After improving his 1500m time to 3:35 this summer and then winning world road mile silver in Riga, the 24-year-old has qualified for this weekend’s European Cross Country Champs
An unfamiliar voice cut through the noise as the men’s 1500m ‘A’ race at the BMC Regional meeting in Tooting Bec in July reached its crescendo. “Someone shouted to me, or I thought it was for me,” said Callum Elson as he caught his breath after clocking a lifetime best of 3:35.39. “They were like: ‘You can win it, but you don’t have to win it all at once’. What a legendary quote, so whoever said that, that’s world-class, because I almost burnt all my matches too early.”
Whether or not the wise words were for Elson is irrelevant. He ultimately finished second but the sentiment resonated with the Cambridge & Coleridge athlete who is pacing himself in a race to bigger things.
On his individual debut for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, he was an impressive silver medallist at the inaugural World Athletics Road Running Championships in Latvia. The performance put him in the spotlight, but it was also validation of the progress he had made when no one was watching.
“Often you need a catalyst for people to take note of things that you’ve actually been doing for ages,” says the 24-year-old who has been sharing comprehensive training-related content under the guise of The Distance Project since 2021. “Nothing else has really changed. I have the same attitude, the same level of professionalism. Part of me wishes we’d had more eyes on the story from the start so people could see how cool this evolution has been, from trying to break through to now winning a medal.”
In the moment, Riga was everything, but it was also a stepping-stone. Elson, coached by Nick Aguila, has consistently shared his thoughts on “closing the gap”, the reality of being caught in the void between amateur and professional. A recent short film produced by SOAR Running and 1609 Studios does an incredible job of documenting his story throughout 2023.
His first global medal helped, but there’s a long way to go. The next step is to achieve the Olympic 1500m qualifying time of 3:33.50 – another gap he is looking to close within the confines of realism; a race he wants to win, but just not all at once.
“I try to avoid being delusional,” says the Durham University graduate who won NCAA division two mile (indoor) and 1500m (outdoor) titles in 2022 while studying for an MBA at the American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Any goal that I set, I can only convince myself I can do it if I can put in the logical steps, like: ‘What would need to happen for me to get there?’
“Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, I’m going to need some luck, but having the belief that I’m the same ability as people who have run that time is a first massive step. It’s a mix of mentality and the fact that you can’t just get to the top of 1500m running in two years, I need to be at this for three, four, five years.”
Elson is still new to the middle-distance game, but is confident he has the potential to achieve his goal for 2024. “I know it’s a massive jump but, the way I see it, it doesn’t matter how far under the time you’ve run, you just need the time,” he says. “There are avenues that are still untapped. I’ve never been to altitude. I still run relatively low mileage. I’ve never done lab testing.
“If you look back at the British Champs, it’s never a fast race and anything can happen, so for someone like me there’s no better motivation. In an ideal world you’re only three races away from the Olympics. You need one race to get the time, you need to get through your heat [at the British Champs], and you need to pull it out the bag in the final.”
» Since this interview, Callum Elson qualified for the European Cross Country Champs in Brussels, which takes place on December 10. You can read our preview here
» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine, which you can read here