Australian Madeline Hills (nee Heiner) achieved the remarkable feat of making the final of the 3000 metre steeplechase and 5000 metres at the 2016 Rio Olympics, finishing top 10 in both. What makes this story more extraordinary however is the fact Madeline was just a few years into her comeback from 8 years off running! In this long-ranging interview find out what she did during the years away from running, how she indeed came back to such a high level and much, much more. I encourage you to read this a few times as it has some great insights.
Image by Quinn Rooney via http://www.gettyimages.fi/detail/news-photo/madeline-heiner-hills-of-australia-competes-during-the-news-photo/590219024.
What are the best and worst aspects of being a professional athlete?
While technically I have been a professional athlete for a number of years, it’s only post-Olympics that I feel I really identify as one.
Best aspect – the opportunity to travel with my running and to connect with so many interesting people from around the world. It’s a very unique lifestyle and one that I feel incredibly fortunate to experience.
Worst aspect – the long periods of time I spend away from my husband, Chris. I was lucky to have Chris with me in Europe in 2016 for a week and in Rio for the first 3 of my 4 races – on all other occasions I have travelled alone overseas.
You did not take up running seriously until you were around 15 I believe? Did you do much running before that or other sports?
I had a very active childhood but organised sport was never a focus. I competed in swimming, touch football, track and cross country throughout school but didn’t take anything particularly seriously. My true passion through my childhood was music and I would happily spend hours inside playing the piano.
By 17 you were representing Australia in top international junior events. This quick progression obviously showed you had some talent? Did you realise this yourself?
I really didn’t start to train with any structure until 2004 – when I was 16. I’d spent the previous year training twice a week with other members of my running club – Kembla Joggers. It was casual, social and a lot of fun. We would train at the beach and around the local parks – we never measured distance and never trained on a track. When I was 16 I met Dave Chisholm, a local coach who guided my junior career. Dave delivered a low mileage program with a focus on consistency. I idolised my training partners, Lachlan Chisholm and Jared Poppett, and I thrived immediately. Within months I had qualified for the 1500m at the 2004 World Juniors (as a 16 year old). While I had some good performances on the track, I don’t believe I was ever a standout – I consistently finished between 2nd and 5th place at nationals – as a junior my Australian titles came only when XC moved to 6km. At 2004 world juniors I was definitely outclassed but I was encouraged by the fact I would be eligible for the next world juniors in 2006. My other notable performances came at World Cross Country – I placed 16th (2005) and 18th (2006) over the 6km distance.
As a junior, I was obviously aware of my talent, though I don’t remember feeling a great confidence in my potential to progress to an elite level.
In 2006 you somewhat surprisingly retired after just a few years of running under your belt. Explain this big decision?
2006 was a brilliant year for me athletically. I had 2 attempts over the 3000m steeplechase, (with the intention to nab a spot on the team for Melbourne Commonwealth Games) running world class times for a junior athlete. I did run the qualifying time though was outside the top 3 and so missed selection for the CG team. I was however selected for 2006 World Juniors (1500m, 3000m SC), finished 18th at World Cross Country and signed my first contract with a shoe company. In 2006 I also experienced my first injury – ITB syndrome – presenting as a consistent nagging pain around my knee. The injury occurred in the months leading into world juniors and as the non-running weeks began to mount, my desire to travel to China for the competition diminished. I didn’t want to take time away from university to travel to a meet I no longer felt prepared for and I decided to withdraw myself from the team. I remember feeling a wave of emotions – Disappointment, frustration, anger… but also a little relief – which was unexpected.
I took a long break from training, with no immediate racing goal in mind and hence no urgency to return. My time away from running allowed me to experience a ‘normal’ university life, without the daily commitment that my sport required. The longer I spent away from the running, the less I wanted to return. I was living on campus at Sydney University, most frequently training alone. Over the next few months I tried to motivate myself to return to my prior regime but for the first time I was really longing to experience life with my university colleagues as opposed to my athletic friends. In a last ditch attempt to ignite the flame I left my coach (Dave) and spent some time in Melbourne. I thought perhaps by immersing myself into the running community it would spark my passion again. It actually had the opposite effect – A leading coach clearly explained to me at that time that the only way for me to be successful athletically was to defer my studies, spend half the year overseas training and racing and commit entirely to the sport. While I believed I had more to achieve with my running, I didn’t believe it was the best decision for me to put all my energy into one pursuit at such a young age. With that I walked away from running, believing that I could not achieve athletic success while pursuing other passions and goals in my life.
