication on it from anyone, the appeal was done by an independent panel and so the people in the original meeting I’ve had no correspondence with.”
As for the outcome of the well reported appeal, Charlotte was notified by email, “they wrote firstly to say that my appeal had been unsuccessful and then about 5 days later they sent me another 3-page report by email saying that the evidence I submitted in my appeal would not have changed the outcome of the original decision.” As she’s explaining the bizarre circumstances, unsurprisingly, the exasperation in her voice is clear. “The reality is that those who did the appeal were not in the original meeting so how can they say it would not have made a difference, it just doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
It’s very hard to disagree with Charlotte’s conclusion on that, given that the medical evidence the original decision makers considered was hardly peppered with the odd typo, it was wholly and completely inaccurate, in almost every single way.
Inevitably, questions have now turned to the extent that this regrettable episode has damaged the personal relationships Charlotte had with some of the other athletes who were picked in her place. “It hasn’t really affected it to be honest, I would always see those relationships as a professional one. It wasn’t ever personal, it was never anything to do with the other athletes, it was mainly about the fact they considered the wrong facts. Even doing the appeal, I felt like it was unfair to do because the other athletes had already been announced. So, I didn’t feel great about that situation, I felt it was unfair that the team was announced before my appeal was decided because it put us all in a difficult position. So, it was never personal, I wanted to go to the Olympics and so did they, so I hope it won’t affect our relationship in the future.”
Although Charlotte holds zero resentment towards the other athletes selected, there must now be an irreparable breakdown in trust between her and British Athletics, particularly with future events in mind. “Well, obviously not doing the trials didn’t help and I knew it didn’t guarantee selection. I just feel it was completely taken out of my hands and handled really poorly. The only way I could have guaranteed selection was by finishing in the top 2 at the trials, because I already had the time. I know for next time; I just need to run the trials and I would have done that this time but obviously I was injured so it was just too great a risk.”
With all of this now out in the open, I was keen to understand whether there would be anything that Charlotte would change about the way the selection process is handled. Almost like she’s been dying to say this for a while, she answers instantly; “I think the American system is really good, it’s top 3 across the line that go to the Olympics, there’s no room for medical exemptions. I honestly would have been okay with that. For example, if that was the British system, we would only be sending one athlete because only one athlete had the time and only one athlete finished. I feel like that would have been a fairer system. It’s brutal and if you’re injured you don’t get to go but at least everyone knows where they stand at the start and it prevents any conflict.”
With the significant disappointment of missing out on Olympic selection, the difficult thing was always going to be figuring out what goal to focus on, because, for all elite athletes, the Olympics is obviously the pinnacle of competition. “I haven’t yet decided what my goals are really”, she explains, “My coach is coming over next month and so we’ll sit down and have a think about what we are going to aim for. For now, I’m just focussing on getting into good shape, training hard and doing all the things that I know will help me perform well when I do next race.”
I had assumed, possibly wrongly, that Charlotte would be training like an Olympian anyway, on the expectation of being a reserve selection. “Apparently, I am a reserve”, she says alongside a bewildered laugh. “But, I’ve no correspondence on that from British Athletics”. There’s a theme appearing here, I think. She goes on, “The only way I found out I was a Reserve when I was told that I had not been selected, so I think I am, that’s all I can say”, she says laughing.
Perhaps it was just my curiosity, but I wanted to check whether Charlotte’s appetite for any of the shorter distances, possibly even on the track, was still there. “For me, I enjoy the marathon and the road more, but I used to enjoy the 10k, I went to the Commonwealth Games over the 10k, I actually loved it but I used to get a lot of injuries on the track. I found I would recover better doing the marathon training and I just enjoy it more…but who knows, never say never.”
State of British female marathon running
Our conversation moved on to the overall performance of all of our British female marathon runners and I was interested to learn from the 4th fastest British woman ever over the full distance (2:25:38) if anyone was getting close to Paula Radcliffe’s stunning 2:15:25 World record, from 2003. It is sometimes easy to forget how utterly astonishing an athlete Paula Radcliffe was, a World champion in the marathon, half-marathon and the cross-country. The record stood for 16 years until Brigid Kosgei broke the record in 2019. Inevitably, all British female marathon runners are now compared to her.
“Never say never, people are improving all of the time. It’s obviously a stand-out time, it took 16 years for it to be beat so it just shows how good it is. I can’t really say though because people are improving all of the time. Somebody will eventually, for sure.”
Following on from perhaps a predictably guarded answer, I wanted to get Charlotte’s take on the state of British distance running more generally. “I would say we’re in a good place, we have a good lot of athletes. People running very well in all events. Obviously the depth varies in the different events but I think, generally, it’s pretty good actually, yeah.”
One thing we for sure, is that our women’s marathon team for this summer’s Olympics is far weaker without Charlotte Purdue in it.
What’s your favourite workout?
“I like a long run with a fast finish. Like for example a 2 hour long run with a 10k at the end at marathon pace…I love it.”
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
“I thought about this before, I would say Reece Witherspoon. I love her and Legally Blonde was one of my favourite films so.”
What are you choosing as your last meal?
“I would say biscoff spread out of the jar…that would be it.”
What are your favourite running shoes?
“I actually really like the Adios Pro, I would do all my runs in them if I could.”