Exclusive by Owen Morgan
Transatlantic face time calls with an American coach she has never met are helping a Welsh athlete fulfil her potential as a top class distance runner – which had been jeopardised by a career threatening injury.
During her final year at the University of Tulsa in 2015, Natasha Cockram suffered a knee injury so severe she was told by surgeons she would never run again.
But now the Gwent athlete’s career is blossoming thanks to successful surgery in America, two years of hard work and the guidance of a coach she has yet to share a training session with face to face.
A win at the ABP Newport Marathon in April and a world standard time of 2:35.47 finishing fourth at the Aircity Dublin Marathon in October means the athletics world is sitting up and taking notice.
Last month Cockram was added to Wales’ Commonwealth Games Programme potential group, alongside the likes of World Championship and Commonwealth Games competitors Josh Griffiths and Jonathan Hopkins, entitling her to financial and practical support from Welsh Athletics.
Days later, she was named as one of the 32 endurance athletes, including countrywoman Charlotte Arter, to benefit from a new funding initiative by British Athletics and London Marathon Events Ltd, organisers of the Virgin Money London Marathon.
The 26-year-old says the support will make an enormous amount of difference to her running career after years of combining a full-time job with trying to battle back from injury.
A delighted Cockram said: “It means an awful lot to me and my coach because it’s the first time I’ve received any sort of funding.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get selected for the Commonwealth Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff. I hadn’t put in a really good performance but at the same time I still thought maybe I’d have a chance at selection.
“But then Dublin, that race just turned everything around and made people take notice and now they do believe in me.
“I work full-time and this will help out with going to training camps and getting the extra help I didn’t have previously.
“I’m still going to work but hopefully I can drop my hours in the next few months, even if it’s just down to 30 hours, because at the moment I’m working 37-and-a-half hours to 40-plus hours a week and obviously training full-time on top of that.
“The funding’s definitely going to help with that because I should be able to drop my hours in the next few months and just having an extra seven hours should be a big help.
“If anything, the Welsh Athletics support is going to be the biggest help for me because previously, to get a physio was just too expensive, I couldn’t get as much treatment as I needed whereas now I can get unlimited medical support. I think that is going to be a massive help and really boost my performance.”
Cockram says her performance in Dublin, which catapulted her to fifth on the all-time Welsh marathon list, came at the perfect time in terms of raising her profile ahead of the funding decisions.
The Micky Morris Racing Team athlete said: “The funding was a complete surprise, obviously I did have a good race in Dublin, which I knew I was in good shape for but I didn’t really expect to go that fast and it did feel really easy, I felt really strong the whole race.
“It was a world A standard, a European A standard and Commonwealth A standard, so I knew it put me in a good place but I didn’t think the funding would come that quick. I ran that just in time, really!”
However, the win in Newport and the performance in Dublin were far from being overnight successes, coming after months of rehabilitation from injury and trying to find the right coaching recipe.
Cockram said: “At the Newport marathon I ran completely off the back of cross training, so the win wasn’t expected.
“I’d had three months out injured. I’d been on the Commonwealth Games training camp back in January and I’d picked up an injury there.
“Then I ran the Llanelli half and I picked up an Achilles injury. So then I was just cross-training constantly. I was doing about three to four hours a day cross training most days of the week.
“So I didn’t actually run until just before the Newport marathon. A week-and-a -half before I went out for a 20-mile run and my injury felt ok, so I just cross-trained then and went out and hoped for the best on the day of the marathon. It paid off at Newport so I was pretty happy with that.”
The success at Newport helped Cockram make up her mind to focus on the marathon, a decision which was followed by an approach from American coach Tony Houchin which has led to a rather unconventional training set up.
Cockram explained: “Ever since I left university in America I’ve been self-coached. My coach right now is actually American as well.
“I haven’t met him in person yet, but he coaches me over the phone. We normally talk three or four times a week face timing and we do it through that.
“I originally got recruited by this coach out of high school, but I ended up turning him down to go to a different university in America.
“We’ve always kept in touch since on message, but after the Newport marathon he messaged me to say well done and it was at that point I was thinking that maybe I should get a coach.
“So I gave him a message and ever since then we’ve just built a relationship. We’re still building it now, it’s still quite new but it seems to be working well.
“I know that he’s always at the end of the phone, so any time I need him I can pick the phone up no matter what time it is there or what time it is here.
“Obviously there is a six hour time difference, which can be a bit challenging sometimes, but even if it’s the middle of the night and I really need him, he will always talk to me.”
In fact, the civil servant isn’t the only Wales-based athlete coached by Houchin. Swansea Harriers Verity Ockenden and Jack Gooch, along with Cardiff AAC’s Alex Hains are under the American’s wing.
Cockram’s current American link up is far happier than the time she actually spent Stateside. “I went to the university of Tulsa and spent five years out there.
” I didn’t have the best of times to be honest. I went from where I was running pretty much 40 miles a week to training 100 miles a week and I think it was too early for me to do it.
“Then, in my last year, I got a serious knee injury. I came home and saw the doctors here and they said I would never run again.
“So I went back out to America and I found a surgeon there who would do the surgery for me, but he didn’t know whether I would actually run again.
“He did the surgery hoping for the best and then it took me about two years to get back running properly and training. I was just rehabbing for about six months. It took another year and a half to get back to proper training. It’s not been an easy journey but it’s definitely worth it.
“Since I joined my coach it’s brought everything together. I have the support I needed and I have the structure now. When I was self coaching I was pretty much going out and hammering however many miles I could and doing the same repetitive thing every day with no change.
“But now I have structure, I have easy days and hard days. He’s a really good coach, he knows what he’s doing and he knows what I need to do.
“Most of my days start at 4.35am and I don’t finish until 9pm. Normally I wake up, get out, and depending what day it is, either go on a recovery run or cross train or do a hard work-out. So, like on a Monday, it’ll be get up, do a 10-mile run at around 5am, then get ready for work.
“As soon as I finish work, I’ll train again. It might be two hours on the cross trainer or another five-mile easy run.
“Then on a Tuesday, for example, I will have a hard work out day. I normally like to get my workouts done in the morning, so I get it all done before work and then after work I’ll have another recovery run.
“So it’s pretty intense. I train every day, I don’t have a rest day. I think a lot of people think I’m just running full-time. I am running full-time but also working full-time.”
Cockram, who is grateful for the flexibility her employers allow her to fit in her training and competing, is now aiming to put all that hard work to good use as she tries to put the struggles of the past behind her and plan for the future.
She says: “As of right now, the plan is to race Houston Marathon in January. I’ll actually get to meet my coach out there as he’s from Texas so he’ll make the drive up to Houston. And then we’re going to have quite a quick turnaround and run London in April.
“The World Championships is definitely a race I’ll be hoping to get a selection for next year. My biggest aim is to get a GB vest at a major, so it is definitely on the cards and that’s why we’re going to race Houston and have a quick turnaround and come back and do London.
“My body does recover quite quickly from marathons. Most people think racing January and then April is quite close but we think we can do it.”