How to make it as a professional runner: From Leeds United to Team GB, Callum Elson shows a different way

Callum Elson battles with Adam Fogg and Piers Copeland at British Indoor Championships  (Getty)
Callum Elson battles with Adam Fogg and Piers Copeland at British Indoor Championships (Getty)

Callum Elson tumbles at the finish line in Birmingham at the British Indoor Championships, rising with a grimace. There are mixed emotions after snatching silver. Content at a first national medal, but left with plenty of anguish over the coming hours. Despite finishing ahead of bronze medallist Adam Fogg, the only rival on the day to also have the standard (3:53.50) for this week’s Glasgow championships, Elson was forced to wait for confirmation that he had qualified for the Glasgow World Athletics Indoor Championship. But any lingering bruises from his fall have since vanished after clinching a coveted place on a team of just 20 athletes in the individual events. Another Great Britain vest then, having competed on the roads and cross country, and yet more validation for what has been an arduous and unusual journey to the pinnacle of the sport.

After meandering his way through his youth as a footballer, where Elson enjoyed a spell with Leeds United’s academy, it was Covid that forced him to close one door and open another - much like many others at such a restricted time.

“I always played football and it was about how much I can run around, the physical attributes outweighed my technical attributes,” Elson tells the Independent from his Glasgow hotel, counting down the hours until Friday evening’s men’s 1,500m heat at 8:10pm. “That and my communication and leadership on the pitch, it’s why I played football for as long as I did after dropping out of the academy system.

“When I got to the end of university, you know you’re not going to be a professional footballer. It was semi-professional football or running and the trigger was Covid. The pandemic shut down the season, but I love exercise and with no football training, I thought, ‘just go out and run’. If you’re a new runner, put in more volume and mileage and your times will progress at an infinite rate and you will catch the bug and love the progress.”

Elson has adopted a different method to succeed in what is a niche sport desperate for funding and opportunities, even if he has eventually produced times to prove his worth at the elite level. The Briton turned to social media, where his popular moniker, The Distance Project, attracted thousands of followers on Instagram and YouTube. And, much like world champion Josh Kerr, the Scot who will compete this week in the 3,000m and has taken pride in recruiting a support team including a personal chef, Elson showed his entrepreneurial side to hire a videographer to document his journey.

Callum Elson (r) with Adam Fogg (l) and British champion Piers Copeland (Alamy Stock Photo)
Callum Elson (r) with Adam Fogg (l) and British champion Piers Copeland (Alamy Stock Photo)

A disruptor of sorts, having taken his 1,500m best down from 3:40 to 3:35 last year, Elson self-funded a trip to Boston earlier this year in pursuit of the world standard to enable him to qualify for Glasgow. A return flight to the UK with 3:53.22 in his pocket, shaving five seconds of his previous best, Elson shot up to fifth on the all-time British indoor list for the mile.

“It’s difficult, running is hard to purvey to the general person in terms of the scale of the achievement or a performance,” Elson explains, having finally signed a professional contract with Hoka. “Even Formula One, people drive a car most days, you can understand how fast it is to drive. It’s slowly getting there.

Callum Elson after winning silver at the World Athletics Road Running Championships (1609 Studios)
Callum Elson after winning silver at the World Athletics Road Running Championships (1609 Studios)

“We now have more funds allocated to things I want to do. Anything I can set aside. What can I offer to a brand for a piece of content? It’s not a profit-making exercise, 100 percent is covering these things, we didn’t have the credibility of being a GB athlete or having won medals or with tens of thousands of followers. The performances on the track and road, it’s the only reason to justify making good content. ‘He used to be really good before he made videos’, I don’t want to be that guy.”

So is there added pressure to perform well, knowing there is a considerable YouTube audience waiting for a video? Elson believes he has created extra motivation over his rivals, knowing an excellent performance will translate to more views.

“I really enjoy it,” Elson admits. “It’s something extra riding on it. I look at the upside, and not the upside of, ‘if I don’t perform well, the consequence is this,’ the consequence is the video isn’t as good as if you win. But the upside is if you win, or you get a PB, the upside is far greater. I use it as motivation. It’s come into its own, people who watch the videos are present at some events. Hearing the shouts of encouragement or a request for a photo, you almost want to do them proud as well. The videos spur me on a bit. It can be different, I have a really good relationship with Charlie, we understand when the camera should be in my face or not, if I’m not feeling well.”

Callum Elson running for Great Britain (Mas Independent)
Callum Elson running for Great Britain (Mas Independent)

While Elson is aware that times and results remain the priority, marketing is at the forefront of his career. There is admiration for how Kerr’s persona has grown in recent months, particularly with regular trash talk and a blossoming rivalry with Olympic champion Jakob Ingebridgtsen.

“I love it,” Elson says. “You’ll get criticism when you’re one of the first people to do it. In endurance, you forget you’re part of a wider sport, track and field. Sprinters have been doing it for ages. Celebrations when they cross the line, we forget we are entertainers.

“You’re there for a paying crowd or viewers online, you’re there to create excitement. If you want to maximise your commercial value, it’s what you should do.

“The performance has to go with it, otherwise it’s irrelevant. He backs it up. If people want to see you win or lose, either way, they tune in, it’s what you want. If nobody cares, you’re nobody, essentially.”

Watch the Glasgow World Athletics Indoor Championships live on BBC Two - coverage of Friday’s evening session, including the men’s 1,500m, starts at 18:45