Mary runs like a girl

Mary McClung Runs Like a Girl 

You’ve probably never heard of Mary McClung. If you’re from Kilmarnock, you might know the name and if you’re from Onthank you might have grown up with her.  The thing is though, you, me, the rest of us – we should have heard of Mary McClung and we should know, that she runs like a girl. Our girl! 

Tell us about your upbringing Mary 

I grew up in Onthank or ‘the scheme’ as it’s come to be known, in Kilmarnock. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, and we are part of a huge family. My dad had ten sisters and three brothers and my mum was one of seven. So, there were lots of us and we always did everything as a family. 

My mum and dad worked in the local factories. We went to school and like most people, we lived for the weekend. Typically the weekends were about having a drink, and the highlight of our year was two weeks in the summer when we would take the tents to Girvan. 

When did you first realise that you could run? 

That would be primary school. I was never allowed to race with the girls. I was only allowed to race against the boys, and I would still beat them.  It’s funny, because even at the very early age I was pegged. I was either known as ‘a McClung,’ a ‘tomboy’ or ‘the runner.’ It’s fascinating how we can dish out labels so young and they can follow a person for a lifetime.  

Were you encouraged to pursue sports at school? 

Yes, absolutely. I was also really into gymnastics and the school greatly encouraged that. By the time I reached P7, my teacher told my mum and dad that they must get me into a running club. That’s why I joined Kilmarnock Harriers Running Club and it completely changed my life.  

I started with training two nights a week, but then I was doing stretching sessions for two hours a night at home. I was so focused and wanted to do it right. I wanted to beat everyone else and I had that Olympic dream in my mind. 

I loved being part of a club. There was such a family feel to it. I made so many friends there.  As things progressed, I started training on Saturdays too and then I was taking part in competitions on Sundays. Eventually I was training almost every night of the week and I loved every minute of it. 

Were you considered a successful runner at that club? 

Yes, it went well. I joined the Harriers at 11 years old and in my first season, I bet the Club Champion at the Ayrshire Club Championships. After that I was selected for Scotland when I received my first international cap and I continued on to receive my first GB cap at 15 years old. 

That’s impressive stuff.  Your family must have been very supportive.   

Oh absolutely. My dad bought a multi gym which he kept in their bedroom for me to use. My whole family’s life literally revolved around my running. Looking back, I feel it for my brothers and sister as they were forced to come everywhere with me. My parents didn’t have a car so my dad would take me everywhere on public transport. It really was quite obsessive, but it’s something I’m really grateful for. 

You were juggling school and running at this point, how as that working out for you? 

I never actually believed I had a brain to be honest. When I was told I was ‘sporty’ I pretty much dismissed any possibility that I could be academic. It was never something that I was encouraged to do. To me, school was just something you did because you had to.  I didn’t really have any concept of what it was doing for me and it certainly wasn’t getting the best out of me. 

I do remember I once won a Latin competition and I was totally blown away.  One teacher did tell me to choose physics because ‘you’re so much smarter than you give yourself credit for.’ But the advice was lost on me and I just didn’t apply myself. Also, no one in my family had been to college or university so it was the done thing that when you left school, you got a job. The fact that I was into running was different enough.  

Did you feel different growing up? 

Yes, I still do.  I’ve always been a very curious person. I remember feeling as though things came very easily to me. Anything I wanted to do in sport I could do, and I couldn’t get my head around why I was so lucky.  In hindsight I think the luck was in finding my niche so young, and I was obviously much more focused than I gave myself credit for. 

What happened when you left school? 

I left school after my o’grades and I joined the YTS at Auchincruive College to do Administration. At that time, I was going through the usual motions. I assumed I would get a job, meet somebody and settle down because  that’s what society was telling me I was supposed to do as a young girl. But in the back of my mind, I had this running thing. Also, through the club, I had been travelling and meeting people, and learning new skills which I didn’t really appreciate. It had given me a thirst for more. 

So, you’re fifteen years old, you have Scotland and GB caps under your belt, what happened next? 

I was told about a coach called Eric and his squad in Kirkcaldy. They were great.  I joined the squad which meant I had to stay with them every second weekend to train. I remember getting two trains and a bus to get there, but never grudging a bit of it. We were well looked after and I loved it. I was into everything by this point. I was doing sprints, middle distance, long distance and cross country so I was quite a versatile runner which meant I was being selected for events throughout the year. Then an opportunity to do an academic scholarship came up. 

Which meant more studying?  

That’s right. I desperately wanted to go for the scholarship, but I needed Higher English and Maths which I didn’t have.  So, I went to college to do English, Maths, Chemistry and Biology. I was never interested in any of those subjects before, but now I had a reason to do them, and there was no way I was going to let myself fail.  

Fortunately I did achieve the grade and  I was accepted onto the scholarship programme which was incredible. I then lived and studied at the University of Georgia for four years.  

You were only 17 at this time. Were you nervous at all? 

No. I was excited. I was leaving Britain and I was going to see America which, was such a big place, and I couldn’t wait.  I do remember worrying that people at home would think I was showing off. And I also didn’t really think I deserved to have all of these opportunities that no one else was getting.  I felt lucky rather than deserving, especially because sports was so much fun to me. I actually felt bad for being good at something and living the dream. No one made me feel bad. It was just how I felt. 

Tell us about your time in America 

It was incredible but there were ups and downs. I remember my freshman year at Georgia. I thought I was really mature and streetwise but America was quite the culture shock. They were all so positive and they don’t slag one another off for fun. It was weird. 

I had a lot of fun in that first year which showed.  I failed my first year and I was warned that I would have to pull my grades up otherwise I would be out.  I remember coming home that summer in a state of panic. I studied and studied and when I returned, I scored A+ across the board which continued throughout my time there. I even received the Academic All American which is an award you receive when you achieve A+ grades in all subjects.  

