I met Gemma in 2017 at The Running Awards. She was shortlisted for Best Blog and won bronze at the event. I remember sitting at the table with her and overhearing her talk about some of her recent marathon times and I was blown away. She’d just posted her first sub-three-hour marathon – a time I could never dream of! Since then, I have followed her running journey as she’s shaved even more of her marathon PB now targeting sub 2:55 and beyond! Recently, I caught up with her for my Five Questions With series, but we had such a wonderful conversation, it was more like twenty questions. So here is a special, extended version of my five questions series, capturing the highlights of our conversation and the amazing runner that is Gemma Hockett, Marathon Girl.
Why did you start running?
I was a sprinter at school. I started when I was quite young and continued until I was about 16 years old in the 100 metre, 200 metre and the relay. I had natural speed, but as I got older, I realised that sprinting wasn’t really for me, so I quit. I closed the door on it completely.
As I got into my late 20s, I changed jobs and started working in London and I got out of shape. I was a little overweight and really unfit. The company that I worked had a gym. A trainer at the gym there suggested I sign up for a 10k. I thought to myself, 10k?! That is so far! But he convinced me to do it so I started training. It was horrendous. I really wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to run over 6 miles.
The actual 10k was one of the Santa Runs, where you dress as Father Christmas. I didn’t even have a sports bra. I wore a normal bra, with a Nike vest, a Santa beard and hat! It took me about an hour to complete but I really surprised myself. I actually really enjoyed it!
The following year, I went to watch my friend Susanna in the London Marathon. We saw a guy around mile 20 who was really suffering. Something was wrong with his knee. He was absolutely destroyed, nearly collapsing in front of me. I said to him, “You can do this!” He looked at me and said, “You’re right. I can,” and he picked himself up, with his bent-of-of-shape knee and he started running. I just started crying. I thought to myself, if he can do it, I can do it. It was one of those light bulb moments. That year, I got a charity place in the London Marathon and that’s where it all started.
How was your first marathon experience?
The training was so shocking. I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to run my first marathon in four hours. I ran 3:59:10. At the time, I said that I would never do it again. Ever. All my friends and family agreed. This was not something I could ever do again.
What made you change your mind?
The day after the marathon, I went on holiday to sort myself out. I just sat there on the beach and thought to myself, maybe if I trained a bit better, I could have a better experience. At the time, I was still drinking alcohol and partying. I just made marathon training fit into my life, rather than giving it the respect that it needs.
I always say, if you can respect 26.2, it will respect you. I really do believe that. I have learned that it’s not something you half train for and expect a good result.
So, what happened next?
After the 3:59 marathon, I decided I would train properly and I set a goal of running 3:30 next year. Everyone told me I was absolutely nuts. To take half an hour off your time is a bit extreme. But off I went, to the London Marathon 2014 and I trained for 3:30. On the day, all my friends and family were out on the course cheering for me. I got to mile 20 and I felt really bloody good. So, I put my foot down and I came away with a time of 3:21.
How did you feel after that?
I was absolutely destroyed. I literally threw up. I learned a valuable lesson during that marathon: do not mix energy gels with Lucozade Sport drink! I came through the line, chucked up all over this poor man. It was so bad.
I rang up my Grandad and told him, you know what? I’m going to go under three hours. My Grandad is ex-army, and I think that is where I get a lot of my discipline from. He said to me, “if anyone can do it, it’s you.” I walked away inspired to make it happen. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to find out.
So last year, at the Manchester Marathon, you did it. You ran 2:59:37. How did that feel?
It was one of the most amazing days of my life. It seems ridiculous and cheesy to say, but I literally collapsed. I was absolutely in pieces. I wanted sub-three so bad. I was feeling good about it but you never really know until the day. You don’t know how you’re going to feel.
What was your plan for race day?
I ran with my friend Jon who recently ran sub-three in Tokyo. He planned to run 20 miles with me. A Kenyan friend named Tarus who lives in Manchester also said he’d come out on the course and help me. For him, 2:59 is nothing. He thought I should be going for something like 2:45! Haha.
