Interview With GB Olympic Athlete Marilyn Okoro

Marilyn OkoroThrough the wonders of modern technology I had the absolute pleasure of talking “across the pond” to Marilyn Okoro, a mainstay in the British 800m (fifth of GB’s all time fastest) and 4x400m team for almost a decade.

Despite an already long day – interrupted at 6am by anti-doping* – Maz, as she’s affectionately known, agreed to give up her time to speak with Running Junkies about her career in international athletics.

*Athletes never know which day an anti-doping test will fall on, they just submit an hour window, and every few months or so get that knock on the door for that all important wee.

Hi Marilyn, thanks for talking to us today. To kick things off, can you tell us what a typical day looks like for you?

I train 6 days a week, so on these days I wake up at 5am and have something to eat.

It’s mainly fluids like a smoothie, something to hydrate myself.

We train at the University of Central Florida and start at about 6 or 7am.

After training I work at the University until about 2.

I come home in the afternoon and pretty much have the rest of the day to myself.

I might have to do some rehab exercises, but I generally have a big volume session in the morning, either on track, road or by the lakes.

Ah, so all your training is done in the morning?

Yes.

What’s your favourite session?

Hills – but Orlando is flat as a pancake so I don’t get to do them anymore, although Coach has promised he’ll try and simulate them on the treadmill which sounds awful!

At the moment, though, I really enjoy tempo sessions on the road, 1200s mixed in with 800s.

I would say 4/5 x 800s is my favourite right now – working on rhythm and not too focused on time.

Coach focuses on two tempos called ‘good swing’ and ‘good speed’.

We do either one depending on which he tells us, and he drives along telling us when to pick it up if we need to.

He has a watch, we don’t.

So you completely trust him that you are doing the right thing?

Yeah, that’s an interesting question.

Trust is a big thing.

I’ve always been a hard worker and train really hard, but sometimes not just quite getting the results, or understanding why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Coming across the ocean I did have a lot of faith in his programme and I’d seen what he’d done with Duane Solomon [4th in London Olympics 800m, 1:42.82] and the main thing is that he [Coach Grey] has done it himself* and has a similar running style to myself.

*Maz is coached by the great Jonny Gray: USA Track and Field Hall of Famer, 1992 Olympic Games Bronze medallist, and still the American record holder in the 800m in a mind blowing 1:42.60 – couldn’t really want a better trainer in all honesty!

If you look at Coach’s range, a quick 200 up to 5000m, it’s hard to train for all of these, so I respected him for that.

I’m not going to lie, there were times when I have started panicking.

I can’t lie, sometimes in the winter I was panicking and I had a hamstring injury in January.

But he’s told me to be patient, he doesn’t want to rush anything.

He wants to see certain things on the track before I go out and race.

I’m learning to just relax and in the last couple of weeks I’ve done sessions that have helped me go into a race and understand different things I need to do in races, which have really built my confidence.

That’s a great point to come on to as I wanted to ask you: the way in which you’ve run 800s in your career before has been a really hard first lap.

Now you’re with a different coach, is that changing?

I naturally want to run a certain way and I’ve been told in the past that’s not the right way to do it, but Coach said to me that everyone is different, and nobody can tell you how to run.

If you’re feeling good, you’re always going to go out faster – I never intend to run a 56 lap!

Coach’s trying to teach me a rhythm that I can tell the exact pace that I’m running.

In the past, I was always just running!

This was great, but I’ve actually got a lot quicker this winter by doing ‘just sub 800m pace’ work.

E.g. sets of 2 x 400s with a 100m jog recovery but at the same pace for the second 400, I’m building up a lot more strength.

Wow, as you’ve been racing internationally for a long time now, I never imagined you didn’t have a game plan during races!

Well my old coach always used to tell me to stay in the top two, but that was never going to be hard for me!*

The problem is when I’ve just come back from injury, a fast first lap would be uncomfortable and I would start to panic and give the race away.

A lot of the time I just hadn’t had enough training behind me.

That’s why I’ve done so much base work here – weather and facilities have a lot to do with it, as well as being in one place for an extended period of time.

*Maz has a lot of speed for an 800m runner; having run 52 flat for and several mean splits for GBs 4×4 team, many people believe she could have had a successful career in the 400 too.

To come off track for a moment, was the decision to come to America as a result of funding (not getting any from British Athletics)?

I was in a frustrating place with athletics in general.

I briefly joined another coach (in 2013) to make it easy by staying at home but he had a lot of marathon runners and it wasn’t really working.

I ran a 400 indoors and it didn’t really feel the same, I didn’t feel myself.

