How Jess Bailey won global mountain running gold

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A craft honed in the Lake District allowed British teenage talent Jess Bailey to become a world champion in Thailand

The Lake District’s rugged fells and the dramatic mountainous landscapes of Northern Thailand will forever be linked. While thousands of miles separate the two spectacular locations, the challenging terrain on Jess Bailey’s Cumbrian doorstep set her up for a dominant gold medal-winning performance in Chiang Mai at the inaugural World Mountain and Trail Running Championships last month.

Her victory in the junior classic up and down race was impressive, but her positive attitude is arguably even more so. 

“The best team in the world,” she said in the immediate aftermath of the event. “The past week in Thailand has been one of the best of my life and spending it with these guys has made it even better. I am honoured to have been part of such an epic team.”

The 16-year-old is a wise head on young shoulders. Prior to Thailand she had never travelled outside of Europe, but with her race taking place on the final day of competition she chose to embrace the Asian culture alongside a young British quartet who shared her enthusiasm, ambition and a maturity beyond their years.

“I’ve never done anything like it before, it was amazing,” she reflects. “Because our race was the very last day we’d watched most other people race. There was just one race after us, so there was real hype building up to it. We had such a lovely week, though. We went to little markets and we saw some elephants – the experiences we had were great. I thought as the week went on we’d all get a bit more nervous, but that didn’t happen at all.”

Jess Bailey (WMRTC)

The immediate bond which developed between the athletes, and their resultant “all for one, one for all” mentality, created a healthy environment where issues were raised and dreams were shared. 

“We were really good friends from the off, even though we didn’t all know each other well,” says Bailey of fellow team gold medallists Rebecca Flaherty, Ellen Weir and Emily Gibbons. “As soon as we went away we did everything together. We did face paints for the opening ceremony and for the race, we listened to music and we got ready together. 

“We were talking to each other before the race and the concern was how narrow the paths were. We knew we had a really good chance of a team prize so we said that, on the way down, if there was a GB runner trying to get past, then it wasn’t about impeding your own performance, but moving to the side to let them through. We were really all in it for each other and that makes a great bond.”

Preparation was also key to such impressive global success and Bailey credits the support of British Athletics in giving them the best opportunity to maximise performance. 

From a personal point of view, the team’s early arrival into Thailand and focused build-up – in contrast to her usual school days – enabled her to relax, while ice vests and special ice-cold bandanas on race day also made a difference in hot and humid conditions. 

“We learned a lot in our preparation,” she says. “I learned about how I cope with the heat. It turns out, if you’re there for a week, you actually start to get used to it so quickly. I learned about how my body reacts to travel. Obviously this is just one trip, but it’s great to know how you respond.

“Hot baths … I hate them, but we did a lot of them and I think they worked. We got up early before we went so the timing was better, just those little things. I thought the time difference would be awful but it was fine, so it was just those little bits and bobs that made up the bigger picture.

“We also walked the course twice. We never walk fell running courses, but we all had a great race pretty much, so it obviously works.” 

In conquering the 6.4km, 224m+ course on Doi Suthep, Great Britain and Northern Ireland dominated the individual and team standings.

Bailey was second to the summit behind team-mate and eventual silver medallist Flaherty, but proved strongest on the descent to win individual gold and lead the team to the top of the podium.

The winning performance was delivered on the global stage in Thailand, but it was made in England. 

Jess Bailey (Mark Shearman)

The Leven Valley athlete, coached by Matthew Long with the support of her dad and local coach Pat Miller – father of GB Paralympian Dean – grew up on the fells and cross country, long before she added track running to her mix.

“We didn’t do much specific fell training because actually mountain running is really like cross country, although there’s obviously a bigger hill in it,” she says. “Fell running is different again, it’s more extreme, it’s going up then bombing it down a hill, while mountain running is more trails. Obviously, depending on where you live, your training can naturally include more hills. We just did our normal cross country training and then because we do our recovery runs on the hills anyway and we have that available, it naturally works.”

European under-18 3000m silver medallist and UK School Games 3000m champion in 2022, in addition to world mountain champion, Bailey’s talents extend well beyond off-road. It’s an interesting and rewarding mix, but it may not be sustainable long-term.

Zoe Gilbody and Jess Bailey (Mark Shearman)

“For now, we’re okay, but I’ll definitely go toward track and cross or cross and fell running [in the future],” she says. “We’re definitely very aware that track and fell running isn’t necessarily the best mix, and at some point we’ll go one way or the other, but at the moment it’s just about enjoyment, building up strength and getting as many experiences as we can. They’re like polar opposites but I love them so much. They’re great in their own way.”

READ MORE: GB go one-two in under-20 world mountain champs

Bailey has had an exceptional career to date, her track and mountain performances backed up in recent years by other high-profile results including winning English National and English Schools cross-country titles, as well as the Mini London Marathon.

At only 16, the potential pressure and expectation of a successful future can be intimidating, but the wisdom and maturity of this down to earth young athlete is reassuring and refreshing. In spite of all she’s achieved, she doesn’t feel like she’s got a lot to live up to.

“I’ve had quite a lot of good races so far, but if you start putting pressure on yourself, I don’t think that works,” she says. “Also, people don’t care. It’s easy to get caught up in it all and think, ‘If I run a really bad time next year people will look at me and think, ‘Oh, what happened to her?’ but they don’t care. I’m doing this for myself. You try your best. If you get ill or injured, you can’t control that, you’ve just got to keep plugging away, really.”

» This article first appeared in the December issue of AW magazine

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