Discipline: Road, cross country and track
Member since: 2005
Born: Kilmarnock, 1974
Job: Consultant Paediatric Endocrinologist
Interview: Jethro Lennox
Video Editing: Lucas Cheskin
Words: Matthew Low
Avril Mason sat down in lockdown (rather appropriately via Zoom) with Jethro Lennox to chat about her amazing running journey with Shettleston, her training, her recent inclusion in Robert Hawkin’s Marathon Project, future plans, and running for roast chicken.
Had it not been for a chance meeting fifteen years ago in a Glasgow maternity hospital with Shettleston’s John McLaren, the athletic potential of Avril Mason may have miscarried. Instead, it marked the end of a 30 year gestation and lit the blue (and gold) touchpaper on a running odyssey that would lead to V45 triumph at last year’s London Marathon, setting a new Scottish record in her age category in the process with a sensational 2.43.54 run on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
Her London performance may have been Avril’s crowning glory, but it was just the latest in a stream of accolades . These have included a senior Scottish marathon title in 2012, masters titles in the Scottish 10km Championships, four Scottish half marathon masters titles (and a 3rd senior place last year), two time Scottish 10 Mile masters champion and three time team champion, three National Scottish Cross Country Championship team medals and two time national short course masters champion. And as if she wasn’t busy enough last year on the road, she even managed to sneak in third place finishes on the track in the 5000m and 10000m national championships.
An incredible haul for someone who only took up serious running at thirty years of age. So, what of that sliding doors moment in an East End maternity hospital back in 2005? Avril, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist, explains: “John McLaren used to work as a medical physicist at the Princess Royal. And I think I had run the women’s 10K. The results used to always get published in the Herald the next day. And he was sitting with the Herald and he said, ‘Oh! There’s your name, why are you not in a club? You should be in a club!’”.
It was a seminal moment but perhaps one that was a long time coming. Avril still talks at an excited tempo that seems to mirror the cadence of her little footsteps as she remembers the wee girl who would run from her Ayrshire home to school every day. She recalls freezing secondary school cross-country meets that have left warm memories of killer ascents of Irvine Beach Park’s Dragon’s Hill and well-earned post-race descents of the local swimming flumes.
What now seems a comparatively casual relationship with the sport continued as a member of the Hares and Hounds at Glasgow University before a two year stay down under. It was in New South Wales, with the Terrigal Trotters, that Avril encountered the novel motivational tool of awarding roast chickens to one of the huge field of 250 members who she joined for their weekly Saturday runs – beginning at 6am to avoid the baking heat.
As all Shetts know, sessions down at the Green are, on the whole, unencumbered by either the sun or cooked poultry, but with her hobby about to be transformed into a passion, she would have more than her plate full as the only female member of Bill Scally’s training group. “It was a bit of a killer for me”, she recalls. “We used to have a rotation of sessions that Bill did, and if it was the fartlek, I would just be catching up and it was time to go again!”.
While she glanced over at John Montgomery’s group that did include some female runners, she steeled herself and chose to tough-it-out with the boys, including Jethro himself. While the four-time Scottish Hill Running champion admired Avril’s determination, he admits today: “When Avril started training with the club over 15 years ago in Bill Scally’s group, you wouldn’t have imagined that she would end up as one the most successful athletes from that group.”
She is now one of the most successful athletes in Britain, but Avril confesses that she is still “always moaning”. “We spend our time moaning our faces off”, she says with an incongruous laugh as she grapples with the dissonance familiar to all runners and their relationship with training. “If you break it down, I do love training, it’s just, I moan”, she resolves.
With a concentration on the marathon, Avril’s training is geared towards high mileage which at times has included 100-mile weeks, and she stresses that those interested in emulating her incredible feats should be under no illusions that there are any shortcuts: “All of the process is a long process, and anyone who does a few marathons gets it and thinks, ‘This is not a one year process, this is a lot of years of year-on-year long running’. And I think you build up to it and recognise things about your body and how you train”.