I felt I really needed to get a coach that understands ‘Maz the athlete’ and America was a natural fit as they have a lot of 4/8 runners.

I roomed with Maggy Vessey (US 800m international) who Coach Gray was coaching at the time and then Duane Solomon came over and his name cropped up again, and he sounded like someone who I needed and he seemed really excited about it.

I was either going to do athletics wholeheartedly or find another career.

I just couldn’t resolve with the fact that I hadn’t reached my career goals yet.

At this point in the interview, I realised that I now had so many more questions to ask as I’d just scratched the surface of the mind of an elite athlete

As you mentioned career goals, now you’re in the next Olympic cycle, what’s your plan over the next 3, 4, 5 years, or is it just to Rio 16?

I explained to Coach the position I was in and feel like the English tradition makes you feel old when you reach 27, 28, 29.

But in endurance running this is when you start to reach your peak, so I’ve had to get out of that mentality.

I haven’t really tapped into endurance and nobody ever thought I could do endurance, and it’s actually pretty good, everyone thought I was a speed runner but we never really worked on my speed either!

I need to maximise them both.

Strength is my weakness, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold the speed that I have.

It’s something we’ve worked on.

I really want to do Rio, that’s my main goal.

I hadn’t planned to run last season, I just wanted to come out and meet Coach and learn the training but ended up at the World Champs.

But Rio and London World Champs I see as the latter championships for me.

But it’s hard to put an exact date on when I retire.

I can see with this new training I’m preserving my body better and training a lot smarter.

It has highlighted all my weaknesses and I’m now working on them, so I don’t see why I can’t go beyond 2017, but for now Rio is my goal.

Plus it takes a few years to settle into a programme.

I’m really looking forward to 2015.

We’ve been looking at how prepared I am for championships: training hard on Monday, Tuesday with an easy day on Wednesday, then Thursday hard day, so it simulates the championship programme.

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Talking of preparation for championships, I remember Daegu [2011].

You didn’t have a successful trials and then just missed the qualifying time at the Crystal Palace Grand Prix, so the next day you ended up running it at Lee Valley the next day in a League meeting.

Yeah, that’s one of the memories I go back to whenever I think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ or ‘I can’t be bothered’.

It always reminds me of how passionate I am and it showed people a lot about my character.

I knew I was capable of running the time, but I felt like I was running out of time.

There was a lot of pressure in the UK controlling when I race and I did a couple of early season races that didn’t really help me.

If I hadn’t have done, I would have been alright for the trials, but I started to come around [about a month later] for Crystal Palace but ran 1:59.85 and needed 1:59.80.

My training partner at the time Tara [Bird] told me about the league meeting the next that her parents were organisers for, but the officials were being really funny and told me I had to run in the B race, so Tara couldn’t pace me.

I was so in the zone that I almost forgot to break after 100m.

I was so focused in 58.5 and coming back as hard as I could.

It was very dramatic, because as I crossed the line it flashed up 1:59… blank… then finally it said 1:59.5 and I thought, thank god!

My close friends were there dotted around the track motivating me and keeping me going so it was great.

So is this race your proudest achievement?

Oh most definitely

It really says a lot about Maz, that despite performing in front of tens of thousands of spectators at global championships, her proudest moment is a non-scoring league race.

A very passionate and dedicated athlete.

A true competitor – definitely a running junky.

Talking of significant memories, back further to 2010, in the European Indoor 800m Final, you went through 400 and 600 under world record pace (56 and 1:26) but faded to 5th.

You then had the 4×4 relay final, where opinion was divided on whether you should run, but you did a great leg and the team won bronze.

It shows you have strength in there just not when you needed it.

I just had to run the relay to get rid of that memory [of the 800], but it still haunts me.

After the race [800], I was checked over medically and was fine and I wanted to break the psychological barrier of being worried about going out hard again, and I knew we could do well in the relay.

I don’t know why I was able to control the adrenaline in the 800m final, but I succumb to a lot of outside pressures and as well as my physical strength I’ve had to improve my mental strength and that’s why being out here has been great for me.

Coach has been very motivational especially by saying, “Never let the opinions of others dictate who you are”.

Things are always fine when it’s going well, but when it goes wrong it seemed like the end of the world.

I remember my first session out with Coach, he asked us to do a 600m and if we felt good keep going round to 8.

I was like, ‘Oh my god’, stressed about it, but Coach said, “It’s training!”, so I went out there and ran 2:01 and two girls pipped me.

I thought it was awful but straight away he was able to cancel out the negative thought process.

