Mary Wilkinson is a natural. Rewind 25 years and a picture emerges 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 coping strategy than 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.
In 2007 her storming progress was halted by a fall. “It happened on the descent in the Snowdon international race, and I smashed up my knee pretty badly.” The next two years were a seesaw of rehab and re-injury until, in 2009, Wilkinson made it back on to the GB team and resumed racing internationally. In 2014 she finished 18th in the World Mountain Running Champs in Italy and it appeared her comeback was complete – until the next day. “I was out with the team for an easy run before flying home when a weird numbness developed in my left foot. Literally from that day, I haven’t been able to run another step.”
World-class athlete one day, non-runner the next – it was difficult to accept. “Mentally, it was hard,” says Wilkinson. “At the time I don’t think I really appreciated what I was going through. Running had been my identity; all my friends were runners, and suddenly that was taken away.” Over the next three years, she underwent countless tests and consultations, her hopes raised and then dashed every time.
“It wasn’t until 2017 that I made the decision I wasn’t going to run again,” Wilkinson recalls the crunch-point in her mid-30s. “I needed something else to focus on, and I had a friend who’d done a few hill-climbs, so I decided to target that year’s national champs.” Did she realise straight away that she had a talent for cycling too? “No, it wasn’t until I rode in the 2017 Nationals and finished second – 1.5 seconds behind Joss Lowden and ahead of Hayley Simmonds. I was like, OK, that’s pretty good!”
'What I learnt'
Do what you love and love what you do: Sport is so demanding mentally as well as physically, you’ll only achieve what you are capable of if you genuinely enjoy the training and racing.
Grasp opportunities: If there is something you want to do or an opportunity arises, take it, because you never know if you will have the chance to do it again.
Don’t be afraid of letting go of the past: If something isn’t working or something is dragging you down, commit to a new challenge, make a plan towards it and do it.
Find the time: If you want to achieve something and you enjoy the process of getting there, you can always find time to do the work you need to achieve it. There are 24 hours in every day!
After initial reservations about road racing, Wilkinson took the plunge in 2018 and finished fifth in her first race, on the strength of which was signed by Team Jadan. The big performances kept coming: a win at the National Masters road race, third at the Ryedale GP and another silver in the hill-climb Nationals. By autumn she was overdue a rest, but instead smashed on through Zwift Academy sessions and qualified for the finals – just missing out to Ella Harris for a place on Canyon-SRAM.
“It was the moment that cycling went wrong for me,” reflects Wilkinson. “I had found I could do a lot more [volume] on the bike compared to running, and I’d pushed on right through to December without a break.” To use a match-burning analogy, she had thrown the whole box on the fire. “By January  I was completely exhausted, and it took until this summer to get out of that hole... When I look back, that training was both incredible and stupid!”
Last year’s lockdown gave Wilkinson plenty of time to rebuild, and she embarked on 2021 fully refreshed, successfully defending the National Masters road race title and finishing runner-up yet again – her fourth silver – in the National Hill-Climb. For 2022, the Yorkshirewoman has signed for Team Boompods and is looking forward to testing herself in the hillier national series races. “I’m super-excited, as the past two months have been the best I’ve had on a bike in terms of performance and enjoyment,” she enthuses.
Team Boompods: 'She's much more than just a hill-climber'
Team Boompods joint managers, Hannah Farran and Nikki Metcalfe, on their latest signing “We have known Mary for some four years now, not only in the competitive environment but also as a friend.
We’ve both followed her career with interest, and in fact this is the second time we have approached Mary with a view to signing her – as she has openly admitted, she should have joined the first time of asking!
“Mary’s hill-climbing prowess is more than evident; her skills in the other cycling disciplines are equally of merit, just not as widely known. It’s her performances on the road regionally, which are second-to- none, that the team hopes to exploit nationally, as well as developing her crit racing.
“Mary will be an integral part of the team’s plans for the 2022 season, and we’re over the moon that she has signed for us – we’re looking forward to it immensely.”
Wilkinson is not only a natural sportswoman; she is also a high-achiever academically with a master’s in sports medicine and a PhD in psychophysiology. One of her current jobs (she has two) involves researching how to maximise protein content in regular food products. Has this expertise helped in her own fuelling? “Definitely. When I was in that overtraining hole, I found that supplementing glutamine, an amino acid, gave a really huge benefit.”
Let’s take stock: international level in multiple sports as a junior, degrees, PhD, international runner, and now, aged 40, a national champion cyclist squeezing in training alongside two jobs – or is it three, because she also lists “farmer” on her Twitter bio? “I was brought up on a farm, and I just love sheep!” Wilkinson laughs. “I have a small flock but it’s not really farming, it’s more of a hobby now.” How on earth does she fit it all in? “I’m the kind of person who needs to be doing something – I don’t like just sitting around... Yes, it’s busy. Yes, it can be tiring. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This article was originally published in the 2 December print edition of Cycling Weekly. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered direct to your door every week.
David Bradford is fitness editor of Cycling Weekly (print edition). He has been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, and has published work in national newspapers and magazines including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times, the Irish Times, Vice.com and Runner’s World. Alongside his love of cycling, David is a long-distance runner with a marathon PB of two hours 28 minutes. Having been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2006, he also writes about sight loss, equality and social affairs.
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