During this time, you completed your Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of Sydney and then a Masters of International Public Health at the University of NSW. How was university life for you?
I moved to Sydney as a 17-year-old to begin my first degree (Bachelor of Pharmacy), living on campus at Women’s college. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been surrounded by so many inspiring and driven women at my residence – lead by none other than Dame Quentin Bryce. I admit I prioritised my social life throughout my years in Sydney which certainly meant I had plenty of stressful cramming sessions during pre-exam study breaks.
My post-graduate experiences were entirely different. I started studying a Masters of International Public Health (UNSW) while living in Adelaide in 2013 and working full-time as a pharmacist. I was highly motivated, specific about my particular areas of interest and I absolutely loved my experience.
You did a lot of travel during this time also. Tell us about some of these experiences?
I registered as a pharmacist as a 21-year-old and immediately started planning travel adventures. I would work up to 75 hours per week for a few months at a time and would then travel. I spent time backpacking and bungee jumping in Europe, sky diving in Hawaii and scuba-diving in South-east Asia. I had long been drawn to the African continent and finally found enough time to begin to explore it in 2010. I spent 3 months travelling through South Africa, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and assisting in an orphanage in western Kenya. My now husband and I spent some time together in Uganda, white water rafting down the Nile river. A few years later we travelled to The Gambia and Senegal in West Africa to assist a beautiful family in a rural village that Chris has been supporting for over a decade.
Travel also came in the form of work for me – I’ve lived around NSW, Canberra, Tasmania, South Australia and rural Victoria during my 8 years since registering as a pharmacist.
During these years did you think about running much or follow the results of others even?
Throughout my absence from the sport I did have brief moments where I considered attempting to return. There were periods of time where I would run up to 50km a week but for the majority of my time away from the sport I did not run. I felt guilty at times for not pursuing something for which I had a talent but at the same time I gained great satisfaction from my work and from the experiences through travel. I don’t remember watching any of the 2008 Olympics and my only memory of the 2012 Olympics was the women’s marathon, when we proudly cheered on our friend Jess Trengove.
In 2013 you started doing some running for fun you said, then remarkable by 2014 you were selected for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Just as amazingly you finished 4th there in the 3000 metre steeplechase. Firstly, how shocking was the rapid progression of your comeback? Secondly, how was the Commonwealth Games experience and how much motivation did this give you?
It was in late 2013 that my coach at the time (Adam Didyk) and I decided to make the Glasgow Commonwealth Games my goal. Despite the message I’d been given as a junior athlete – I continued to work 50 hour weeks in the dispensary and started my post-graduate studies. Adam understood my desires to continue to progress in all aspects of my life and my training load supported this. Our logic was that I had run well under the B standard for the steeplechase in 2006, with only a few attempts over the barriers. I added the 5000m to my repertoire for the first time and also achieved that standard. To make the team was my initial goal – I just wanted a senior Australian tracksuit. Those goals were quickly reset and by the time Glasgow arrived we believed I was within reach of a medal. It turned out that we were right – I finished 4th. I watched that race for the first time only last week and I am in awe of how well I ran in light of my inexperience. Glasgow gave me the reassurance that an Olympic berth was inevitable if I kept my focus. The games were incredible and receiving the tracksuit was more emotional than I could have predicted. I vividly remember my tears of joy and accomplishment when I did finally put on that Australian tracksuit again.
Were we surprised? Of course! Everything I achieved in 2014 and everything since has been above and beyond what I could have reasonably expected. Having said that, I demand a lot from myself and despite my successes in the last few years, I can find plenty of errors, flaws, and opportunities for me to improve.
After this, it is fair to say things went full steam ahead and you made the Olympic team for the 2016 Rio games making the final for both the Steeplechase and the 5km. How was this experience? You were injured during it too; how bad was this?
