Jo Pavey is proud of her towering pile of ironing. Not a stack of neatly laundry on the spare bed in the family home in Devon that still requires her attention. “Some days it’s so tall it’s ridiculous. Over the past few weeks it’s reached a personal best performance in height, but I take a sense of achievement from that,” she laughs.
“It means I’ve been very busy having fun with my little boy Jacob [six] and my little girl Emily [nearly three], and training. I might not have qualified for Rio if I’d concentrated on keeping it lower!”
When Pavey won the 10,000m at the European Championships in 2014 – one month short of her 41st birthday, and 11 months after the birth of her second child – she was hailed as the inspirational Mum Who Runs, though her GB teammates prefer to call her Granny.
Among the many accolades that followed her gold medal, she was awarded an MBE, came third behind Lewis Hamilton and Rory McIlroy in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and was practically renamed Jo Pavey40, as her name was scarcely mentioned without an astonished reference to her age.
Now she’s in Brazil with Team GB, preparing to become the first British female track athlete to compete at five consecutive Olympic Games – an incredible feat given she is now two months shy of her 43rd birthday and her event is notoriously the toughest of runs.
Covering 25 laps of the track, the 10,000m demands concentration, tactical acumen, resilience in the initial jostle for position, a radar-like awareness of who in the pack is putting in a surge that requires a response, and energy enough to burst through in a last-lap sprint to the line.
In the long, relentless months of training to attain peak fitness, a regular 10k athlete will clock up 100 miles a week, focus on speed in track-specific sessions and winter abroad in warm-weather, high-altitude training camps. The work that underpins a successful 10,000m runner is an awful lot of lonely miles.
Not for Jo Pavey. With her husband Gavin, who is also her coach, she organises training sessions close to home, fitted in around their children’s needs.
In 2014, when Emily refused to take a bottle, Jo arranged her runs around breastfeeding and sleepless nights. Now the training schedule is peppered with play dates, school commitments, mini-sports clubs, the guinea pigs and family fun. A qualified physiotherapist herself, she has taught Gavin to do her daily massage to save her time driving to a clinic.
“Since becoming a mother, my whole approach is about juggling priorities – with my kids always coming first,” she says. “As soon as I was pregnant with Jacob, I decided against going abroad for winter training camps. I want to be a full-time, hands-on mum and there’s no time now to obsess about training or to worry about trying to follow the ‘perfect athlete’ routine.”
The Paveys find a lot of amusement in the domestic chaos involved in balancing the demands of a sporting life with family, as I observed while working with her on her book This Mum Runs.
A cupboard inside the back door that others might use as a cloakroom is taken up with a treadmill so that she can do some of her mileage closer to Jacob and Emily.
Pots and pans caked with charred food Gavin has forgotten he’s left on the cooker are put away, ready for his mother’s visits to scour them. They giggle about their mastery of the quick tidy-up – all the mess gets chucked out of sight upstairs and Gavin jestingly threatens to rugby-tackle any visitor who approaches the staircase.
“One day we might have a house as immaculate as a show house, and we might get round to painting the kitchen cabinets, but for now we are happy to have a messy home,” she says.
Training has been a family affair. At the Exeter Arena athletics track, Gavin will be in coach mode, stopwatch in hand, while Jacob apes the over-exaggerated steps and lunges of Jo’s warm-up routine or sprints up and down the long-jump runway, and Emily plays in the sandpit.
“I find it so motivating that we can keep fit as a family,” she says of their routine runs along the Grand Western Canal or in Haldon Forest. “It makes training so much more enjoyable. Jacob goes on his bike and Emily goes in the running buggy or on the back of Gav’s bike.”
The car is loaded with kids’ bike helmets, hats, drinks, coats, picnic fare, in-car amusements. The last time I called them, Gavin answered the mobile from the top of the car. He was fixing roof rails to carry a boat.
Pavey explains her longevity in the sport in terms of the pleasure she takes from family life. “Becoming a mum helped me rediscover the simple passion and love for running I had as a child. The happiness it gives me, and the better balance in my life, has psychologically benefited my running immensely.”
On the surface, the happy-go-lucky approach is endearing, but it wouldn’t work were it not for Pavey’s sheer determination. Known in athletic circles as the personification of gutsiness, she has shrugged off all sorts of adversity and injury in order to carry her fifth allocation of Team GB Olympic kit on to the plane for Rio.
In mid-spring this year, a chest infection cost her five weeks of training. The timing was cruel. Failing to make the qualifying standard for the 10,000m at the Olympic trials in Birmingham in June, she toiled away trying to regain fitness, and resorted to flying to Boston alone to enter the only ratified event left on the calendar in which she could set a time that could lead to selection.
Arriving in Massachusetts to find the 10,000m event had been cancelled, she ran the 5,000m instead and secured a time that enabled her to defend her European championship title in Amsterdam.
Instead of “racing” that race, however, she had to stick to a plan of set lap times that would earn her a ticket to Rio. A classic teeth-gritted Pavey push saw her finish in a time that was inside the Olympic qualifying standard by more than 40 seconds.
Even then, she had to wait to find out if the GB selectors would award her the final British 10,000m place. “On the day that we were due to be informed it was quite late and I still hadn’t heard,” she recalls.
“I was down at the track and on this occasion Gav and the kids weren’t there as I didn’t want Jacob to miss his swimming club. I was pushing myself to the limit, thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’d be pushing this hard if I’m not going to the Olympics!’
“When I’d finished the session there were lots of missed calls on my mobile phone from Gav, who had been informed of my selection. I felt so thrilled I’d made it in the end. It means so much to me to be able to run in a fifth Olympics.
“After all the hard training and the ups and downs, I feel so fortunate to again have this very special opportunity of competing for my country at a Games.”
She intends to savour every moment of what will surely be her last Olympics: “When I stand on the start line, I’ll look up at the flame and remember how fortunate I am to be there. When the gun goes off, I’ll give it absolutely everything.”
It means a reappraisal of family logistics. “At a normal meet, I can stay in the same hotel as Gav, Jacob and Emily. It involves so much packing! It’s not as simple as just remembering my running kit, like it used to be, but I get to eat with them and put them to bed.
“If I have to stay in team accommodation, then we make plans to meet up each day. I want these trips to be enjoyable for the children. When I competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, I didn’t want them to stay in the city. Gav took them to a holiday park by the beach and I took the train out each day to see them.”
However, concerns about the Zika virus have led the Paveys reluctantly to decide that Gavin and the kids won’t travel to Brazil. “When I was first targeting qualification for Rio, we presumed that if I did qualify we’d all go, but I don’t feel happy taking a young family out there, especially with there being a lot of unknowns regarding neurological conditions,” she says. “It will be tough, but I’ll be happier knowing they’re OK.”