The champions’ interviews: Jill Stephen

Having finished near the end of the field in her first hill race at Ben Rinnes in 2014, Jill Stephen‘s progression in the sport has been stratospheric. She can’t stop winning. In 2018, she won the Scottish Hill Runners championship, and repeated that feat this year. Like many of her contemporaries, Jill’s motivation is simple – it is her love of the hills.

How did you get into hill running? Can you recall your first experience of racing?

My partner Craig first introduced me to it. He took up hill running in 2014 and invited me out a few times. We did some routes in the Kilpatricks and Campsies which mainly involved getting lost and falling in bogs. The same year my dad suggested we should run our local hill race, Ben Rinnes in Dufftown. Whilst dad trained really hard, I did not and came right at the back of the field with my dad beating me. I loved it though and decided to train properly so really got into it from there. I recently took the women’s record for Ben Rinnes which I’m really proud of.

For you, what is the intrinsic appeal of hill running?

Firstly, the challenge: there’s something very satisfying about getting yourself up hills and covering ground quickly. The other thing that appeals to me are the people you meet. It’s such a friendly community; we’ve met so many people just through running or going to races and I think it’s a special part of our sport.

What frightens you about hill running?

Exposure in the elements. The more confident you get, the more adventurous you become and whilst this is one of the great things about hill running it also means you end up exploring more rougher, tougher areas. We are very small compared to the elements of the hills and I’m always wary about being out exposed in bad weather.

You are captain of your club, Hunters Bog Trotters. What does it mean to you to hold such a position and how can you use your role to encourage others to enjoy running in the hills?

I’m really proud to have been elected captain, particularly as I’m relatively new to the club having only joined at the end of 2014. Everyone is really friendly and the club have a great ethos and approach to running. HBT is quite unique in that the captain takes training every Thursday – which is an ideal way for me to get everyone doing hill sessions! I always try to be very encouraging when people ask me about hill running and suggest races to start off with or advice about how to train longer in the hills.

Who do you hold up as role models, either within or outwith the sport?

Stewart Whitlie. He’ll kill me for saying this! I trained a lot with him last year and he has the most positive attitude to training I have ever seen. It really pushes you on when you’re finding it tough. I remember doing 3 x 10-minute flat reps on a canal path with him and although he kept saying how tough it was, he just kept pushing the whole time and then finished the session smiling! I suspect that’s the reason he has had such a successful and long career in sport: he trains and competes hard and still loves it. If I can compete anywhere near his level as I get older, I’ll be very happy.

What does a hard training session look like for you?

Probably 3 x 10 minutes on a flat canal path! I try and do longer flat reps once a week and they are always hard. Good for you though!

Your performances have notably improved over the last few years culminating in your Scottish Championship in 2018. What has made the difference?

I don’t think there’s any one thing. I have really structured training and enjoy the consistency that comes with that. I also have a great network of people to train with which really helps push you on when you don’t feel like getting out. Lastly, I now do more strength and conditioning which has made me much stronger and I think helps to prevent injury.

If you could run one last hill race, where would it be and why?

Edinburgh. It would be an informal race up the steepest climbs on Arthur’s Seat with all my running pals. Afterwards, we’d all go for wine (or ale!) and chips. Brilliant!

This article was first published in The Fellrunner.

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