2016 was a blur and a year of mixed emotions. I tore my calf a week prior to the Olympic trials but managed to win the race and gain automatic selection. In hindsight, I should not have raced on the injury, though our understanding of the selection policy required me to do so. I had to take some time off after nationals and this meant I was playing catchup for much of the year. I arrived in my base in Loughborough, UK in mid-May well below my ideal fitness and I got stuck into a few months of hard work. In July, I ran a 5 second PB in the 1500m (4.06 – an Olympic qualifying time) and the following week lined up in London for my final race pre-Olympics. In the days leading into London I had noticed a dull ache in my foot. During the race, the pain was constant, distracting and upsetting. I withdrew with just over 2 laps remaining and collapsed in a heap of emotions. I remember being so angry at myself for weakening and for not finishing the race. It turned out that I had made the right decision – an MRI in London the next day revealed a stress reaction in my 2nd metatarsal – and I was advised not to run until the Olympics.
I did not exactly follow the medical advice. I remained in Loughborough for another week and spent my time on the elliptical, exploring the East Midlands by bike and following the black line in the pool. And then I ran. My defiance was not fuelled by arrogance but rather by my desire for the opportunity to stand on the start line in Rio with some level of confidence. We were aware of the risks so each step had a purpose and we finally did manage to string together a few great sessions at our holding camp in Florida. I don’t think any of us can quite believe how well the Olympic campaign went. My first race at my first Olympics was understandably nerve-wracking, particularly given my build up. From there I relaxed and enjoyed the process. Looking back I believe my best race was definitely the 5000m heat, followed by my 5000m final. Despite being proud of the result, I can see several flaws in my steeplechase races – I’d love to build on this if I have the opportunity to.
My Olympic experience was a dream. While a successful campaign meant I stayed in the ‘bubble’ much longer than I expected, the opportunity to line up against the world’s best, while my supporters willed me to give my all – was an experience that will be very tough to beat.
Image by Cameron Spencer via http://www.gettyimages.fi/detail/news-photo/madeline-heiner-hills-of-australia-reacts-after-the-womens-news-photo/592243254.
Right now you are still recovering from this injury I believe. Where you at are with this and what are your plans for this year?
My primary goal for Rio was to produce a run that I was proud of – regardless of the actual finishing result. Surprisingly few people nail their first Olympics and I’m so grateful to feel that I did. I now feel like I have nothing to prove but everything to gain. And I want to do it all again. In 2020 I hope I have the opportunity to line up in Tokyo as a better athlete.
I’ve made several changes since Rio. I am now coached by Rob Denmark (UK), who I met in Loughborough in 2015 and who helped guide my 2016 campaign. Rob has high expectations of me and I’m excited for new challenges. Post Rio, I have also relocated to Melbourne with my husband, started a strength and conditioning program (something I have ignored previously) and am supported by a new medical team. I also finally stepped away from the pharmacy and became a ‘full-time athlete’. My eagerness to throw myself in wholeheartedly was a little overdone and I did end up with an injury late last year. Inflammation in the hip saw me off running for twelve frustratingly long days, my longest time involuntarily away from running. I’m progressing well and excited for 2017.
My plans for this year are quite simple – to progress, to gain experience and to enjoy the process. To have finished 7th and 10th at the Olympics as a part-time athlete gives me great confidence for what the future can hold. I believe the changes I have made will make me a better athlete though of course these improvements won’t be overnight.
Finally, I am very interested in how many days you work as a Pharmacist now you are such a high-level athlete? Is it hard to juggle it all?
I stepped away from my role as a pharmacist in November 2016. As much as I am incredibly proud of the juggle that I did manage over the last few years, I acknowledge it was not ideal for optimum performance. I rarely trained in the evenings due to fatigue from standing all day. Similarly, there were times where I would struggle through a 10 hour workday after a 6am track session.
I will never be just a runner. I’ve spent the last few weeks at Hepatitis Victoria learning from the Health Promotions team and advising on the educational needs for pharmacists. I will continue to work as a locum pharmacist in Melbourne, provided it fits with my training. I don’t want to finish my athletic career and wonder what I could have done if I had committed entirely to my sport. I believe I have just scratched the surface and I can’t wait to really push my limits over the next few years. I showed that it is possible to be an Olympian and have a successful career and that is something I would love to be remembered for.
