Walking to the Central Library early Thursday morning, fighting a gale force wind which would not have been out of place in the Aberdeenshire hills where Rhona Auckland calls home, and side-stepping Library Cat who was helpfully sat right in the middle of the Library’s pre-security lobby, I sat down to talk with an athlete who most recently surprised not just the athletic community, but also herself by winning the U-23 European Cross Country Championship in Samakov, Bulgaria in late 2014.
“It was a huge shock.” Auckland continued: “I was seventh last year and my aim had been to improve on that. Emelia Gorecka, another girl in the British team, was pinned for a medal and I had gotten close to her in the trials, so I was thinking I’d be outside the medals but would improve on last year. So when I found myself on the fourth lap, on my own, I was like ‘Oh god what have I done!’, but I managed to keep it going.”
The race in Bulgaria, taking place in treacherous conditions, was not one Auckland expected to be leading at all, never mind at such a crucial stage. “On that fourth lap it was just ‘get to the line, get to the line, don’t look back, just get there!’”
“I knew I had a lot of fast finishers in the field so it was important for me to keep the pace up and keep getting away because if it came to a sprint finish, which it almost did, I was going to get caught!”
The win highlighted the progressive upwards trajectory of her career. Auckland joined her first athletics club at the age of 8, crediting her own competitive instincts and primary school for getting her on the right track. She explained: “When I was at primary school, we used to start training a couple of weeks before the sports days, and people that were in the athletics club got to lead the warm up. For some reason as a young kid I was like ‘I want to lead the warm up!’, so I joined the athletics club.”
Another nine years of casual athletics training went by until the age of 17 when the self-identified ‘crap at everything to do with athletics but longer distances’ began to train at a more intensive and specified level.
She explains that “there was a coach called Neil Stuart who encouraged me to do the longer reps and start to do a bit more training, then I moved to my current coaches Joyce and Ken Hogg in Aberdeen and they took me under their wing and I never looked back!”
Despite recent funding cuts to specific athletes within UK Athletics, the support available to Auckland has been consistently excellent. “The Banchory/Stonehaven Athletics Club where I started off initially is great, and really nurtures young talent. Then at Aberdeen I was part of the Hydrasun Academy which is a really good support system as well. Then, since I’ve come to Edinburgh I’ve been part of the performance programme here which again is absolutely fantastic, and so well supported.”
Currently in her fourth year at Edinburgh studying Medical Sciences and chained to the library, she describes her experiences of running in the Olympic Stadium in 2012 during the BUCS (British University and College Sports) Championships for the University as “unbelievable.”
“It was my first 10K on the track, first BUCS track competition and it was in the Olympic Stadium. It was just one of those experiences where I was walking around with my jaw on the ground.”
With a prospective move to New Mexico in the autumn to study towards a Masters and perform a year’s worth of high-altitude training, Auckland’s goals remain ambitious. While Rio 2016 is too close as she admits to having ‘no idea what the qualifying time for the Olympics are’, which she says shows ‘how far away I am’, her aim to race at the U-23 European Track Championships in Tallinn is at the front of her mind.
“The hope is to try and get selected for the European U-23 on the track for the 5K and the 10K, so I’ve got some PB aims I’d like to get my times down to, with a more realistic long term goal being the next Commonwealth Games in The Gold Coast in 2018.”
But, as she admits: “I think every athlete’s got in the back of their minds that the Olympics would be nice!”
What about Tokyo 2020? “Well Japan’s on my to-do list so I may as well combine them!”