How mountain runner Emmie conquered her fear to be the best in Europe

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Two years ago Emmie Collinge crossed the finish line in only her second mountain race, but was then too scared to take the steep descent back down the Swiss mountain and had to be transported to the bottom by helicopter.

Now she is queen of the mountains in a remarkable transformation for the former Mansfield Harriers junior, who has converted from road running to the hills and beyond in style.

Emmie (28) was crowned European senior female champion earlier this month after victory at Arco on Lake Como in Italy.

Last year she was second in the World Championships and in February was also second in the Italian National Cross-Country Championships - Italy is now her home - a result of which she was particularly proud.

Emmie, who has also set a new record for the ascent of Mount Snowdon in Wales, said: “I have always been fairly strong on the climbs, even when I was younger (and road running).

“I think living in Italy gives me a huge advantage - there are trails that begin just outside my door so I have been really fortunate to have the opportunity to really hone my skills and endurance.

“But after my early experiences and having to travel back down a mountain by helicopter, I never thought I would get as far as I have.”

That second mountain race a - sky race - over 11.5km to the summit of Forcarella in Switzerland, about half an hour north of Lugano, had an average gradient of 15% and in parts was 50%.

At times Emmie was reduced to walking pace and then when she reached the summit and peered over the top, at a near-vertical descent over a snowy ravine, she cried out: “Oh, God!”

Emmie said: “Seeing my discomfort, the race organisers, recognising that I was not your regular Swiss mountain runner, allowed me the luxury of returning to the valley in a helicopter.

“Skyrunning (running, as opposed to hiking, up and down mountains) is second nature to Swiss natives. For most of the day’s competitors, scaling peaks and bounding down mountainsides was something they’d done since childhood – and it showed.

“They did it with the ease of mountain goats. For Brits, on the other hand, it takes a little more precaution and a lot more nerve.

“After the helicopter descent we knew that I’d have to work on my descending skills and fortunately those have just improved with practice. I still have to remind people out here that I didn’t grow up in the mountains and so don’t have the same natural ability to cross mountains as a lot of them do.”

Emmie soon found her nerve and regularly competes in both mountain running and sky running. She took up the sport by chance on a press trip for Outdoor Fitness magazine to race the Tre Cime Alpinlauf, in Sexten, South Tyrol, where she was the third-best placed female runner.

“I really enjoyed the experience. It was a bit of a revelation after all the road running,” she said. 

Since then she has not looked back and has won several races across Europe in the past two years. 

For championship races she said the mountain running courses tend to be easier than other events she tackles throughout the year.

Women race around 8-10km with about 500-600 metres of climbing and Emmie said: “Usually I prefer to race around 20km with around 1,500 metres of climbing, so I had to work on my speed over shorter climbs for the European Championships.

“They’re usually fully off-road on narrow trails. This year’s European Championships were a huge shock to a lot of people as they have been described as ‘urban mountain running’, seeing as we started at sea level in the beautiful town of Arco and then ran up paved trails to the castle with man-made steps and concrete descents.

“The second lap was much more typical with rocky trails, muddy switchbacks and a short section of ridge running at the top.”

Emmie, whose parents still live in Newstead Abbey Park, started running while at Abbey Gates Primary School, Ravenshead.

“The headteacher, Mr Judge, was incredibly encouraging and almost everyone was involved in sports of some kind,” she recalled.

“Plus my older brother and sister had already gone through the local cross-country scene and that really inspired me to try and do as well as them.

“The following a few local schools’ races I started going up to train with Mansfield Harriers and ran for them.”

After studying at Jospeh Whitaker School, Rainworth, and the sixth-form at Ashfield School, Kirkby, Emmie took German and Dutch at Newcastle University, where she joined Gosforth Harriers in Newcastle to compete in the local cross-country scene. As she didn’t have a fixed UK address after university, the runner also joined the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletics Club.

At that time she concentrated on cross-country, road and track running, performing best at cross-country.

Emmie said: “I was coached by John Cooper and then Richard Massey at Mansfield Harriers, and both of them were a brilliant influence on my running.

“I was selected to run a couple of XCs for the England under-20 squad in Europe when I was about 15/16 and we have always joked at home that they probably represented my peak - although I think I’ve now beaten that.”

Emmie moved to Italy around two years ago as a freelance translator after a brief stint in Switzerland. She translates German, Dutch and Swedish into English for mainly sports and tourism related commissions. 

She lives with her boyfriend, Phil Gale, a runner and photographer, in a small village in the mountains above Sondrio, about 45 minutes from Lake Como.

Running every day as part of what she describes as relaxed training, Emmie has joined local club Atletica Alta Valtellina, which has a large junior section and is well respected in the region.

Now her aims are ”to keep going at this level and maybe clock some fast road times as well.”  

Running is certainly in her family with her dad, Peter, now running for Ripley AC and her mum, Maddy, a coach with Mansfield Harriers.

Last year Emmie came sixth in the first Mansfield 10k – and was the leading female runner - and won the Notts AC Christmas Relays.

She said: “I don’t think I can make the 10 km this year, which is a real shame as I really enjoyed last year and knew most of the marshals. The Christmas relays were also brilliant fun.

“I would love to come back more often and race at home with my parents but it’s a bit tricky as I have so many race obligations in mainland Europe.”