Elliot Giles Athlete Interview – Full Feature

Trackstaa spoke exclusively to three-time British 800m champion, British indoor 800m record holder and the second-fastest man ever over 800m indoors, Elliot Giles about breaking Seb Coe’s record, the debate about super-spikes, growing up in Birmingham, his goals for 2021 and more.

Place of birth: Birmingham, England.

Date of birth: 26th May 1994.

Coach: Jon Bigg

UK Club: Birchfield Harriers

  • Favourite or best session? “I recently did3 x 400s off 10 minutes in 48.8, 48.1 and 47.6 – those times should get people talking.”
  • Favourite running shoes? “Zoom Tempo for anything moderately paced.”
  • If you weren’t a pro runner, you’d be? “Something in the car, bike or automotive industry.”

There have been few British athletes over the last couple of years who have generated as much excitement as Elliot Giles. Thrust into the limelight after breaking Seb Coe’s 1983 indoor 800m record and running the second fastest indoor time ever (1:43.63), eclipsing US sensation Donovan Brazier in the process and slower only than Wilson Kipketer who ran 1:42.67 in 1997; the race last month at the World Indoor Tour in Torun, Poland, was a race for the ages.

“My mind is still very much set on the bigger goals, so I haven’t had much chance to really process and embrace what we ran. Overall, I had a pretty good indoor season and the last one in Torun was sort of the icing on the cake. I’ve sort of struggled to explain it though in a way; my mind was so set on the European indoors and what was coming next in the summer that I knew I couldn’t allow myself to get carried away with it because then I would just be setting myself up to fail” Elliot explains.

He exudes a confidence that surpasses all the athletes I have had the pleasure of interviewing in the past but, and I want to emphasise this point, it’s not an arrogance.  It manifests in an inner belief in his ability to overcome the inevitable challenges an elite athlete must face, not just in an individual race but in training more generally.  The overwhelming impression that I got from just the first few minutes of our discussion was that Elliot is a winner; a person who possess an insatiable drive to get better and fulfil his clear potential. He goes on, “I guess I’m just trying not to embrace it too much now because we’ve got too much work to do for the next phase.”

On the day of the race, Elliot put out a post on Instagram that gained a lot of attention, he said that Seb’s record was ‘about to go’. “First of all, it’s really important, I have to stress, that post wasn’t supposed to be seem arrogant in any way”, he explains self-consciously, “it’s just that I was on a bit of a roll and I sort of knew that I was in incredible shape and that I just belonged on the start line. I feel very self-assured before the start of races, I knew I hadn’t had a bad session and so I felt that it would translate into a good race.”

Perhaps most impressively of all was the ease with which he ran 1:45s in his previous indoor races; it was a sign of things to come; “each time I ran those 1:45s, I just knew that I should be filling up with lactic and gassing-out, but each time I did it, I just knew there was more, especially after doing it twice back-to-back”, Elliot tells me.

It was this insight, he adds, which allowed him and his coach to devise a winning race-strategy for Torun. “We decided to go through 400 in 50 instead of 51 and we both agreed that rather than trying to kick on the back straight [150 to go], we just said we’d make it hard from 200 out and that gave us the extra second in the first half and the extra half second in the 2nd half of the race.” Given this meticulous planning, perhaps it’s unsurprising that he is fairly nonchalant about making history. “I think the only people that weren’t surprised were me and my coach and my training partners” he says with an ear-to-ear grin that it is starting to feel familiar, but as soon as there is even an inkling that he’s getting carried away, he drags himself firmly back to the floor, “but look it’s alright planning it, saying it and doing it are very different things.”

I wondered whether having Jamie Webb, recent European Indoor Bronze medallist, snapping at his heels could in part explain how he’d run such a quick time. “I don’t mean this disparagingly to anyone else” he says firmly, “but if you watch the race back, I was at the front the whole time, I sat on the pace for the first 500, I then took on the pace and although Jamie stepped out for 2 or 3 metres, I then ran the last 300 by myself. My plan was always to pick up from 200, I just think the stars aligned for me that day, I was red hot and ready to fire and I just ran my own race.”

In what you could reasonably interpret as a clear sign of the competitiveness of British middle-distance running right now, Elliot was also quick to put me right when I incorrectly suggested that Jamie Webb had broken the British record too. Through a wide grin and a mischievous laugh, he says “I don’t know, you know, that’s hazy isn’t it? I crossed the line first so as someone reminded me after the race, he would have had to cross the line before me to break the record so, yeah, he’s the second fastest in GB history but he didn’t break the record.”

