A Win In Westminster

A Welsh Athletics training camp in 2017 was brought to a dramatic end for athlete Melissa Courtney when she was admitted to hospital, delirious and confused.

It was the second time a training camp had ended this way for the Poole AC athlete. In 2015 she had been taken ill in Portugal and spent five days in intensive care.

But fast forward to May 2019 and the only concerns during her latest altitude training camp were the unreliable weather and the lack of a kettle at her base in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Melissa Courtney

In fact, the camp went so well it prepared Courtney perfectly to retain her Vitality Westminster Mile title recently with a win over European Champion Laura Muir.

The scenes of celebration on the streets of London were a world away from the frightening period of her life, when the 25-year-old athlete didn't know what was causing her to become seriously unwell on training camps.

The second incident brought matters to a head when Welsh Athletics decided it was time to get to the bottom of the problem once and for all.

Courtney was eventually diagnosed as having a rare metabolic disorder which effects just one in 10,000 people. She was put on medication which has transformed her athletics career.

Her story has been a slow burner, but steady progress and the right backing has now brought rich reward.

Courtney recalled the fear and uncertainty of the period before her diagnosis and said: "It was quite scary at the time.

"The first time it happened, I was on a training camp and it was really fortunate that my dad was with me. It made it much easier because I was taken into intensive care in hospital in Portugal.

"I didn't understand a word they were saying because of the language barrier and we didn't know what was wrong with me because it had never happened before. So that was really scary and I was so lucky to have him there.

"Then, the second time it was with Welsh Athletics and I was really lucky to have their physio, Adam Rattenberry, with me and he was there the whole time. "He knew my history so he didn't leave my side and made sure I was seen to and looked after.

"After that, Welsh Athletics really pushed to get a diagnosis because we didn't know what was going on. They were saying 'we can't have this keep happening'.

"So they really helped me find somewhere to go and helped me cover any costs. We had tried to go private, but it cost so much money, so they really helped me find the right path.

"I found a doctor in Nottingham, he recognised the symptoms and he sent me to the clinic in Birmingham to see whether I had this condition and I did."

Courtney was diagnosed as having an inherited metabolic disorder (IMD) in March of 2017 at University Hospital Birmingham's Centre for Rare Diseases.

Courtney's body was unable to break down protein resulting in a build up of toxic ammonia, so she was placed on medication.

Normally patients are also recommended to follow a low protein diet, but as an athlete she required increased protein to support her training.

As a result the IMD team had to work closely with Felicity Hares, Courtney's performance nutritionist at Sport Wales, to adjust her medication to suit an athlete's diet.

Courtney says: "I'm so much better. I've been diagnosed for two years now and I'm on daily medication, so I have to make sure I'm on top of that and I have a second medication which I take on harder training days or if I'm pushing my body that much more. It helps digest the protein and stops the ammonia building up in my blood.

"I think it had been going on for years. When I look back to when I was younger, some of the symptoms are that you can be quite sick, because you've got too much ammonia in your blood, so a way of getting rid of it is being sick.

"I'd always been quite a sicky child, whether it be car sickness or because of a race I'd be sick, anything like that.

"I can remember going to the British Champs in 2013, being sick beforehand and my dad saying 'you can't race, you can't' and I was saying 'I'll be fine' because I felt absolutely fine.

"But then in the race, once you've been sick, you are just drained, and then I was sick again straight after. We thought maybe I just had a bug or something but now, thinking, back it must have been related to this.

"But since I've been on the medication, even when running a hard session I'm not someone who is sick now. So that has changed quite a lot for me, I definitely think being diagnosed has helped me."

As Courtney developed into an elite runner and started making increased demands on her body, the symptoms became much worse, resulting in the dramatic training camp illnesses.

"I think the symptoms developed in correlation with me pushing my body that much more in training, I think that's why it became that much more apparent."

The athlete is hugely grateful to Welsh Athletics and Sport Wales for their help in pinpointing the problem following the problems she suffered on the second training camp.

