The Belle Behind the Buns – Hannah England

Photo: Tom Farrell

Nike athlete Hannah England is one of the top British 1500m runners. She has stamped her name on the international circuit with a world silver medal, 4th place finish in the 2013 world championships and multiple diamond league performances. Hannah’s focus on and off the track is one to be admired, she pursued a degree in biochemistry and experienced the NCAA system for a year at Florida state, where she won 2 NCAA titles, set an NCAA record  and bagged some big PR’s in multiple events to kick start her career as a pro. We catch up with her and discover the inside scope of her journey in college and beyond.

I grew up racing Hannah through our teen years at national competitions, we hung out at youth training camps together and travelled to some junior events representing England. I have loved supporting Hannah throughout her career as she has represented Great Britain in the 1500m and really showed consistency and perseverance over the years. I’m so pumped to have Hannah up on the belle lap and I think she can reach out  to  many athletes with her knowledge, having experienced running as a youth, the British club system, the British university system, the American university system and has a lot of experience as a professional at many major championships. 

Belle Lap: You grew up in Oxford, England. Can you share a little bit of info about the culture of the city and how you got into track?

HE: Oxford was a great place to grow up, it is a lovely city with a rich academic and cultural history, it’s modest in size but not in achievements! Athletically, Oxford, was the venue for Roger Bannister’s record breaking sub 4 minute mile. I loved training at the Iffley road track as a teenager, knowing I was in the same place as that iconic run. I was once doing a session there on my own, at probably 16, and Sir Roger wandered on to the track and asked me what I was doing, and what distance I competed at….I was star struck, but also acutely aware I only had a 2 min recovery window, I hope he thought I was dedicated rather than rude when I cut our conversation short!
Like most British cities Oxford has a great ‘club’ running community, I joined Oxford City Athletics Club at 11 and enthusiastically took part in a range of events before settling on middle distance at 13. For the remainder of upper (high) school I balanced my time between running, ballet and a strong desire to succeed academically so I could have a good choice of Universities.

Belle Lap: You went to Florida State for a year, where you ended up winning the indoor mile and outdoor 1500m at the NCAA champs. How was your experience with the Noles and why did you decide to attend university in the USA?
HE:I seriously considered enrolling in an American university at 18, I thought the NCAA system looked phenomenal and I wanted to experience it. After careful consideration I decided to head to the University of Birmingham to be in close contact with my coach, Bud.

Bud has coached me since I was 14 and we’d had great success working together from afar and I was excited to see what we could do based together in Birmingham. My boyfriend (now husband) Luke Gunn went over to FSU in my second year at Birmingham, I took a couple of trips over to visit him and couldn’t believe the facilities and the support available to the athletes out there – the opportunity to travel around the country for races, free kit(!), medical support – it was a world away from what we have in British universities. A lot of students on my Biochemistry degree took years out of the course to improve there language skills or to gain hands on work experience in labs, so I decided to take the opportunity to experience FSU for a year in 2008.
The only international competition available to me that year was the Olympics, a lofty target that I thought would only be realistic if I made some major changes.
I headed off to FSU with two main mantras

1. From Bud, that I was 20 and ready mentally and physically to move my training onto the next level.

2. I was going to try and qualify for the Olympics, and if I failed I’d have learnt a whole lot.
10 months later I had a 6 second 1500m PB, a 2 second 800m PB, two NCAA titles, an NCAA record, an Olympic A qualifier and the skills to start my professional athletics career. But I didn’t make the Beijing Olympics.


Belle Lap: What was a key aspect of being at Florida state that helped you improve so much in the 1500 and move up to what we would call ‘that next level’?
HE:I made a significant improvement in the quality and intensity of my training. Coach Karen Harvey’s program really suited my physiology, the motivation of competing as a team throughout cross country meant I built up the best aerobic base I’d ever had, and with great coaching this was translated into outstanding indoor and outdoor campaigns.
We also had a great group of girls at FSU, we all trained very professionally and supported and pushed each other, it was great fun to be part of a squad that were PB’ing all over the place. I got a lot of out myself living and training with Barbara Parker (British record holder in the steeplechase 9:24.24) and Susan Kuijken (15:04.36 5000m runner) who had both achieved a lot within the NCAA system and back home in Europe.
I think the higher level of competition also contributed to my breakthrough. Britain has a close knit athletics community, you can spend your whole teenage career racing the same girls, and basically the same race, week in week out, and the result almost feels predetermined – so and so will take it out, {Charlotte Browning will always be the strongest over the last 300m 😉 }

As a result of this I think a lot of Brits get a massive shock when they head to an international stage, and this was definitely something I experienced at World Juniors and European U23s. I learned very early on that no one follows a script in NCAA races, kamikaze starts and brave mid race moves took a lot of getting used to, but made me more resilient and gave me the confidence that I could cope with a range of different race scenarios.
I also had one of those beautiful periods where everything went my way, I can remember one cold and one missed day with a sprained ankle…oh to be young and resilient!

