FEATURE: Matthew Rhodes in conversation with Jess Piasecki

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Jess Piasecki crossing the line and winning the Florence Marathon

“2019 was something I’d been waiting for for a while.”

While preparing for the 2016 London Marathon, Derbyshire Institute of Sport’s Jess Piasecki was diagnosed with seven compression fractures of her spine and lost three centimetres of her height.

Remarkably, this wasn’t the first major injury that Piasecki had to contend with. Several injuries had stunted the Stockport-born athlete from progressing and fulfilling her potential over the full marathon distance.

It made all of Jess’s achievements during 2019 all the more impressive. Injuries like these would have extinguished other athletes from reaching their peak but I soon find out Jess Piasecki is an enormously strong-willed competitor.

After a career littered with serious injuries, 2019 was a supremely (and deservedly) successful year for Jess. After a 2018 finally being injury-free, Piasecki converted the luxury of no training interruptions into making 2019 a break-out year and proving that she was a major force to be reckoned with in British long-distance running.

In March 2019, 30-year-old Piasecki captained the Team GB squad at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Denmark. In September, Piasecki won the Usti nad Labem Half Marathon in Czechia in a time of one hour, eleven minutes and thirty-four seconds. The year peaked with Jess winning the Florence Marathon in Italy in a time of two hours, twenty-five minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

Remarkably, this was Jess’s first experience of completing a competitive marathon race from start to finish and she won in a time which was four minutes inside the IAAF qualifying time for the Women’s Marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. The time also meant that Piasecki had become the third fastest British woman of all time over the full marathon distance. 2019 was a landmark year for Piasecki and it meant that Jess was just one good run away in the 2020 London Marathon from realising her dream and competing at the Olympic Games later that year.

Of course, as we all know, the tragic world events and circumstances that have engulfed this year have shattered every sportsperson’s plans, not just Piasecki’s. Piasecki herself says her career has “been a bit of a rollercoaster” since the beginning of March.

I was intrigued to know just what it was like for an athlete on the very brink of qualifying for her first Olympic Games to realise that events in the sport were going to change drastically.

“The medical advice we had received from our governing body was to train at 80% capacity. If you’re trialling for the Olympics then you have to be training at 110% or more. So to still be expected to trial for the Olympics but having to trial for it at 80% just didn’t go hand in hand. There was a lot of uncertainty but when the Olympics was postponed as well as all the trial events, I think it was more of a relief for athletes because there had been so much to-ing and fro-ing, it had been really hard to focus.

"Obviously it’s still upsetting at the same time because, for me, I have had a lot of injuries in the past, and for last year to finally all come together for me and put me in a good place and now everything has been moved. It’s another year now of trying to make sure I don’t get injured or get ill – but it was still 100% the right decision to move the Olympics to next year. Whilst we all love sport, there’s a whole host of other things that are a lot more important.”

I asked if Jess’s mental strength in being able to return from serious injuries in the past has helped in her being able to adjust to the extremely unusual form of disruption that her sport now faces for some time.

She said: “Yeah, quite possibly…injuries are a normal part of professional sport because you’re pushing the body to its limits. Throughout all these ups and downs, you do end up gaining a lot of mental resilience…it’s definitely come in handy.”

Piasecki lives in Ashbourne in Derbyshire and found out about Derbyshire Institute of Sport via social media. She’s been involved with them for just over a year now and is full of praise for what they do:

“It’s been a massive contributor to my recent success. I’m 100% sure of that. For me, I receive strength conditioning support which helps prevention from getting more injuries…I receive one-to-one support in the gym which is fabulous.

"My relationship with the physio there is unbelievable and I don’t know what I’d do without him now. Given my history with injuries, he understands the process and what my body needs. I’m quite old compared to the other athletes they have there! A lot of them are still in school! But I get on with them all and it’s really good.”

Piasecki’s first experience of competitive sport was actually with hockey rather than athletics. Since focusing on running, Piasecki has gradually built up towards marathon running:

“If it hadn’t been for my injuries, I’d have probably gone solely into marathon running about three or four years earlier. I definitely now see myself as a marathon runner going forward and that’s where I want to develop – on the roads.

"I’d still like to run a quicker 10K and a 5K but I do want to focus on the marathon; not just the Olympics but the next World Championships, the next Commonwealth Games, the big city marathons like Boston and New York – that’s where I see my career going.”

The rest of this year is still extremely uncertain for pretty much every sport in existence. Even for sports like football which have partially returned there still remains big questions about when non-league and grass roots football will return and what will happen to it if a second wave of COVID-19 breaks out just after the new season has finally started.

Jess explains why athletics is like most other sports in how it’s still in a state of limbo while scientists and politicians work out where to go next in handling the Coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the world of marathon running looks pretty bleak for the rest of this year as Jess explains.

“We still really have no idea. A lot of races have been cancelled. Track events may be returning in September but I won’t be competing in those. I feel like if I tried to run a 5K now my hamstrings would fall off! The difficulty with marathons returning is that they are mass participation events.

"It’s only in recent years that it’s become an elite spectacle as well. At the elite end it’s fantastic but you have to think of all the people who are running for charities. It would be super difficult to hold a marathon this side of Christmas safely. Berlin, New York and the Great North Run are all cancelled. It just looks like that’s the way things are going this side of Christmas. All we can do is just wait and see. Luckily for us, we can still train – I’m able to run from home and I’m able to maintain fitness.”

Even if things return relatively back to normal and the Olympic Games is able to go ahead next year, Piasecki is keeping her feet firmly on the ground despite such a great 2019.

Jess is not allowing to think of herself at the Games just yet and is well aware of how competitive British long-distance running currently is. Piasecki makes it clear what her focus is on:

“To be honest, I don’t really think about that. I need to get there first! I primarily think about getting on the team…there’s about ten British women who I think could run the Olympics qualifying time. I can’t really think of anything beyond just qualifying at the moment. If I’m just on that plane to Tokyo next year then I’ll be ecstatic to be honest, so just making the team is the primary focus.”

Once marathon running has returned to something resembling normality, Jess Piasecki will definitely be an athlete to keep an eye on for Team GB.

To listen to the full half-hour interview with Jess Piasecki, you can click on the following link:

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