I always look back on my races and they are never as bad as you think.

Some people have the mentality that if they race badly they can accept that sometimes it happens and I would like to think like that.

You have to be able to assess your performance realistically – see where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to go.

A lot of the time, I was always trying to be perfect and not look see the progress I was making.

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What changes as an athlete have you noticed from being 20 and, this year, reaching your 30th birthday?

I’ve matured a lot.

Mentally a lot of things I would get worked up about, I realise don’t matter now.

It’s about being sensible and smart, especially with eating.

I get a lot of emails from girls who see my body and think I don’t eat anything, which is not true.

Coming out here at 29, this is the most relaxed I’ve been with nutrition.

I have worked with nutritionists, and been too heavy and with others been skinny and had no power.

At this point I have the experience of what works and doesn’t work.

Training wise, I believe Coach’s programme, but I’m able to say, “I think I need a little bit more of this” and he respects that.

We’re learning together as he’s not been with many elite women in the past.

Also I think a lot more now I’m older.

I used to be fearless, and I see it now in college girls how in a 58 for a 400, they would come through in a 26 [for the first 200].

It’s nice having that extra bit of wisdom to know I only need a 28.

But the key part to getting older is I’ve learned so much about my body.

When you’re young you rely on your coach and physios to tell you a lot about everything.

Now I know what works and what doesn’t for me, I’m maturing with the sport.

What’s your favourite food before you race, snacks, and what sort of supplements do you take?

When I came out here I just thought, let me just be 100% me, natural, and just take nothing.

I was able to do that for a while, because the initial training I had was just running.

I would take recovery shakes because I’m sponsored by Hi-5.

Their recovery powders are pretty good but after a while I found I was so fatigued with the miles building up.

So I do now take L-Carnitine*, amino acids for energy and muscle repair, and then Vitamin B and C, fish oil, and probiotics like Yakult.

You’re not going to fuel your car with crap, you need to fuel your body with good stuff.

I’ve had a lot of problems with my tendons so I try and eat stuff that’s good for that.

Also shrimp, fish and chicken galore.

When I’m racing I try and keep the food bland like spag bol.

I also like to eat a lot of Thai food.

At this point we became briefly side-tracked on discussing wonders of Thai food including my favourite: the Massaman.

*Carnitine is found naturally in the body in muscle (including the heart) and plays a big part in energy production by utilising fatty acids as a fuel.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Chips!

I’ve had to make a lot of changes to my diet over the years.

Frying things is no good, and coming from a Nigerian background I used to fry everything.

I love cheesecake, but I’ve lived in Orlando 9 months and only been to the cheesecake factory 3 times!

Dolce de Leche is my favourite.

Is there anything you’ve done in the sport that you regret?

Every time I tweet something negative!

I didn’t like the media showdown after the Olympic trials [between herself and Van Commenee, GB head coach at the time].

I didn’t really say much but the media will always make what they want from a situation.

I didn’t feel like I was really well enough to run that day, sometimes you feel like you have to do every race that comes your way, trying to chase a time.

I’d raced a lot that year and was under a lot of pressure to achieve the time.

Now I don’t have a problem pulling out of races.

We’ve got the Commonwealth Games selection but my first 800m is 3 days after the cut off.

There has been pressure on me to race before the selection, I used to panic, but now I have my plans and I know what I’ve done so far.

I do think I’m a championship racer and I would select me.

If there were a string of girls that had run 1:59.8, I would need to prove myself now, but at this moment, no one has done that and it is early in the season.

I don’t want to peak now for a race that’s at the end of July.

Currently, England Athletics haven’t published their team selection.

What are your career goals?

I have 1:55/1:56 career goal.

I always have felt like I’ve had the ingredients to do that, just putting it together correctly.

Do you have a medal goal in your career?

Everyone wants to win gold in something, but for me, when you can get consistent at running 1:57s you can do that, so I’m focusing on the time.

My main goal is get the British Record before I retire.

Of course, British record holder in the 800 is none other than Dame Kelly Holmes. Not a bad record to be chasing!

Would you want to run more 1500s as you get older?

Now I’ve gotten older, I actually quite like the race.

It’s actually easier to train for than the 800.

Definitely next year there will be more 15s for me.

How about the 400?

The 400 is my baby!

I would love to see what I could do if I actually trained for it.

I’ve not done one as a senior where I’d prepared, even this year the 400s in competition are training.

To medal [in the 800] you do need both these events in your armoury.

What is the hardest training session that you do or have done?

We do 3 sets of: 1200 relaxed, 400 jog recovery, then 800 more at threshold with a 200 recovery, on the road.

