Jess Ennis: The Golden Girl Next Door

Find out how Jenis Ennis competes worldwide in seven events - and still finds time for wedding plans

by Kerry McCarthy

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Credit: Ben Duffy

Facing her demons

"When I was in Rome [in June this year, a Golden League meeting that Ennis won], before the 800m, the last event, I felt absolutely awful. My stomach was churning, my legs felt like jelly, I felt really tired and fidgety, and my body felt empty. Even those words don't do the feelings any justice. I really can't describe how horrible it was. You start thinking, 'I have a big lead so if I blow it now it's going to be really embarrassing', 'What if I go off too slowly and get my timing wrong?' or 'What if I go out too fast and blow up in the home straight?' I know that those things haven't happened for so long, but the possibility still does your head in."

These are demons anyone who's ever limbered up before a weekend race knows well and, aside from her playlist, Ennis believes the only defence against them is work, work and more work. She trains twice a day, six days a week. For someone prepping for seven very different events (200m, 100m hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin and 800m) this requires an extreme juggling act. But those of us training for a single discipline can learn more than just time management skills, because the secret of the Ennis work ethic is that it's focused on her weaknesses.

Focusing on weaknesses
"You can't go out there with a weak event because your competitors will exploit it and it'll prey on your mind as the event approaches," she says. "So, as hard as it is, you have to work your butt off - even on the ones you don't like so much or that you're not so naturally talented at. But this is what gets you through the nerves: if you feel you've prepared the best you can and you've cut no corners, then it takes away some of the worry. If you lose, at least you know you gave it everything."

You may think 'weaknesses' and 'Jess Ennis' don't sit comfortably in the same sentence, but with the World Champs in Daegu, Korea, later this month and that little get-together in London next year, Ennis is continuing to work on what's often been cited as her weakest discipline: the javelin.

That her javelin coach Mick Hill is confident she can hit an impressive 50m is testament to the power of hard work at any level. And while you probably don't have the matter of hurling a high-tech spear to worry about, the philosophy neatly translates to your running.

Copy Ennis' approach

If you hate speedwork or hills, say, that's probably because your particular training nemesis exposes an underlying weakness. Focusing on the stuff you find hardest will reap the biggest rewards.

It's a lesson that even the most casual of runners can relate to: you get out what you put in, and hard work equals greater peace of mind on race day. For Ennis, 'putting it in' means legs, core, upper body, front and back - it all gets a pounding. This full body workout is exactly what has led to Ennis being lauded as the athlete women most want to be, and who men want to be with (she was voted into MSN's top 10 most desirable women of 2010).

She also attributes her willingness to work at all events equally as the reason she is renowned for being such a strong runner - especially in the 800m. Over the two laps of the final event of the seven, she habitually blows away a field of world class competitors who have nothing more than a jog left in their legs.

Train hard, compete harder

"There's no choice about the level of training if you have aspirations to do well," she says. "It's so hard on the body, with seven events, that just finishing a heptathlon is an achievement. It sounds funny but every heptathlete's first goal when they step out on day one is just to finish, because the risk of injury dropout is so high.

"If you finish, but don't win, you're still chuffed. This is where I think heptathlon is different from other events. I don't think a top sprinter who finished fourth would be too happy!"

Other elite athletes might indeed never set a goal as commonplace as merely finishing, but it's a philosophy that resonates with amateur runners up and down the country. The key to training seems to be the same for Ennis as it is for us: build a solid base and make sure your body is fit for purpose, then add the cherry of performance gains afterwards.

Wedding plans

With such a demanding schedule, home life could be squeezed out. But in typical Ennis style she finds the time to balance everything. And true to her down-to-earth approach, she shuns the trappings of celebrity in favour of a quiet life with her labrador Maya and fiance Andy Hill, with whom she has been in a relationship for seven years. Hill, a construction site manager, proposed in January and, despite putting off the wedding until 2013 to avoid distractions in Olympic year, Ennis is already in full-on planning mode.

"Obviously the Olympics is the priority - although maybe I shouldn't be saying that! - but when I'm not training I'm thinking about the wedding. It's so exciting! I'll need friends to help me with the logistics of it because I spend a lot of time flying around competing. But it's going to be planned by me, using my ideas, and it's going to be perfect," says Ennis, sounding like any bride-to-be with a few work commitments to deal with.

"When I'm travelling now, I've always got my nose in a wedding magazine, doing a bit of research and jotting down thoughts. At the moment I'm starting to think about the honeymoon, guests and my dress - which are three very big things. But I'm used to juggling stuff in my day job."

Staying grounded

Her friends remain largely the same bunch she has known since her teenage years and Ennis is happiest when she's hanging out with them back in Sheffield.

"I don't really like talking about myself with my friends. Sometimes I won't tell them I'm  competing and then they'll see it on the news and they're like, 'Why didn't you tell us?!' When I come back I want to spend time talking about normal things.

"As much as I'm lucky to do my hobby for a living and lead a privileged life, I want to catch up on the gossip. It's the most relaxing thing - and to me, way more interesting than whatever I'm doing. But then eventually they want to move the conversation back to people I've met recently, David Beckham or whoever."

Coping with fame

And what of her own fame? Does the Golden Girl talk grate? Ennis hesitates. "Not really. Well, it depends. On the one hand it's lovely for people to say nice things about you, and obviously as I wanted to be in the Olympics since I was a little girl, being the face of a home Olympics is an unbelievable honour. I know how lucky I am having the chance to compete on home soil and have a nation cheering me on.

"On the other hand, well, it's tricky because once you've won a major championships then the pressure goes up and people see your success as being normal. Sometimes you want them to see how hard you have to work to keep at that level, to meet everyone else's expectations. But on balance, I'm not complaining!"

Time's up. The taxi pulls up to the studios and, disembarking slightly stiffly, Ennis looks fatigued and vulnerable for a split second. Her legs are sore from a long photo shoot the day before, and now she has to do some hurdling in front of the cameras on behalf of another sponsor. The lot of a bankable world champion.

As she gathers her belongings, there's  just time for one more question. The question. Is she going to win Olympic gold next year? "Sod off, I'm not going to give you your cover line! You can have 'Jess Ennis says she'll try her best' and that's all you're getting." And, with that, the Golden Girl shimmies off to her next engagement.

Discover the seven-step plan from Jess' coach Tony Minichiello that'll transform your running.

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