Steph Davis: From first marathon to Olympic marathon in three short years

Women's marathon winner Stephanie Davis celebrates after winning British Athletics Marathon Trials at Kew Gardens on March 26, 2021. (Photo by Tom Dulat - British Athletics/British Athletics via Getty Images)
Women's marathon winner Stephanie Davis celebrates after winning British Athletics Marathon Trials at Kew Gardens on March 26, 2021. (Photo by Tom Dulat - British Athletics/British Athletics via Getty Images)

A little over three years ago, Team GB's Steph Davis was a seasonal runner, training twice a week when the "weather was nice". Fast forward to 2021 and the Scottish athlete is less than three months away from her first Olympics. Tokyo 2020 caught up with the marathon specialist to talk about her rapid rise to the pinnacle of athletics. 

Straight to the top

It's perhaps an overstatement to say that Steph Davis, Great Britain's marathon trials winner and soon-to-be-Olympian, came out of nowhere. But it's safe to say that this was one of the speediest rises to the top of a sport in living memory.

Three years ago, Davis had never run a marathon. She was what she calls a "seasonal runner", training twice a week when the sun was out and then hibernating in the gym during the cold winter months.

"It wasn't until about three years living in London that a colleague at work suggested I come down to Clapham Chasers, the club I'm with now," explained Davis in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020, looking back at her initiation into the world of serious running. "I guess I was doing seasonal running – I would go in the summer when the weather was nice."

It was Davis's boyfriend who suggested she try a marathon for the first time, which just happened to be the 2018 Berlin Marathon – a race that has gone down in history as the location Eliud Kipchoge set the current world record of 2:01:39 a year later in 2019.

Davis's time that day was a hugely respectable 2:41:16. But just three years later, she would knock precisely 14 minutes off of that mark to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

It was a lightning-fast rise to the elite echelons of marathon running. And she got there in a less-than conventional way.

Low mileage training pays off in spades

Preparing for that first marathon in Berlin gave Davis something she had been missing up until that point: a personalised training plan.

"That was my first programme that was unique and specific to me," she remembered. "And I really loved it! I really enjoyed the structure and the plan."

But the initial plan that was handed to her – heavy on weekly mileage in a way typical to elite distance runners – seemed like too much of a jump for someone who until that point had only been running twice or three times a week. Davis returned to her coach and asked him if they could adjust the plan to something that wasn't so overwhelming.

"We just found a balance where we started increasing my mileage and then adding in the cross training," she said. "And that routine just kind of stayed."

It's a formula that, while unconventional, has clearly worked wonders for an athlete who is on the cusp of representing her country in Tokyo. But what does her training routine look like these days?

"In London [the 2019 London Marathon], I ran 2:32 and I did that off of cross training and running 55 miles (88 km) on average for the whole block. We just thought we shouldn't really change things too drastically if it's working and so we just stuck with it."

For Davis, cross training typically means using the elliptical trainer as a replacement for double run days and swimming twice a week in the pool. It's a far cry from the over 200km per week of running Britain's former world record holder Paula Radcliffe subjected herself to in her racing days.

But if it isn't broken, why fix it? And this variety of training is paying dividends for Davis as she continues to redefine her limits with every passing race.

As much as I love running, I don't want to be all-consumed by it all of the time.

Don't give up the day job

Many athletes can become consumed by their sport, often to their long-term detriment. The pressure to succeed gives them a singular focus that can sometimes wreak havoc with their mental wellbeing.

Davis, who will turn 31 just after the Games end in Tokyo this August, has never been one to let running take over every facet of her life. She continues to work a day job with an asset management company in London and plans to do so all the way up until Tokyo.

"As much as I love running, I don't want to be all-consumed by it all of the time. It does make things a little bit easier, working remotely," explained Davis, who has been working from home ever since COVID-19 forced the UK into lockdown early in 2020.

Even the March marathon trials, where she came home in first place to book an automatic qualifying spot for Tokyo 2020, didn't make her consider taking a break from work to concentrate on her physical preparations.

"I hadn't really taken any time off before that," she said, laughing. "And after that I only took one day!"

Making the team for Tokyo

Time off or not, Davis saved the best performance of her life for those British Marathon Trials. And in fact, having something like work to take her mind off the challenge that lay ahead of her, may have helped her be in the best possible state of mind at a time when race day nerves can scupper many a talented athlete's ambitions.

"I kind of got all my nerves and pre-race discussions out of the way a week before the trials and at that point, I said to my close friends and family, 'I don't want to analyse anything now'.

"People are so enthusiastic and so keen, which is great, but sometimes when you have everyone giving their opinion of what's going to happen I actually end up playing games in my head, then I can just get more nervous."

Jitters banished to the background, Davis performed brilliantly to win the crowd-less trials in London's Kew Gardens with a PB of 2:27:16 and book a seat on the plane to Tokyo. Her victory meant she joined Chris Thompson – the men's winner that day – Ben Connor, Jess Piasecki, Steph Twell and the already-qualified Callum Hawkins on the Team GB marathon team.

"I just loved every minute of the race. It was a really fun event," she said of her performance that day. "I knew I could run well but you just never know how anybody else is going to fare, especially during COVID when nobody's raced so you don't have any indication of what form people are in.

"So I was really excited but really shocked! It was really surreal."

Now with Tokyo looming on the horizon, she is hoping to "do Team GB proud" when she steps out onto the looped course in Sapporo to take on the biggest challenge of her life.

And who knows what time Davis, who seemingly gets faster and faster with every passing month, will achieve when the women's marathon race takes place in the early hours of Saturday 7 August 2021 at Sapporo Odori Park.