Notwithstanding a bit of light-hearted teasing, Elliot was eager to emphasise the quality of middle distance running in the UK. “I definitely do think that with Jamie [Webb], Dan Rowden, Max Burgin and Kyle [Langford] and Guy Learmonth and all the rest of them watching what I did, it definitely spurs me on to think that I’ve now got a target on my head and they’re coming for me.”

Although it seems like Elliot has only just appeared on the scene, for many athletics observers, these world-class performances have been a long time coming. Having won the British championship three times, won a bronze medal at the European indoors, competed at Rio 2016 and most importantly having previously been voted ‘Best Looking British Athlete’ by his fellow British teammates, I was keen to know if this was the highlight of an already stellar career. After a short giggle, which gives away the understandable pride at being voted best looking British athlete, Elliot tells me “I think running 1:43 was good but we have to bear in mind that I first ran 1:45 in 2016, 1:44 in 2017 and to think that it has taken me until 2021 to run 1:43, I don’t know, I think in my head it’s not as big of an achievement as people like to think it is. I think I expected that I would run 1:43 at the age of 26 and it’s just taken so long to get consistent.”

I was surprised at this answer, despite all of the attention and all of the hype, for Elliot, running 1:43 was just expected. He sets himself astronomically high standards and although he was eager to add that doing it indoors is different to outdoors, you can tell from this attitude that he won’t rest until he’s squeezed every last drop of potential out of himself. He adds “it definitely ranks up there but I think my biggest achievement is winning my first British champs because it was on the back of a lot of stress and issues and problems and only a few weeks training. Last month was done after nearly year consistent which I’ve just never had before.”

Perhaps only once before, in the days when Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram were battling it out seemingly on a weekly basis, has British athletics had such a competitive middle distance men’s roster. This new generation are just built a little bit differently it seems; to use Christian Malcolm’s own words, they’re fearless. Elliot agrees. “We’ve always had the talent but what we’ve not always had is people that want to win. I don’t mean this disrespectfully to anyone but when I’ve watched races from previous generations, I’ve never modelled myself on them because they don’t seem to race to win. Just look at Keely on the weekend”, a reference to Keely Hodgkinson’s stunning 800m gold at the European Indoors, “she didn’t care that she was 19; she didn’t care that she was inexperienced; she stood on the start line chest held high and said I’m going to win this race, I don’t care who’s in it. Now we’re breeding a generation that knows they’re capable. Because there’s so many of us, it’s making us all work a little bit harder. We’re all hungry and we all think we’re better than each other and that means we’ve got to work to prove each other wrong.”

This felt like an appropriate moment to move the conversation into a controversial area. The use of so-called “super-spikes” has recently produced significant negative press and publicity. Specifically, Nike’s newest track spike, the Nike Air Zoom Victory has been credited by journalists and critics alike as the primary reason for the huge improvement many athletes have made. For those of us who consider ourselves to be objective observers, Elliot has seemingly received the brunt of this criticism and attention. All of which, we would argue, is wholly unjustified. Elliot was characteristically honest in his interpretation.

“They pick and choose who they call a cheat for wearing them. It really depends if the media like your face if they call you cheat or not.” He elaborates, however, “look, debate is good because it brings some attention onto the sport and most people are genuinely trying to protect the integrity of the sport. The spikes obviously make a difference, that’s why we wear spikes and the spikes are phenomenal but I think it’s dangerous comparing the spike to the marathon shoe. Jamie Webb’s article for example was referring to me and then the marathon shoe. The marathon shoe has undoubtedly changed the game, but the spikes have not. In the race where I ran 1:43, there were 5 others wearing the same spikes and I am the only one who ran quick and so if they are so super why am I the only one who ran doing so?”

It’s clear that this debate is something Elliot is passionate about, he goes on, “I started wearing these spikes in 2019. So, again if they’re so super why has it taken me 3 years to get any good in them and maybe 30 plus races? In my second year wearing them, I ran only 0.4 seconds quicker over the 800m which you could attribute to just natural improvement and this year, I’ve ran just under a full second quicker. Yet as soon as I had finished the race, I was reading articles digging me out.”