What times do you do for these?

I couldn’t put times on those as I don’t have a watch on when I’m doing them.

Coach knows.

On the track, the hardest session is more mental as it feels so short – we had a 700m time trial the other day.

I had to go through 58 at the 400m, 1:28 at the 600, and carried on for a 1:44.

Just as a one off session?

After a two mile warm up, strides, then a 120 loosen up.

After the 700 we then did 4 x 150s then more laps then a 250 hard (through 200 in 24.3!).

The phases we’re now in, we’re just trying to get sharp, I’ve done a couple of races in training.

I’m starting to run a bit fresher now, I’ve had to let my hamstring heal [from a tear] but you have to re-activate them.

Is there anything unusual you do in your training?

I would say the lack of watch, to not know what pace you’re running in most of your athletic life.

I could go a whole month and not use a watch.

I know where a mile is, 2 miles.

It’s taken a lot of trust to not have one, it annoys him if we do, like Coach is always watching us, but he might be focusing on other athletes, so I’ve just used my watch in to time and he’s told me off!

It forces you to learn the rhythm and pace because if you don’t do it right, you won’t be able to finish the session and I hate not finishing a session.

Coach always has his watch but he wants you to think about good swing and good speed.

He can tell us to run 60 seconds for a 400 and we’d run 60 seconds, but if he says ‘go good swing’ then in December it might be 65 then in March it might be 53.

It’s about letting the body find its shape: good swing is about being strong through your core and hips.

As you get stronger you’re more able to lift your knees up for longer and you’re going to get faster.

So he’ll know if you’re doing the right pace?

Yeah, he can look at you and see because good swing is about lifting up your knees and powering through your hips.

Once you think about lifting your knees higher, you have much more power in your stride.

What I see with the youngsters is that they think good swing is slower and good speed is faster – they’re still trying to get the concept of how to do the sessions well.

If we do 12 x 200s or 12 x 150s, if you’re not doing good swing or good speed properly, you’re not getting the most from the session.

Practising change of pace is part of it too – good swing is slower but not that much.

Good speed is fast – like running on hot coals – but still controlled.

Our big brother site, GymTalk, is about bodybuilding.

What role does strength and conditioning play in your programme?

Massive, but for me strength and conditioning does not equal lifting weights.

It’s about looking at the key areas of my biomechanical weakness.

Lifting makes me too bulky.

I have lots of specific stuff, making sure the muscle groups are switched on especially the smaller ones.

I have problems with my hamstrings and glutes, so the strength of the posterior chain on my left side is something I focus on.

I train frequently, not a lot every time – but 4/5 times every week.

Your physique isn’t far away from being competitive in bodybuildng, is that anything you’d thought of doing?

No never, it’s not really crossed my mind.

A lot of it is my genetics, I’m from the same tribe in Nigeria as Christine Ohuruogu [Olympic and Two time World Champion in 400m].

We’re a very muscular build anyway.

Running makes you very lean especially if you do a lot of it.

Endurance runners do a lot of volume so you get the longer, leaner muscle.

I am obsessed with Total Divas WWE wrestlers, but more the glam side, I don’t really want to get in the ring, I’d just spend the whole time running around it!

Well, there is longevity in bodybuilding and wrestling, so who knows, after athletics…

Exactly, never say never!

What’s your advice to budding athletes and any recreational running junkies out there?

Set realistic goals for yourself.

You have to learn to assess your performance realistically.

I have realised that I was always trying to be perfect, but to become perfect takes time, and I wasn’t looking at the progress.

So learning the mentality of seeing where your performance sits in perspective of your training, competing and everything else, it never looks as bad as you think when you look back on it.

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Signing off

It has been an absolute pleasure to interview Maz.

She’s been very generous with her time, honest and friendly – it just shows how much she loves her athletics and is a true running junky!

Marilyn Okoro may not be a household name for her athletic exploits just yet, but imperatively, it’s the “just yet” that is the most exciting part of the story.

The 29 year old sits 5th on Britain’s 800m all-time list and still has half a decade on the age of Dame Kelly Holmes (recognise that name?) when she won double gold over 8 and 15.

Age is not proving to be as much a barrier as it once was in today’s world of athletics.

Just look at Felix Sanchez (Olympic Champion at 34 too), Haile Gebrselassie (60 minute half marathon at 41), and who could forget former world champion Kim Collins setting a 100m pb at 37!

All proof that the best may be yet to come from Okoro.

RunningJunkies.com wishes Maz all the very best over the next two years in the build up to Rio 2016.