Belle Lap: What advice can you give to foreign athletes coming over to compete in the NCAA system?
HE:I think it’s important to fully immerse yourself in the system. A lot of foreigners come over hanging on to what worked for them at home, if you are going to do that then you should just stay at home! I think it’s very hard to try and succeed in the American system and still try and target European championships…its not impossible, but I think the lessons you can learn from fully investing in an NCAA system are invaluable and shouldn’t be lost by trying to do two things half heartedly!
The ethos of being on a scholarship and having a duty to train and compete can be quite alien to British athletes. I think a lot can be learnt about yourself in this environment, and at a faster rate than if you only put your neck on the line when things are 100%.

imagePhoto: Gettyimages

Belle Lap: What did getting a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships mean to you? 
HE: In 2010 I underperformed at the European championships and Commonwealth Games, 2011 was about getting on the team and doing myself justice once I was there. In March 2011 I had another disappointing performance at the European indoor championships and probably trained too hard coming out of that resulting in an achilles injury that put me out for May, and meant I didn’t start my outdoor season until July – but on the plus side I was very fit!
I headed into Daegu ranked 11th and wanting to at least match this ranking, and knowing that in the right race I could finish really fast and do some damage. I was really chuffed to have made the final and was fairly calm heading into the final, I remember logically acknowledging that anyone could get those medals, it was a fairly open field.  I focussed on staying calm and executing my race plan. I’d spent a lot of time practising a strong last 100m under fatigue in training, and I just went into autopilot in that bell lap. I timed my effort really well and took the silver medal. (Hannah also finished 4th in the 2013 World Championships)


Photo: Gettyimages

Belle Lap: What have you had to overcome as a professional runner?
HE:Disruptions to training are incredibly frustrating. I’ve worked really hard to control many of my physical weakness and am really happy with my robustness. Unfortunately my immune system has not been as easy to conquer….or rather too easy for germs to conquer! Being a professional athlete is a lot about discipline and the biggest test for me is carefully listening to my body and having to discipline to respect how I’m feeling.

Belle Lap: How did being part of Dame Kelly Holmes initiative ‘On Camp With Kelly‘ prepare you for the professional racing circuit?

(On Camp with Kelly was set up by 800/1500m athlete Dame Kelly Holmes in early 2004, that summer Kelly went on to win double Gold at the Athens Olympics. This kick started a mentorship program supporting some of the top junior female and male athletes in the United Kingdom until the London 2012 Olympic Games. Kelly passed on all her knowledge to the next generation and many of us, including myself and Hannah gained such valuable experience about what it takes to make it to the top, as well as  opportunities to attend workshops, training camps and listen to some top guest speakers.)

HE: OCWK was awesome in so many ways – it definitely helped carry me through those teenage years when there are SO many funner things to do than drag yourself off to another solo session or run. It was wonderful to be connected to other girls my age going through the same things, with the guidance of someone with so much experience! We had some great workshops that definitely prepared me for the circuit, we learnt keys things like, having your spikes (and kit) in your hand luggage, that there might be only spaghetti and tomato sauce for dinner, travel disruptions, race scenarios, the mental side of training and racing, how to be get the most out of yourself.….but the unique genius of Kelly was that we didn’t just read these on a slide, oh no, we EXPERIENCED them….

“Why on earth are they making us pretend that we’re travelling to the airport and going to Europe?? This is weird”

“Um, excuse me, why haven’t you given me my bag back, wait, you were SERIOUS! I actually have to live out of this rucksack for 3 days…and do a 600m time trial with the other girls tomorrow”

“…so this plain pasta really is all we have for dinner (and lunch), Oh, and you’ve actually told the hotel to disconnect all the TVs, and confiscate the shampoo, surely you can just give me my hair straighteners though? a clean T-shirt??!”

“What is this constant ‘hand washing’ thing you talk about?”

imagePhoto: Gettyimages

Belle Lap: What are your words to live by?
HE: To be consistent in my efforts and decisions, it I s easy to make the right choices when things are going well, but to hold you head and be consistent when you’re having a bad day or feeling sorry for yourself is much tougher and often much more important.

Belle Lap: What do you do for fun when you aren’t training, racing and travelling?
HE:I love to read, it’s something I really craved when I was at university and it still feels really luxurious to have the time to do it! I also like cooking, I cook for my husband, Luke, most days and I love having people over for dinner. Lots of my friends have full time jobs, and I love taking the time to cook up something nice and having them over for the evening.
We also recently got a Cocker Spaniel Puppy called Jack, which has filled a lot of my spare time!

Belle Lap: Who has inspired your running career?
HE:I take a lot of inspiration from anyone who is dominant in their discipline, whether it be in athletics or other sports. I’m in awe of anyone who can make their sport look effortless, when it’s clearly anything but!!


Photography: Gettyimages

Belle Lap: Do you have any pre race rituals?
HE: I take a lot of comfort from planning and routine, I will plan everything out on race day, with the knowledge that it will probably get disrupted by things out of my control, but feeling prepared keeps me calm and makes me feel like I can channel maximum energy towards my performance.

Belle Lap: What keeps you confident and motivated on the start line of a race?
HE: I draw a lot of confidence from the knowledge that I have applied myself 100% to my preparation, things might not always go to plan, but if I have done everything I can to the best of my ability then I have given myself the best shot at performing as well as possible. I also love the fact that I can do a sport I love, as my job. I get the chance to perform in front of fans of the sport and put on a show – I try and remember this when I’m feeling nervous!

Belle Lap: What’s next? 
HE:Earlier in the year I did a block of altitude training in Albuquerque, NM, with my training group. I’ve done few indoor races, (Hannah won the UK indoor championships last weekend in the 1500m). I didn’t really enjoy a lot of my races last summer, so I’m keen to get out and compete again. But the total focus is on qualifying for the Olympic Games and summer performances over the 1500m.

Follow Hannah’s journey on Instagram and Twitter

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