Running has taken Leicestershire athlete Gemma Steel all over the world – countries like China, Italy and the USA to name but a few.
Over the course of her career, the athlete has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe and Liz McColgan, and she enjoyed sponsorship from Nike and New Balance at the peak of her amazing sporting prowess…
It’s fair to say that the sport has given a lot to Gemma Steel, who grew up on a Coalville council estate, and worked 9-5 in a factory before finding her feet as a runner.
Success in the field, gave her the freedom to leave it all behind…
However, the biggest gift that running has given Gemma, is a sense of pride and belonging – things she didn’t have before she set foot inside Whitwick’s Hermitage Harriers Running Club back in 2005.
It was a place where the shy 19-year-old was “embraced with open arms”, and her talent nurtured by other members of the club. This was the place where it all started…
“Running didn’t just change my life – it saved it really,” revealed the 37-year-old, who struggled with depression as a teenager, as well as undiagnosed Autism.
“Before I started, I was on a road to self-destruction really, but running freed me. It made me feel alive and gave me an outlet – a way to exercise my demons and use the worst parts of myself to achieve something good,” she told Pukaar.
“When I first joined ‘The Harriers’, I was just seeking to belong in a club really – to have that sense of belonging and community, which I didn’t feel part of before and never thought I would to be honest,” she went on to reveal.
“I didn’t have any expectations really when I joined, apart from winning the Leicestershire Road Running League, and to have people proud of me. That was the reward really and my main motivation at the time…”
Little did Gemma know, that in the years that followed, her running career, and her mental health, would flourish beyond her wildest expectations – and people would be very proud indeed…
She received her first GB call up in December 2010, and has since gone on to represent her country over 30 times.
When asked about her most most notable achievement, she recalls being named European Cross Country Champion back in 2014, winning the tough eight kilometre ‘slog’ in Samokov, Bulgaria, in a time of 28.27.
She has also won a string of ‘Great Run’ titles, including the 2017 Great South Run in a time of 55.25.
However, the most surreal moment of her career was probably in 2011, when she beat her idol Paula Radcliffe in the Bupa London 10K.
“I think getting her autograph afterwards was a bit surreal, because I didn’t just meet my idol – I beat my idol!” she said of the feat.
“Paula Radcliffe was the one who inspired me to run, so to actually line up with her was a dream in itself. Then when I went past her, it was a bit like one of those out of body experiences, where you’re floating past and you don’t feel like you should be!”
When it comes to her running career, Gemma admits that sometimes she has to pinch herself, when she sits back, and really thinks about all she has achieved.
In fact, she is currently in the process of writing a book about her experiences – a “therapeutic” pursuit that she’s certainly enjoying.
As for running itself, she says that she’s keen to scale new heights in 2023 – and go in a very exciting new direction…
“Mountain running is an area I’d like to explore,” she enthuses.
“You don’t know until you try things, and you never know, I might think I wish I’d have done this sooner!”
For now, Gemma is enjoying her running and is currently clocking up over 15 miles a day around her home village of Whitwick.
“Subconsciously, I don’t know if I’m training for a marathon, but we’ll see,” she says.
“It’s always been the big question, but I like to keep people guessing!
“If I do it, I’d like to do it on my own terms – probably for a charity like Mind, and maybe even in fancy dress!
“I’d like to take the pressure off and just see how it goes…”
Raising mental health awareness is something which Steel is very keen to do, owing to her own very personal battle with depression.
This was confounded even further in 2019, when she lost her Mum to the same terrible illness.
“At the moment, my purpose is running for those that have got mental health issues, and those that can’t fight those battles – people like my Mum,” she said.
“My aim is to inspire people to show that they can overcome these difficulties in life. I feel like I’m running for them, as well as myself.
“Running makes me feel strong, empowered, in control of life – sometimes even invincible,” she added.
“When I’m done I feel invigorated, recharged, energised… it’s that rejuvenation of yourself; mind, body spirit, that’s what I feel and that’s why I’d encourage others to give it a go.
“I owe everything to running really- it really has worked wonders and made me who I am today.”
By Louise Steel