At the halfway point, we were at 1:29:50. We just ran each mile. We didn’t go any faster. We didn’t go any slower. We got to mile 20 and I thanked Jon for his support. He just looked at me and said, “I’m going to stay with you. We started this journey together and we’re going to finish it together.”
The actual Manchester course isn’t as flat as everyone thinks it is. There’s actually two miles near the end that is a slow burning incline. It’s not pleasant. I nearly lost my **** on those two miles. It was me and sub-three in a massive war. I was really struggling. Jon took one look at me and said, “Come on! You need to fight for this!” So I chucked another gel down my neck, and I pushed forward. It hurt so bad. It was the most painful marathon I have experienced.
What happened to Tarus?
When you run Manchester, you turn at 26 miles and then run down a long home straight where you can see the clock. I ran round the corner and I could see the clock had just ticked over to 2:59. Then suddenly, Tarus jumped out of a bush and over the barriers shouting my name! My sprint speed is literally like his jogging speed. So I had Jon on one side, and Tarus on the other, both shouting at me. I came through the line and collapsed. They both picked me up and they were like, “You did it!” I was in shock.
You’ve improved so much in such a short span of time. Do you ever have moments where you wonder where you could be now if you had started this journey sooner?
Everything happens for a reason. I’m at a different stage in my life now. I’m 33. I have a husband. I have a house. I have a good job. I have some balance in my life. I’m wiser now than if I had started at 18. When you’re young, your motivation may be different and you could be more prone to overtraining. For women, we don’t really hit our peak until our mid to late 30s. Look at women like Jo Pavey and Aly Dixon. I think a part of their success is that these women are not only wise, but they and happy. I also believe being happy is a big part of this.
In a nutshell, I think if I had tried to do this in my 20s, I don’t think I would’ve had as much focus as I have now.
When you are at your absolute lowest point in a race, what do you do or say to yourself to convince yourself to keep going?
During training, my friend Jon and I always talk about something we call “the well.” On TV programmes or nursery rhymes, you often see people falling down a well. We always say to each other, as you’re falling into the well (during the marathon), how are you going to get out? What is going to get you out of that well? Before a race I write some things on my hand. The ultimate thing that saves me from falling down the well is to remind myself why I do it. The reason why I do it is because I love it. When I get to mile 22 and I’m absolutely dying, I look at that reminder written on my hand, and that’s what keeps me going.
What is your most memorable running failure and what did you learn from it?
I ran 3:08 at the Amsterdam marathon in October 2016. It’s not a failure, because I still PB’d and to complete a marathon is never a failure, however I realised something was wrong. It was after that marathon that I started to realise who I am as a runner – like what type of runner I am. I realised that if I wanted to go under three hours, I needed to make a change. I needed to recruit the right people, or the right tools if you like, to get to where I want to be, this included a new running coach. Finding the right people to help has been incredibly important for me. It was from that day that things really started to change for me.
Speaking of things you spend money on, what purchase under £100 has most impacted your running life?
My Fitletic bum bag. It was about £25. You can fit everything in it – your mobile phone, car keys, credit card, energy gel. It means I can go running anywhere. I can hop on the train and meet my friends after a run. I can go for breakfast and pay with my card. It really gives you running independence.
Tell me about an unusual thing that you do before, during or after a run?
I’m all about routine. When I get home from a run, I have a shake and some food and then I always have a scorching hot bath. This lasts for about half an hour. Then I eat some more food and have a really deep stretch. I stretch for about 30-45 minutes. I hold each stretch for a really long time – kind of like Iyengar yoga. It’s really calming.
What new habit have you adopted in the last 3 years that has most improved your running?
I’ve worked really hard improve my nutrition. People often overlook the power of getting nutrition right and what that can for you as a runner. Now my nutrition is a lot more wholesome. I’m fuelling way better now and eating way more than I ever have. I think it comes down to having the knowledge from again, the right people. I now work with a Performance Endurance Nutritionist who works for the Institute of Sport and he specialises in nutrition for endurance athletes. My diet now is completely different now.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Find a way or fade away. If you want to achieve something, you’ve got to find a way.