He cites numerous articles, most of which seem to be written by Sean Ingle for The Guardian and the Irish Times, as the ones which are most inaccurate and damaging. “If I’m honest, I was hurt because for like 2 weeks straight, when I wanted to enjoy the moment, I couldn’t because I was having a barrage of abuse and comments. I had at least 10 people asking me if I could get them a pair of the spikes, loads of people commenting on posts saying I’m a cheat, I had DMs from people saying I was a cheat and I just felt a little bit robbed. I felt let down by the British media.”

As If to demonstrate how ridiculous the focus on spike technology has become, Elliot explained that even his 70-year-old next door neighbour asked for a pair of spikes. Even before our interview, Elliot was talking to children at a local school and instead of being able to inspire them with tales of what it’s like to a be professional athlete, most of them wanted to know about the spikes. “These kids were in year 2 or 3”, he says, very obviously exasperated, “I feel like it’s at the point where I just want a bit of respect for it and I’ve even considered running in a different spike to just shut them all up.”

We’re both laughing by this point and so I was keen to rewind back to the start and learn about Elliot’s journey onto the track in the first place. “I started running at 16, just as I left school. I was sort of bored of all the other sports, I played rugby, football, Gaelic football, hurling…”. “Gaelic football?” I asked, wondering if I had misheard.

“Yeah”, he responds smiling, “there was an Irish guy in the area of Birmingham where I grew up and he loved Gaelic football, coached all of us inner city kids of all different colours and ethnicities and backgrounds and got us playing. I had so much fun playing it, we all did and given we were the only team of colour it was largely inclusive too.”

As he is recollecting the joy he got from being involved in the sport, he is extremely conscious of not wanting to tarnish the reputation of Gaelic football but, ultimately, it would be his experiences of racism that would bring his involvement to an end. “I don’t want to pull the race card but it was only our team that would get the racial abuse so that sort of brought it to an end.”

Reminiscing, he tells me a little story about his mum, “I remember my mum storming onto the pitch one day, it turned out to be my last game, I had 2 guys with their arms around my throat and another guy came running in and my mum just barged through all of them, pulled me off and said to the coach that’s it he’s not playing anymore.”

We then move on to discuss the other ancient Gaelic Irish sport Elliot played, “Yes, so I played hurling too”, he says laughing, “but it was just too violent for me. There are levels of violence I’m prepared to accept but I just wasn’t willing to get hit by that bloody stick and so then I started running.”

From that point on, Elliot’s running career has been unfortunately blighted by injury, “I got my England vest in my second year of running and went out to Spain for this particular race. I had picked up a stress fracture prior to it and I just ignored it and carried on through the pain and from then on it has just been a catalogue of injuries; I had a tear in my achilles, I had an inflamed hip bursa; I’ve had stress fractures; I tore my calf more times than I can count on 2 hands. I had back and leg issues and I just had major problems.”

That unique Birmingham drawl when Elliot speaks is still detectable and coupled with an enduring politeness, that was evident throughout our interview, and his endearing honesty, he is a person that I would challenge anyone not to instantly like. “If anyone who reads this grew up in Birmingham, they’ll know my area quite well, it’s sort of infamous. I grew up in Handsworth and it’s probably the roughest part of Birmingham. I was the product of my surroundings growing up, I was the staple little shit off the block. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was fortunate that my mum got us involved in so many sports that I didn’t stray too far and when I did have my moments I was able to get back on and do the right things”, he concedes.

He goes on to tell me about how his later success is, in large part down to the positive experiences he had at school. “Most of my time at school probably wasn’t actually spent at school. Luckily, our teacher, I know him as Steve now, took us on lots of outdoor adventures. One day I would be kayaking or horse riding in the black mountains and the next I’d be orienteering. As an inner-city school, there was a lot of funding to get us on lots of adventures and to do more stuff and I benefitted a lot from that.”

Much like our diversion onto Gaelic football, I was not prepared for Elliot’s next admission, particularly as Birmingham is over 100 miles from the nearest coastline. Laughing and grinning with pride, he tells me, “I was actually Birmingham Schools’ Champion in sailing.” Ignoring my bewildered laugh, he continued, “I went to nationals and came dead last. It was funny, I rocked up thinking I was so good and all these kids owned their own boats and had all this fancy kit on and their names on their sails and there was me. It really was like an underdog story where I didn’t win!”