Lastly some quick fire questions-
Best race? 5000m heat, Rio Olympics. Less than 24 hours after I ran in the 3000m steeplechase final in mid-30 degree heat, I found myself back on the start line. It was a scenario I knew was a possibility but one I hadn’t allowed myself to really entertain. I hadn’t raced a 5000m in over 12 months and I felt a little apprehensive. I was in the first heat of the 5000m, always a slight disappointment as you can’t help but feel you are at the mercy of the races to follow. I remember feeling tired in the warm up, but not remarkably so. I was so incredibly happy on the start line – my only goal was to give every bit of energy I had to the race and to show I earned my spot. We walked the first few laps and the race started to get moving around 3km. I finished the race in 6th place and moved through to the final. To have run so confidently, in light of the recent steeplechase race, as well as the interrupted build up to Rio, is one of my proudest athletic memories.
Toughest race? London diamond league, steeplechase, July 2017 My final race pre-Olympics. A great field assembled. A chance to build momentum after a 4.06PB 1500m in Belgium just days beforehand. But a nagging, sore foot. This race was difficult for me to shake off. I ran a very fast first 2km and was gearing up for the final few laps. But my foot was bothering me in every step, over every barrier and particularly at the water jump. And then I pulled out. The moment I did this was filled with so many emotions – I was in disbelief, I was angry at myself and I was worried about my injury. I wondered if I had imagined the severity of the pain and had weakened mentally. I had the most amazing team in London to help put me together. My husband, Craig Hilliard (AA), Rob, Adam (back in Australia), and my manager were incredible – I moved on from that race to Rio because of them. To have a diagnosis from the MRI the next day was heartbreaking though confirmed that I had actually made the right decision. It allowed me to put to rest the doubts I had about my mental toughness. I think you can learn a lot through adversity and these experiences made my achievements in Rio so much sweeter.
Toughest competitor? Laura Muir, Great Britain. 3.55 for the 1500m and 8.26 for the 3000m. I first raced her in Hengelo, Netherlands in the 3000m. I ran a massive PB (8.44) but had to take 3rd place behind Laura and another athlete. I remember watching her accelerate away from me in awe. She is gutsy, she grits her teeth and she is fearless on the track. Aside from her amazing performances, it is Laura’s humility I most admire.
Favourite memory from athletics? 2016 Olympic Trials/National Championships – 3000m steeplechase I went into this race determined to win and gain automatic selection for Rio. A calf injury had forced me to make the decision to sit out the 5000m and so the steeplechase was my only race that weekend. I was able to enjoy the last lap and jogged down the home straight with an enormous smile stretched across my face. There were 2 people I desperately searched for to share the moment with. My husband, Chris, who has shared every high and low of this journey with me, and my junior coach and life long mentor and friend, Dave Chisholm. To be held by Dave and share the moment together was beautiful and I will always be so grateful for his guidance through my life.
Toughest training session? 6 x 1 mile off 60seconds recovery.
Are we catching the drug cheats? I hope so. In truth, I don’t focus on this too much as it is beyond my control. I was disappointed by the level of testing in Rio. It saddens me to see opportunities taken from clean athletes who deserve their moment in the light. It frustrates me that athletes are allowed to resume competition despite positive tests. I fully support lifetime bans.
Is the future of Australian athletics looking better? And will nitro be the answer to help promote the sport more? I would like to think the future is bright for athletics in Australia. I know we have so many incredible young athletes across several events and I hope their progress continues. I understand the need for innovation and it’s hard to argue the success of Nitro. It would be naive to ignore that Usain Bolt would have drawn just as much attention by competing at a traditional track meet, however perhaps it was the appeal of Nitro that brought him here in the first place. My favourite event was the mixed 4 x 400m relay. It was unpredictable and incredibly exciting. One of my main frustrations with Nitro was the coverage of field events. Despite allowing only 3 events (pole vault, long jump, and javelin) into the program, they still failed to acknowledge the significance of some of the performances. Hamish Peacock threw over 82m in the javelin – a throw big enough for a top-10 place in Rio. I would have loved to see that celebrated.
What do you do to relax? One of my true passions is cooking. I love learning about produce, flavour combinations and mastering new cooking methods. I could happily spend the day in the kitchen cooking up a feast.