Just three days after the International Olympic Committee announced London as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games, a promising 14-year-old girl from Hampshire finished seventh in the 1500m at her first-ever English Schools’ National Track & Field Championships. Almost seven years later, Charlotte Purdue has won 10 individual national-level gold medals, run the fastest-ever 10,000m by a junior British woman and been crowned a junior European cross-country champion. These accolades have been driven by the Olympic dream of a woman who has been heralded a London star ever since that week in July 2005, where she first encountered championship athletics.
Now 20 (21 during the Games), Purdue has begun her second summer season as a senior with the bit between her teeth as she chases qualifying times in both the 5,000m and 10,000m for the Olympics. In a similar fashion to her 2009/10 winter season, Purdue spent the whole of the latest cross-country campaign on the sidelines injured, which left her making a standing start to the spring racing season. The Aldershot, Farnham & District athlete has made steady progress since making her 2012 bow at the Chichester Priory 10K on February 5. A 33min 19sec performance in West Sussex was followed over two months later by a weekend which gave Purdue the shot in the arm she needed after injury.
Having run the fastest leg of the day at the ERRA National Women’s Six-Stage Road Relays on April 14, a personal best 32min 10sec outing over 10km at the SPAR Great Ireland Run showed just how little Purdue allowed her break to affect her fitness. Perhaps most significantly, Purdue was just four seconds shy of Gemma Steel in Dublin, who dominated the domestic cross-country calendar this winter. It was a result which confirmed her coach Mick Woods’s belief she should cross the Atlantic Ocean and mix it with an elite 10,000m field in Stanford, California at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational meet.
“Stanford was always the aim, but when I got injured we put it to one side until I did a track session about three weeks before, which encouraged him (Woods) to get me on the start line to see where I was at. He was a bit shocked with what I ran at the Great Ireland Run. I had ran the fastest leg of the day at the Road Relays the day before, but felt like I was jogging and so we had decided after such a good weekend that we should look at Stanford. Up until then America had never been on the cards,” said Purdue.
On the face of it, Purdue’s exploits on that night at Stanford University represent an accomplished mission: she improved her personal best by 33 seconds (32:03.55) and conquered UKA’s Olympic B Standard (32:10.00). However, the famous California meet represents one of the few genuine opportunities for elite athletes to run major championship qualifying standards in the 10,000m. And having missed the A Standard, the 20-year-old’s 18-second shortfall will have been all the harder to swallow at the finish line, as Hillingdon’s Julia Bleasdale shook hands with rivals after securing an A Standard 31min 29.57sec. Victor on the night, Bleasdale’s achievement has directly impacted upon our nation’s rising star, who must now also eclipse that 31min 45sec barrier if she is to race over 25 laps at the Games.
Purdue has eyes on both long distance events, but the St Mary’s University College student is more concerned for her chances in the lengthier discipline. Europe is almost certainly her only hope of running the time, with the European Cup 10,000m in Bilbao on Sunday representing an opportunity of immense magnitude. And the junior British record-holder is aware she may run out of chances if the qualifier escapes her clutches in Bilbao.
“It’s the 10[000m] I’m more worried about, which is why I did Stanford: just to have a go and see where I was at, even though I had done so few track sessions. I think it’s good to just get out there and have a run. I’m definitely going to head abroad for a 10 and there also isn’t really any 5[000m]s in this country either, which is quite annoying. Europe is a definite; the time change from going elsewhere doesn’t suit me because I can get quite tired,” said Purdue.
“I’d like to go for both, but obviously I’d take one! I think I prefer running the 10 over the 5, I see that event as where I’m heading. For the 10 there are far fewer chances to run the time, there’s no real opportunities to run it in this country, but for the 5 there are a lot more races I could get into, so I’m really not worried because I could get that one (A Standard) quite late.”
Most recently, Purdue clinched her first-ever BUCS Visa Outdoor Athletics Championships gold medal and finished fourth as first European athlete at the Bupa Great Manchester Run. The diminutive talent’s efforts in the Olympic Park at the universities’ competition delivered resounding victories in both the first round and final. And despite not being pushed hard by any student rival, Purdue posted her fastest-ever season opener in the 5,000m, with 15min 55.12sec. The sub-16min clocking came just three days after Purdue had crossed eight time zones on her way home from the Payton Jordan event. Speaking before her 32min 10sec outing over 10km in Manchester, Purdue admitted she was tired from her week of racing in Stanford and Stratford, but took great confidence from the times she had recorded off the training she had done.
“I’ve done three races this week, so am a little tired. We flew back Tuesday (May 1) and missed all my sleep from the Monday (April 30); I ended up being awake for about 36 hours. I hadn’t trained much this week as a result and then of course ran myself pretty hard on Friday (May 4) with fresh legs,” she said.
“If you think about all three times that I have run this week, they have been pretty consistent, so I know that I have that base now. All that’s left is some speed work. Missing the whole of winter wasn’t ideal; that period lost me a lot of my speed through purely cross-training. I have managed to keep pretty fit, as I’ve only been running since the end of February.
“I still don’t feel like I have done very much at all really. Training wise I have done a lot of runs, but I feel like I’ve hardly done any sessions: I’ve only done about three track sessions! I feel like there is so much more that I need to do. I am flying on the long runs, but on the shorter stuff I’ve still got a long way to go.”
For somebody so successful (Purdue has represented Great Britain on no less than 11 occasions), you would be forgiven for assuming the Windsor native has already begun sizing up her bedroom at the athletes’ village. However, Purdue knows better than to talk up any definitive plans for her inclusion in the squad. She missed out on the IAAF World Championships in Daegu last year through injury: an experience which has undoubtedly kept Purdue grounded throughout these past nine months.
Olympic fever is contagious though, and after her first sample of the Olympic Park at the BUCS event last month, Purdue struggled to contain her excitement for what this summer may hold in store for her, in our interview. The new track in place at the Olympic Stadium was unanimously declared ‘fast’ by all those who competed for their university. The six championship best performances ran on the track (two of which were Purdue’s in her 5,000m finishes) served to whet Purdue’s appetite, as she allowed herself a momentary glimpse into what she may be capable of, should she qualify.
“I was really excited before, but now I have come here and ran on the track, I think it’s a pretty special place. I love the track, it feels really fast!
“Obviously the first aim is to make the team and I haven’t done that yet, so I haven’t thought about much beyond. I would love to make the team and ideally look for a top-eight finish. At the World Cross last year I finished 14th in an event where some of those athletes in front of me will do the Marathon. Shalane Flanagan, for instance, she’s doing the Marathon as well as some others who are definitely going for the road rather than track. So if you take all them out, then I don’t know, but I have to make the team first!”
As Niall Fleming revealed to Athleticos in December 2011, the group work ethic under Mick Woods’s tutelage in Aldershot has proven the bedrock to their collective successes. And Purdue herself has said she will draw upon the advice and experiences of her close training partner and friend Steph Twell, once the Olympics commence. Twell made her Olympic debut in Beijing almost four years ago, just after her 19th birthday, and exited in the first round heats; her management of such high-level competition at a young age has proved an inspiration for Purdue.
“If I made these Olympics they would certainly represent a learning experience for me. I have spoken with Steph about her first experience of it in Beijing; she said she learnt so much from those Games and progressed so much after it. Seeing how she handled that will definitely influence my own approach. I always look at people like Hannah England and Jess Ennis; they haven’t even been to an Olympics yet, so to be 20 and making the Games would be really cool.”
Beren Cross