Having tried and subsequently stopped all of these different sports, his motivation for sticking with running and athletics reveals the type of competitor and winner he is. “When you run, you don’t rely on anyone else, it’s only yourself that is stopping you from competing. In my head during a race, I think about wanting to get to this point in that time, this point in this time, I just think of box-ticking in my own head. That’s what this sport gives you, you can only be as good as you allow yourself to be. Running gave me that freedom. Other sports don’t offer that because you are always relying on someone else.”

He shares a story about seeing his father in the gym, pushing himself to the absolute limit, with little regard for the physical consequences; “I think I’m just willing to hurt, it’s something I’ve inherited, and I think that’s why I like running.”

I couldn’t speak to Elliot without touching on the serious motorbike accident he had in 2014. Never mind running at an elite level, there is little doubt that Elliot is lucky to be alive. With his younger brother on the motorbike too, a car just a little bit ahead of him, in the outside of a three-lane carriageway, and in an apparent effort to take a sharp left-hand turn, cut across 2 lanes at speed, without seeing Elliot’s motorbike, and crashed right into him. His memory of the accident is virtually non-existent and his recollection is based almost entirely on the CCTV footage that he watched subsequently. His brother was thrown from the bike and, miraculously, escaped with minor cuts and bruises. Elliot was a little less lucky, his knee was crushed between the bike and the car and when he was eventually thrown from the bike, he hit his back on the kerb and his head on a bollard, knocking him unconscious.

His next memory is waking up in hospital in terrifying agony. In graphic detail, he explains what it was like, “it felt like my leg was falling off even though I was lying down and not moving. I just can’t describe the pain; unless you’ve experienced it, you wouldn’t understand. Although, I was discharged the following day, I was totally bed bound for 3 weeks. It was just really tough, I wasn’t able to do anything and previously I had like 3 jobs going, I was going to college and in-between all of this I was trying to run. Now, all of a sudden, I couldn’t even get up to go the toilet, I was weeing in a milk bottle and, it sounds grim but, I couldn’t shit for 3 weeks so I had the worst constipation and stomach cramps.”

The journey that Elliot went through, from lying immobile in bed to competing at the Olympic Games only 18 months later, is one that is probably worthy of a documentary all of its own. It’s an inspiring story. “I teamed up with James Brewer and I was so lucky, for him I was almost like his experiment. When I first got off crutches, every third step my knee would just collapse because of the damage I had done to my PCL [posterior cruciate ligament] and so I would just fall over. Bearing in mind my PB at this stage was 1:53, I don’t know if James believed in me or just wanted to give me a chance but he gave me a break. We would go to the gym every single day, first we needed to be able to walk, then jog, then run and then sessions.”

Naturally, his progression was blighted by setbacks and following the crash in August and still only being able to jog in January of the following year, inexplicably, he qualified for the British 800m Championships in 2015. His subsequent achievements he credits, in huge part, to the work James Brewer did for him. “Without James, I wouldn’t be where I am now. He literally rebuilt me from the ground up, made me an athlete and gave me a chance when nobody else would.”

The following year, now in March 2016, Elliot would switch coaches and within 4 months he won British Championships, earned bronze at Europeans and represented Great Britain at the Rio Olympics. A phenomenal turn-around. Looking back, he cites those 3 weeks, lying in bed as the lowest of his life, “I think I did suffer from some sort of depression. I got to such a low, I remember lying in the bed and saying to myself, I’m just going to do as many things as I can that scare me. It was a real moment in my life. I remember thinking if I can get through this, I can get through anything.”

In awe of this mental fortitude, I just sat back and enjoyed him telling me some of the stories and situations he used to get through that tough period in his life, the most wonderful of which was him, utterly randomly and despite being completely sober, deciding to join in a student union karaoke night.

“I was always petrified of public speaking and because I had suffered brain damage in the motorbike crash, I was struggling to read and write, it would often come out as gibberish. I remember being in the library one day and struggling to string together a sentence. When I left, I had my laptop and books in my hand and I was walking past the student union and it was booming with a karaoke night, drunk students everywhere and I’m literally having a Jekyll and Hyde moment where part of me is saying do it and the other part is saying not to. I’m sober by the way. I don’t know why, I walked inside and I knew that I was going to do it. I felt like I couldn’t go back to that dark place and at this point I was still having nightmares about the car hitting me whilst I was on the bike, they were so frequent and I was so fed up with being scared and waking up in a hot sweat, that I walked to the guy who chaired the karaoke and said, can I have a go.