That process that has seen an evolution of Avril’s training over the years as experience has gradually provided her with the knowledge of how her body responds to various methods. Shettleston’s road and cross-country ladies’ captain explains: “We have changed our training since I first started training with John. We did a lot of miles, but we would do 16 x 1 mile and that’s a different thing from doing a tempo and then a sustained run at a marathon pace, which is better and more replicates what a marathon is.
“I think you can be lured into a false sense if you do 16 x 1 mile at marathon pace but you’ve got a 30 or 40 second recovery, its not actually the same. So, I think you learn what is a truer representation of how fit you are [by using the sustained run model] and where you are in your training.”
As a full-time consultant working Monday to Friday, Avril understandably feels her best session is Saturday. “I’m well-rested and I tend to run my best on a Saturday. It tends to be big volume.”, she explains. She describes one favourite session as being a 10 mile run at marathon pace + one minute, followed immediately by four to five miles of marathon pace or even a little quicker. “Which sounds OK”, she warns, “but once you get into the quicker bit, it’s tougher than you think!”.
Avril also favours the back-loaded nature of the session which, as well as better emulating marathon conditions, she finds better suits a veteran runner. “I’m so creeky, I’m so creeky when I start”, reveals the Kilmarnock native, who explains that she will often prepare for a fast rep session with a mile run at a tempo pace. “I just accept that when I’m doing sessions that are faster that I will progressively get quicker as the session goes on.”
But once in full flow, she is in her element. “Running at a pace and sticking to a pace, I can be good at that”, she says with a smile. “It gives me huge satisfaction.”
And it has clearly brought her huge success. Her achievements were recognised last year by Scottish running heavyweight Robert Hawkins, father and coach of Scottish marathon record holder Callum and fellow Olympian and twice National XC winner Derek, when he invited Avril to join his Scottish Marathon Project.
The initiative has seen the county’s top runners over 26.2 miles brought together to be provided with training and financial support with a team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham as the target. Avril’s inclusion sees her join with athletes half her age, another testament to her massive personal achievements.
Talking about being a member of the Marathon Project, Avril makes clear that she sees it as a great honour, but also an opportunity to aim even higher. She said: “Why put limits on yourself? Why say that age is a factor? If they’ve decided that age isn’t a factor, then why not do it?”
She certainly retains the determination required. However, the same grit that saw her through sodden 100-mile weeks and those tough winter nights with the boys down at the Green can have bloody consequences, as her attempt at a lactic threshold test with the marathon project showed when she fell off the end of a treadmill as her legs finally gave out, leaving her in a heap and nursing a gashed leg.
But even Avril’s immense will power can’t change the fact that that like everything else, the project is now on hold. While she reveals that Robert Hawkins continues to monitor and support the runners remotely, cancelled races and closed facilities mean everything practical is paused.
But unsurprisingly, lockdown has seen no letup for Avril: “I’m training quite a lot in lockdown. My mileage has probably gone up. And so I’m hoping for something, anything…any race by the end of the year would be fantastic. Even to get a half anywhere that would be great. But I don’t know how it’s going to look.”
As a medical professional herself, Avril says she sympathises with the headache facing Scottish Athletics. “You can see their struggle of how they are going to be able to open up and how they are going to have races and what that would look like. Because nothing can be like we’ve had before. And when we can ever think about a mass event. I think a lot of these things are going to take a different form.”
Whatever the future holds, there can be no doubt that Avril’s journey has already been incredible, and this shouldn’t be limited to her own personal achievements. She has proven to be a trailblazer for a club which had very few female members when that personal journey began, but now boasts one of the strongest female line-ups in the country. “I train with a lot of girls now”, Avril reflects, “and you realise, that’s how it works, that’s how you get people to come and race, and think, ‘I’m training with you, and we’re all training towards the same goal and we want to race and we want to win’.”
For the self-effacing champion, it should be a source of immense pride to have contributed such an example in the tradition of a club already steeped in them. It is an example that has and will continue to benefit so many, perhaps some little girls finding their way to school a little quicker than the rest will one day read about Avril’s triumphs. But as fellow champion and someone who has witnessed the whole arc of Avril’s story so far, Jethro Lennox points out, “Avril is an inspiration to us all”.
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