The Leeds optician who raced into the history books

Former Olympic marathon runner Tracey Morris running at Kirkstall Abbey.
Former Olympic marathon runner Tracey Morris running at Kirkstall Abbey.
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When Tracey Morris hit the headlines as the fun runner who took on the Olympics, she also became a role model for older women. Sarah Freeman reports.

A couple of weeks ago Tracey Morris pulled on her Valley Striders running vest for the first time in months. She’d agreed to take part in the Leeds Country Way Relay and as she rounded one corner she swore she heard a group of young boys shouting her name.

“Honestly, I could hear them saying Run, Morris, run. I was confused, I didn’t know who they were and I just couldn’t understand how they knew my name.

“They’d probably not even been born when I had my moment in the spotlight. Then as I got closer, I realised that in fact what they were saying was ‘Run, Forest, Run’. How funny is that? It shows you just how quickly you’re forgotten.”

While Tracey’s name may not be as well-known as Paula Radcliffe’s when it comes to women’s long distance running, for a while she was the toast of the sport having being catapulted out obscurity and onto the world stage.

It was the 2004 London Marathon where it all began. That year Kenya did the double, but the British press weren’t that interested in Evans Rutto and Margaret Okayo both taking gold.

Instead, the pictures plastered across the front and back pages were of a 36-year-old Leeds optician Tracey Morris, who despite joining a running club only 18 months earlier was not the first British woman to cross the finishing line, but in so doing had secured a place at the summer Olympics in Athens.

“The first thing I remember is someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Quick, Sue Barker wants to have a word’,” she says, a decade on. “I thought they must have made some mistake. I couldn’t understand why Sue Barker would want a word with me, but that was it, the madness had started.”

Tracey had completed the 26 mile course in two hours 33 minutes 52 seconds . It was a personal best by some distance.

“Honestly, I never once thought that anyone would even notice I was there. The only thing I wanted was to justify my place in the race, I didn’t want to let down the people who had helped me get there.

“When you do long distance running, there are some days when you set off and your legs are so heavy you feel you’ll never get round, then there are days like that London Marathon.

“It felt good right from the start and maybe that was because I didn’t feel under any pressure. All the British girls set off together and then at about 13 miles a group of them bolted off.

“I remember thinking, ‘What? They’ve gone already, we’re only halfway round’. There was no way I was going to follow them, so I just kept going at my own pace.

“As the miles ticked by I knew I’d passed some of them, but I honestly had no idea that I ended up out in front.”

As the cameras turned their focus onto Morris, she was portrayed as an accidental fun runner. While it wasn’t quite the full story, her’s had been an incredible journey. Growing up in Holyhead, she had been part of the Welsh Schools squad, but had barely pulled on her trainers throughout her 20s.

In fact she only returned to running in 1998, By then she had moved to Leeds and was persuaded by friends to take in part in the London Marathon for charity. Her time of three hours 39 minutes was pretty impressive for someone juggling training with a full-time job, but there was nothing to suggest elite athlete.

“My dad was a good runner and my sisters are all sporty, but for me there was never any grand plan. After the marathon I continued going to the gym, but found running on a treadmill really boring. I wanted to be outside, that’s why I joined Valley Striders and I suppose that’s when I started taking it a little more seriously.

“In 2003 I took part in the Leeds Abbey Dash. As ever there were no expectations but I got round in 34 minutes and as I came down the home straight I could hear the commentator saying ‘here comes Beverley Jenkins...’ She was one of the leading road runners at the time and no one knew who I was, so I was flattered as much as anything.”

The commentator that day was Bud Baldaro, UK Athletics’ endurance coach. He may have made a mix up over the names, but he was certain that what he had witnessed that November morning was a runner of untapped potential. Taking her under his wing, Tracey began to train regularly with the Great Britain squad, but no one expected her to make quite such an impact at the London Marathon.

“I was surprised as anyone. Even more so when I found out that I would be going to Athens,” she says. “It was all a bit of a whirlwind. I remember reading that Paula Radcliffe ran up to 140 miles a week. I was only doing 60 at most so thought, ‘right, I best up my mileage’, but it was hard. I had a day job and while I’ve been really lucky as they’ve always given me time off when I needed it, it wasn’t the same as being dedicated to running full-time.

“I started to really sink when I got on the plane for Athens. We were arranged in alphabetical order, so I found myself sitting next to Denise Lewis. She was such a hero of mine and despite my age I felt like the new girl at school.”

That marathon in the searing heat of Athens proved agony for favourite Radcliffe who dropped out at the 23 mile mark. Morris fared a little better, finishing 29th out of 81 starters in two hours 41 minutes.

Tracey, who is married to Leeds Grammar School PE teacher Paul, notched up her best performance two years later at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. While she narrowly missed out on the podium, a personal best of two hours, 33 minutes, 33 seconds secured her fourth place and by the end of 2007 she had also added the European and the World Championships to her CV.

These days life is much the same. Tracey, who turns 47 today, still works in a city centre opticians, she still goes running, but to save her knees, she’s also recently taken up cycling. While she says she doesn’t do “much of anything any more”, earlier this year she completed the 112-mile Etapes du Dales, will probably tackle one of the stages of the Grand Depart and after completing a few triathlons is just mulling over a full Ironman.

“Maybe I should save it for a landmark birthday, but what if I get to 50 and I can’t do a 2.4mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride followed by a marathon. If the last 10 years have taught me anything it’s that you have to grab opportunities when you get them.

“Whenever there is a big competition on, I’m there in front of the television and watching Jo Pavey win gold at the recent European Championships brought back a lot of memories. She really is a role model, not only had she turned 40, but she’s not long finished breast-feeding her second child. That puts what I did into perspective.

“I was so lucky to have been able to have competed in all four major competitions. Of course there was a little part of me that wondered what I might have achieved had I started earlier, but you can’t think like that. Had I kept on running from being a teenager I might have been plagued with the injury and never got to an Olympics at all. The fact was that I had an incredible four years and no one can take that away from me.”