I was such an idiot, I chose a song with like a 40 second intro and honestly, I was shitting myself. I knew I couldn’t sing so I chose ‘Colt 45’ by Afroman. It is the rudest song ever made, it’s derogatory and it’s not on and I shouldn’t admit to singing it really, but I just knew the lyrics because we used to sing it to my mum just to annoy her. Anyway, I’m rapping along to it and my heart was beating out of its chest and you know I got through the whole song. I remember I went home and had the most blissful sleep because I thought if I can do that, I can get over this crash.”

It would be a week or two after facing his demons on that stage that he managed to get back on the motorbike. From this dark place, Elliot has managed to discover the brightest light, the fire that burnt in himself. “I sort of came up with a phrase that I like to tell myself and which comes from this time in my life, ‘emotion is your imagination running wild’. I’ve realised that if you allow your emotion to take over you, to put it bluntly, you’re fucked.”

Without any prompt from me, he explains how this translates directly to running a race, “it’s no different if you’re in the Olympic final. The only thing is your imagination. If you can control it and can understand that there is no reason to be nervous or anxious you can go out there and have some fun. I used to be so anxious and nervous about everything, now I just think to myself, this is what I love to do, I’m fortunate to be able to do it so I just try to savour the moment…if there is one thing that the bike crash has taught me, it’s just to chill out.”

Listening to Elliot talk about this incredibly difficult time in his life, it’s very obvious that this has almost been the making of him. An eyewitness to a truth that has held throughout the generations; we find out how truly strong we are when faced with the most significant adversity. Not only has this resulted in him becoming a world-class athlete but an entrepreneur too. He now owns a company which converts ordinary bicycles into electrically powered ones at a fraction of the cost of purchasing a new electric bike, you can check it out at www.vandervolt.co.uk.

We’ve been talking for an hour already, it’s flown by and there is no doubt that I could talk to Elliot all day. In fact, he seems to be exactly the sort of person whose company you could be in for hours and it feel like a few moments, but I wanted to ask about his current training schedule and what it looks like because he’s famously a low-mileage runner.

“I’ll give you a breakdown of the sessions, so Monday I did a jog and some drills and some light tempo. Yesterday, I did a session: 3 sets of 5 x 400s, we ran them in 57s or 58s off 90 seconds recovery with 4 minutes between the sets. We then had a gym session and I tend to chill out in the evening after a session. Today [Wednesday] I just went for a long elliptical workout, around 50 minutes. I try and make it hard so I don’t have to do a double. Thursday I’ll do a bit of tempo with some circuits or gym and a shakeout run in the evening. Friday I tend to take as a rest day. Saturday we’ll do something quicker again and maybe hills and gym and a little top-up jog. Then Sunday, I’ll do about an hour and a half on the elliptical. So, for me it’s very little running.”      

The recent training camp in Dubai, which you can see on Trackstaa’s YouTube channel, courtesy of British 1500m champion, George Mills, however, looked particularly glamorous. “Dubai was unreal” he says with a wistful look and he can’t resist a bit friendly banter. “George loves it doesn’t he, he’s a sucker for content. Honestly, he will do anything to get on Trackstaa’s Instagram that boy. He tries to play it cool but he just wants to get the camera out. There is a version of George on Instagram and there’s the version of George in everyday life; he just loves featuring on content and letting people write about him. I mean fair play to him, he’s got a blue tick and he hasn’t even done anything so you can’t knock it” he says, we’re both laughing now.

To bring the interview to a close, in an Olympic year, I was interested to know what his goals were for the forthcoming year. “Well, I keep my cards close to my chest but to navigate the British Champs and then if that all happens, focus on the Olympics. In the midst of that, I want to run a really quick time too so just keep going, ticking those boxes and if the plan diverts, be ready to adapt. It’s a big year and we need to capitalise.”

Rather ominously for his competitors, given that Elliot has been into the depths of hell and lived to tell the tale, you can sense how relaxed and excited he is about the challenges and opportunities ahead this year. If he can stay injury free and with this inimitable mentality, a British indoor 800m record is likely to be just the start. “The main goal is the Olympics but I’m going in eyes wide open, eyes on the ball and ready to have fun with it”.

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