Renaissance woman
CYCLING WEEKLY|December 02, 2021
Mountain runner, hill-climber, road racer, Zwift supremo, scientist, sheep farmer… How does one person have so many talents? CW meets Mary Wilkinson
David Bradford

Mary Wilkinson is a natural. Rewind 25 years and a picture emerge of a sporty kid who was good at just about everything. “I was pretty talented in team sports: netball, hockey, football,” she casually reels them off. “I played those to international junior level.” By her late teens, the sporting world was her oyster and she was looking forward to honing her netball at Loughborough University, but then tragedy struck: Wilkinson’s older brother Thomas was killed in a car crash aged just 19.

“It left me with a desperate need for control, because other things – my brother’s death – had proved to be outside of my control,” Wilkinson reflects candidly on the trauma, 23 years on. “Food was something I could control, and that led to an eating disorder.” Although compulsive exercise is often bound up with disordered eating, Wilkinson believes that, in her case, running had a healing effect. “My desire was not to be thin, but for control, and in running there was a positive control that ultimately enabled me to see food as fuel.”

Though initially running was more a coping strategy than a competitive interest, Wilkinson immersed herself in it and took a job in a running shop. It was here that colleagues spotted her potential. “They entered me into a marathon relay,” she recalls the initial plan. “I was meant to run just the first leg.” The natural athlete naturally sped on past expectations: still feeling fresh after her allotted 10km, she breezily ticked off the remaining 32km. “I ended up running a 2:56 marathon.”

Suitably encouraged, and with fond memories of her fell-running days as a child in the Yorkshire Dales, Wilkinson decided to give mountain running a try. In her first Great Britain trials, in 2005, she qualified for the world championships. That summer she finished seventh in the European Mountain Running Championships and then fourth in the Worlds – not bad for a debut season.

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