Back in 2016, Crista Cullen was part of Great Britain’s gold-medal-winning hockey team at the Rio Olympic Games. Fast-forward five years and she’s taking on a challenge that has been on her bucket list for as long as she can remember: the London Marathon.
Like so many of the people who’ll be tackling 26.2 miles on the streets of London on Sunday 3 October, Crista was all set to run last year’s Virgin Money London Marathon until the Covid pandemic struck. She paused her training, moved back home to Kenya and has been there ever since, living on a small farm on a conservancy just outside Nairobi.
Unlike many of this year’s participants, Crista knows what it takes to make it as an elite athlete and has been able to draw on her experience as a Team GB hockey player during her training – but she still feels like a rookie when it comes to distance running! So, when the new October date was announced for this year’s event, she started training again and ramped up her fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
We caught up with Crista to find out what the London Marathon means to her, why she’s fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and how it feels to train under the gaze of a giraffe…
“I was quietly confident in the build-up to the 2020 event. I’d done the training – although I’m definitely not cut out to be a marathon runner as I’m a power athlete – and got into the discipline of long runs in Richmond Park.
“And then Covid hit and I found myself in the same position as everyone else who had a place in last year’s event. I went home to Kenya, where you can only really run in the early morning or later in the day when it’s cooler – times that coincide with wildlife being on the move.
Running with wildebeest
“When I did a long run recently, I kept passing this one giraffe about 5m from the road who couldn’t be bothered to move, which keeps the training exiting and interesting. I also sometimes see wildebeest and zebras darting in front of me, so it’s a bit different to running in London!
“My training for this year’s event has not gone well. Back and neck problems stopped me running for three months, so I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be – it’s going to be about surviving out there and drawing on my mental resilience, but I’m looking forward to trudging round and doing my best.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be on the Finish Line of the London Marathon before, welcoming the amazing humans of all shapes and sizes who take on the challenge and get it done, so it will be amazing to be one of them this year. The positives are that I’ll be able to enjoy the brilliant atmosphere on the day for longer if I’m not as speedy!
“I have no ambition to run multiple marathons – I just want to run the London Marathon. It’s going to feel really special after the past 18 months and because London has been my second home since I relocated there in 2009 ahead of London 2012.
“To go from being an Olympic gold medal winner to training for a marathon has made me feel really vulnerable. I’ve had the luxury of being at the top of a specific sport, but that doesn’t make you good at everything. There is this perception that just because you’re athletic and relatively successful, that you’re going to be a ninja at anything you try, which has pressure associated with it!
‘Better never stops’
“Running is a completely different discipline, so that is daunting but exciting at the same time. Hockey is quite a proactive sport, where you’re adapting, making decisions and reading the situation. Those are my skills. Marathon running is a completely different world – it’s about resilience and the ability to keep going when it starts to hurt. It’s me against myself so it brings out a different skill set, but I’m always willing to learn. I live by this motto ‘better never stops’ so I feel vulnerable but excited.
“I founded my own charity in Kenya called Tofauti, which means ‘different’, so people assume I’ll be fundraising for it, but I’m supporting the Cystic Fibrosis Trust as my godson was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. He’s four and is doing really well, but it has such an impact on his daily life, so I’m fundraising to support all the amazing medical advances they’re making.
Motivated by emotion…
“Listening to people’s stories and why they’re fundraising is also really motivating. I’ll feel very privileged to be on the Start Line and I’ll definitely use my emotional involvement to keep me going on the day.