Gemma Steel: from local leagues to European cross country champion

Multiple national and international gold medallist over cross country, Gemma Steel (Charnwood, Liz Nuttall) is no stranger to conquering the mud and hills. Her success is however not limited to multi-terrain, she is also a regular on the roads, tackling anything from 5k to half marathon. We were lucky to catch up with Gemma at the recent National Running Show in Birmingham to find out all about her journey in the sport.

A late starter

 Starting out as a young sprinter it wasn’t until year seven when Gemma discovered a natural ability for cross country. At aged 19 she went on to join Hermitage Harriers Running Club - running the local league races and enjoying it for the social aspect and feeling part of a team.

"That's when it all escalated really. I joined Charnwood AC few years later and tried to count for the team, get medals and it all went from there."

Gemma Steel finishing London marathon 2011

"I didn't expect to get to the level that I got to, so I didn't put any pressure on myself early.  I just took it a step at a time –and then all of a sudden it was county championships in the Midlands and then a natural progression through the levels but I never set out to be an international runner; I never thought it was going to happen. The main thing is not to put too much pressure on yourself and enjoy it. I think that if you enjoy it, anything else is a bonus."

Adding a different element – joining a running club

Gemma is still a member of Charnwood AC, and enjoys the community aspect of being part of an athletics club.

"Because I do a lot of training on my own, it's nice to give back and support them because you feel like you're doing things for other people rather than something that can be quite self-centred."

Gemma noted that being in the club adds a different element for her, it's a bonus to her running as well as the individual performance. She relishes the opportunity to be part of a team and support the younger athletes coming through.

"Maybe I'm the athlete I am because of the club. Making the Charnwood team for a start was the aim, then making the national team and I went from there."

Why cross country?

When she was younger she was not the keenest of cross country runners. But it's grown on her over the years, and it it's helped her to be the athlete she is now.

"I think it's just the fun aspect of cross country, there's all the challenges: I've lost shoes and had a few tumbles into the muddy stuff."

She continued, "But it's something we can we can all relate to and all that those challenges and obstacles and you can apply to life; it’s a bit of a metaphor. So it gives you that grit and determination to get through."

Gemma Steel finishing national XC relays 2022

Looking back

A memory that sticks out for Gemma is when she went out to Maine, USA to do the 'Beach to Beacon' and the Falmouth races.

"It was more of a novel experience rather than just getting there and doing the race. You got to spend 2 weeks out there with a local family - they looked after me like a daughter really. And the encouragement that they gave me; I went back after coming second the year before and I won it. And they were so proud of me and that just made it for me."

Let the comeback be stronger than the setback

When asked how she deals with injuries and setbacks Gemma responded that she's only had two major injuries

"My first one was my achilles, but I don't remember much about that one. But the really battle with sciatica really hampered me.  I've had to take a step back and reassess my weaknesses as an athlete, try to tinker the training and do a lot of the glute work. I think positivity and trying to see the process as a bit of a blessing in disguise and taking it a day at a time."

She's needed a lot of resilience and determination: "That grit that you channel in races, you have to channel to the recovery as well. Maybe it's a cliché , but let the comeback be stronger than the setback."

Success is different for everyone

"It's not what you achieve, but how you go about things. It's not about numbers on a watch. It's about setting an example and overcoming obstacles and adversity."

Gemma Steel was one of the four panellists at the National Running Show Q&A session.
You can also read about Sam Harrison (track and road running), Sara Willhoit (mountain running) and Vinay Joshi (social runner and qualified coach).

National Running Show 2024 athlete panel

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