Not bad for a girl that isn’t academic? 

It goes to show what you can achieve when you set your mind to it. I also won the South East Conference Championships which was a pretty big deal as it meant I scored points for the University. Finally, in my sophomore junior and senior year, I made the American Collegiate Champs which  means I was one of the top 25 in America to make it to the nationals.  The whole thing was an incredible experience and it’s where I really found myself from a mental as well as physical health perspective. 

In what way? 

There was a point where I was becoming quite a pessimistic and bitchy teenager.  I was the girl that brought other people down, slagged them off, cause that’s what you do at that age. But in America, they don’t do that. They give one another compliments constantly and I didn’t think that was normal.  I remember just before the summer break, there was this one girl Gill who was just lovely. She was an all-American girl, full of fun and just really nice. We had lost a team event one day and I had a real go at her. I was awful. I remember she was so upset because clearly no one had ever spoke to her that way before. 

I came home for the summer and I had a real hard think about things and I completely changed. My perspective and personality completely shifted. When I went back, I spoke to this girl in front of my team mates and I apologised. I explained that when I was sad, my emotions often materialised as anger and I didn’t like it. I told them I wanted to learn and asked them to pull me up when they thought I was being out of order or inappropriate and they did. It I also started going to talking and therapy sessions and it was incredible. I really started to feel the internal mental changes. 

What happened when you completed the course?  

I had an opportunity to stay on for a fifth year which I declined. In hindsight, I regret that. But yes, I completed the course which meant I graduated with a teaching degree in health and physical education. 

So, at 21, you’re back in Kilmarnock with a teaching degree having spent 4 years in America? 

Sort of.  I actually returned to my coach in Kirkcaldy, but this time I lived there full time and I worked at a pre-school to complete the Scottish element of my teaching qualification. Running was still a major focus in my life and I was continuing to train at compete at a high level. I was then advised that I should move to a different squad in Edinburgh. So, I did that, and took on a job as receptionist in an estate agents. It was there that I met a Police Officer and I thought I think I want to be a Police Officer. 

And did you? 

Yes actually. I was still doing sports every day, but I also joined the Police full time, and within my first year I sat my sergeants’ exams. I was delighted to pass all exams first time with merit as that allowed me to get onto the accelerated promotion scheme. 

Sounds busy. Were you still competing in sports at this stage? 

Absolutely. I was actually performing at my best. I was living in Edinburgh, working as a Police Officer and I won the Scottish Championship four times. (champion or what?). I was also competing in British Championships, in internationals and the Grand Prix events all over the world. 

I was being paid to do appearances and I was receiving winning fees. I also had a manager by this point and a sponsorship with Puma. I had also been selected by the Scottish Institute of Sport and receiving lottery funding. 

How did you balance all of that with work? 

By that point I was working part time in the Police and running was my full time focus. However at around 26-27 we decided that I should take a career break and focus on running full time. I did that for two years and it didn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t performing as well any more – certainly not in competitions and something wasn’t right. I think I needed the variety. 

That’s when I decided to do a Masters degree in Performance Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. I needed to understand what was going on in my mind and why I couldn’t achieve what I knew I was capable of achieving. My best time in training for 800m was 1:58 seconds. That was considered to be a world class time, and yet I could only achieve it in training, not in competitions.  I knew it was a mental block because it wasn’t a physical issue. 

And did you find the answer? 

Yes. I was becoming fixated on my fears. Listening to them and feeding them which meant I was actually talking myself out of winning. My unconscious mind was literally talking me  into losing. That discovery is what led me to study NLP and hypnotherapy (neurolinguistic programming).  I completely fell in love with it and it is my absolute passion to this day. 

So, what do you do with all of that knowledge and personal experience? 

I share it. My dissertation on ‘Expectancy Effect’ was  published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise which was a proud moment. Then, when I completed my Masters, I applied to become a Performance Lifestyle Advisor at the Scottish Institute for Sport (is this now called sports Scotland?). I have worked there for 13 years advising elite athletes on how to perform at their very best. I am now a senior advisor which means I coach and mentor other Advisors and staff within Sports Scotland and I’m also Team Manager of the Scottish Squash Team which I thoroughly enjoy. 

So you must have been involved in the Commonwealth Games when they came to Glasgow? 

Yes I was Director of the Achieve Programme which provided an experiential opportunity for young athletes to  experience the games before they would compete in future.  It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved. 

What keeps you busy now?  

My role at Sports Scotland, then there’s being the Mental Fitness Expert for Kris Boyd Charity. I work with clients on a 1-2-1 basis looking after their mental health and general wellbeing. Ultimately though, I help them live and perform to the best of their abilities in anything that they chose to do. I’ve also just kicked off a series of UK roadshows, giving me an opportunity to share my journey and learnings with young girls and boys, men and women from all walks of life. I was also recently appointed to the Board of Directors at Ayrshire College which will allow me to help others. 

Tell us three things you love about Kilmarnock and one thing you would change? 

Well I started in Kilmarnock and I’ve come full circle as I’m back living in nearby Newmilns. I love that Kilmarnock is part of a beautiful country, and there is some lovely local places such as Kay Park and Dean Castle Country Park. I love the people and the banter and I love that my family is here. 

I don’t want to say I would change the weather as that’s an obvious one. I would love it if we all understood ourselves a bit more. I also think it’s in our culture to have quite low self esteem and joke about what we are not so good at, as though it would be awful to admit that we are good at anything. So I wish we could recognise more of the amazing things about ourselves, in our community and at a national level too. 

Always know, I am only a call away

Mary x

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