"They wanted to help and contribute and do whatever they could. They wanted to make sure they were on top of it, make sure my coach was aware of it, so that if I do become unwell and I am on a camp then they know what to do.

Now Courtney feels she can run with the confidence and freedom of knowing the disorder is being managed.

"There's no worry now," she says. "When it first happened I was a bit scared of it happening again and going into hospital, whereas now I know what the condition is and I'm pretty much just leading a normal life and it's much easier not having to worry."

The results of that freedom speak for themselves. Since her diagnosis, Courtney has gone from strength to strength.

After winning bronze in a big PB time in the 1500m for Wales behind South African superstar Caster Semenya at last year's Commonwealth Games, Courtney won a 5,000m silver medal at the British Championships in Birmingham.

As a result she qualified for the European Championships in Berlin where she doubled up in the 3,000m - finishing seventh - and the 5000m where she was  fifth - breaking Angela Toobey's 31-year-old Welsh record in a time of 15.04.75.

In August, she was in record breaking form again, taking Hayley Tullett's 17-year-old 3,000m Welsh record when she clocked 8:39.30 finishing fifth at the Diamond League meeting in Birmingham.

The season ended with Courtney finishing third and clocking a PB in New York's Fifth Avenue Mile before being named as Welsh senior track and field athlete of the year.

Courtney has carried her form over into this year, twice breaking her own Welsh indoor 3,000m record. The second time was in the European Indoor Championships final in Glasgow, where she won bronze behind gold medallist Laura Muir.

Her time of 8:38.22 made her the fourth fastest Briton over 3,000m moving her ahead of Zola Budd on the all-time list.

Now, she has gained revenge over Muir by beating the Scot to retain her Vitality Westminster Mile title, just a couple of days after stepping off the plane from Arizona.

Courtney says: "It was a really nice camp in Flagstaff, great training out there. The weather was a bit hit and miss, we had snow, and then some days we had sun. But it was a really good camp and I'm excited to race now.

"When you go altitude training, the weather's so temperamental. One minute there's snow and it's freezing cold, then the next minute it's 20 degrees. It gets a bit weird.

"But I think I'm in really good shape at the moment. I wish I could have run a 5K indoors because I knew I was in such good shape over the 3K which I did at the Europeans."

With a successful  - and illness free -  training camp under her belt, Courtney and her coach Rob Denmark are now setting their sights on qualification for this year's Doha World Championships and next year's Tokyo Olympics.

Courtney says: "The season is really long, the World Championships aren't until October. You don't want to be peaking too early, you don't want to be racing too much now. It's all about targeting the right races.

"That's what me and my coach do really well, he's really good at planning my whole season and it worked really well in getting me in shape for the Commonwealths last year and then the Europeans.

"I have full faith in him to get it right again this year. I'm running a 5K next week in Stockholm, so I'm looking forward to trying to get that Olympic and world standard, then I've got that in the bag and done, which would be nice."

Having recently doubled up at championships, Courtney says the main aim for the World Championships and the Olympics will be the 5,000m.

"I'm going to run some 1500m races this season, so we will probably have a period of racing 1500s after Stockholm to get a bit more training in, some speedwork, and then I'd really like to try and run a PB over 1500. That would be quite nice progress before I then do the London Diamond League where I'll do the 5K.

"Doing the 5K builds up a lot of strength, that's how I end up running faster. The distances complement each other."

Should she qualify for this year's World Championships, Courtney is targeting a place in the final.

"It will be my first world championships, if I make it, so that's a big thing in itself just to make a world championship.

"But for me, and my coach, I want to be in that final. I know I need to be in sub-15 minute shape to get into the final. That's our target."

Then all eyes will focus on Tokyo in 2020.

"I think it's going to come around so fast," says Courtney. "It feels like it's a long way away now but I'm sure it's going to fly by. It would be nice to get the standard this year.

"I know some of the standards for the events are quite hard and a lot of people are aiming to do well in the points system, so I'm hoping to just get the time out of the way, but still do well in the world rankings."