The GB distance runner hasn’t always felt she deserved to be at major championships, but after the race of her life in Budapest her confidence levels are on the up
By her own admission, Jessica Warner-Judd is not very good when it comes to rest days. Even in the 48 hours which immediately followed her top-eight finish in the women’s 10,000m at the World Championships, she didn’t need her arm twisted very far to join some of her fellow British team-mates as they stretched their legs around Budapest. “I love to run and I love to chat,” she laughs.
Part of her also simply wanted relive the race of her life. “In my mind, I could hear the bell…” Again, there is a hearty chuckle to accompany those last remarks. With the 28-year-old, a wide smile is never far away. With some athletes, you’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get during post-race interviews. With Warner-Judd, whether it’s at a major championships or the mud-caked cross country courses at which she can regularly be found, almost always there is a sense of unbridled joy that she is in the position to race competitively at all.
According to the athlete herself, though, that is not always the case. She does indeed adore her sport – and has done ever since she started out in it as a 10-year-old – but only now is she starting to give herself a little bit of credit.
When Warner-Judd sits down with AW, she does so via video call. The championships in Budapest are in full flow but she is already back at her Loughborough home, having returned after only a couple of days. With her event having fallen so early in the schedule, and with her work done, the Blackburn Harrier did not want to be a distraction to her team-mates – particularly those she says had gone out of their way to support her and, in turn, gave her confidence levels a timely boost.
“I think I’m very pessimistic,” she says. “It’s funny, after races I think I can come across like ‘it’s great. I love life’. But before [races] I’m awful.”
In championships gone by – and Warner-Judd has seen a few since competing in her first World Championships as a teenager in the 800m, 10 years ago – she admits to experiencing a sense of isolation. This time, however, the process has felt far more collaborative.
“In St Moritz [at the pre-championships holding camp] I had a good session and I said to [UK Athletics head of endurance] Steve Vernon: ‘Was that good?’ and he said: ‘What are you on about? Of course it was good!’”
Further confirmation came from British 1500m champion and world finalist Katie Snowden. “Katie was like: ‘That was an impressive session, you need to build yourself up more’,” adds Warner-Judd. “And I was like: ‘No, I think other people could do it better’. I always have those doubts. I think I’ve always thought of it like them and then me. In the race I’ll feel like: ‘There are the top ones and then there’s me, just try not to get lapped or come last’.
“I think that’s where it’s changed this year. I was like: ‘Maybe people are right, maybe I can do something in this final’.
“It’s just surrounding yourself with the right people. As runners, we do think it’s very individual and you think because it’s just me out there it’s all on me. But it’s not.
“Before it used to just be me and my little team. My dad’s my coach and my husband is my only training partner and we used to pride ourselves on it being: ‘It’s just us, we’ll do it’. But it’s nice to get confirmation from others or ask other people’s opinion to get help.
“Normally, if you weren’t on funding that was it, it was kind of like ‘you’re on your own, good luck. Hope it works out’ but it has changed so I think that’s definitely built my confidence.”
This was Warner-Judd’s fifth World Championships, while there have been two European Championships campaigns, as well as three Commonwealth Games. That’s before you take into account the many British teams she has helped to European cross-country success, or the European Team Championships of 2013 where she herself struck 800m gold. That was the same year in which she also first experienced the World Championships, in Moscow.
“I think in 2013 I was like: ‘That’s it. I’ve arrived, I’ve made it’,” she says. “But in 2015 I didn’t make the World Champs. I was pretty unfit, I’d gone to uni and I think I needed a bit of time to just be a student. I grew up in athletics and I didn’t really have any friends outside [of the sport], so I had a bit of time to just be like: ‘Right, I just want to see if I actually want to do this’. After missing out in 2015 I thought: ‘Yeah, I do want to do this’.
“But it’s not easy to get back. In 2016 I was injured, not as fit and I wasn’t ready. I think 2017 was the start again and feeling like: ‘I’ve made it back to the world stage’. From then on, it was [a case of]: ‘Try not to miss any opportunities’.”
The former world under-20 silver medallist has attempted to seize them all – and the next big one will be the aim of qualifying for her second Olympics.
“I think we’re going to go all in on the 10,000m and then maybe start to explore marathon options,” she says. “But we’re going to have to plan try to run a fast 10,000m. With the way the [World] final was run, qualifying times come into it now. I was lucky last year that I had banked that qualifying time already. It’s crazy that I thought about halfway around the [Budapest] race: ‘Oh no, this is going to affect my Olympic qualifying time. It’s not going to be quick enough.”
All of this is a world away from the club scene in which Warner-Judd grew up and still does her best to remain a part of. She isn’t happy that, due to her schedule, there hasn’t been the chance to wear the Blackburn Harriers vest on the track this year outside of the British Championships and Highgate Night of the 10,000m PBs.
“It’s really important [to stay connected with the clubs],” she says. “It makes me feel that there’s a pathway. I remember watching events like the Olympics on TV with my parents and wondering: ‘How do people qualify for that? Do you just turn up?’ I never really knew.
“When I got to my first British Champs, that was the first sign of it, that there is a development from club to international level. You just don’t know who the next stars are. I bumped into Katie Snowden’s parents in Budapest and we were saying who would have thought in 2011 when we went to the world youths that we would both be here [at the World Championships]. That’s incredible.”
All of which makes her concerned to see the profile of what used to be massive club events starting to shrink. “Maybe it’s because I’m older now but the English Schools Championships used to seem bigger and it was on TV,” she says. “There’s just so much now. The BMCs and Highgate are brilliant and I’m very appreciative of having that development but they do also clash with events like the county champs, for example. I remember they used to be like a three-day affair and now it’s a struggle to field full events. It is slightly worrying.
“It’s a very busy season so it’s trying to find how you can actually link in with it all.”
Warner-Judd is not exactly twiddling her thumbs away from elite sport, either. At the top her to do list is completing her PhD in regenerative medicine. The focus, then, will fall on hitting that Olympic target, but she will approach it with a healthy sense of perspective.
“You always want better and you want to do well. [After Budapest] now I’m like: ‘I was right there with a lap to go, next year I can aim for a medal’,” she says. “But I also know not to get carried away. Just because it went well this year doesn’t mean it will go well next year.
“I loved it [the 10,000m final]. That was the most fun I’ve ever had and it makes all the tough times worth it. There have definitely been a couple of years when I’ve felt like: ‘This sucks. I hate it’. But I think, if you take the pressure off and you think about the root of why you do it, then you just remember why you enjoy it.”
She adds: “I love NFL and I was watching a documentary about it where [renowned quarterback] Tom Brady said: ‘The fun ended up being the best part of my career’ and that really resonated with me,” she adds. “The fun is the best part. You spend weeks, months, years working towards something and if you’re not careful you’re like: ‘I’m going to build up for the next thing’. But it should be just enjoy where you’ve come from and enjoy the process.
“It’s been a long ride. Even when I was 11, I wanted to win races. I’ve always wanted to win.
“It’s horrible, it’s stressful, it’s scary so you’ve got to enjoy it. Otherwise, what’s the point? Running has always been a part of my life and I think it always will be. The fact I’m pretty good at it is just a bonus.”
» This feature first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine. Subscribe to AW today and get your first three months for just £24.99 here