After four years in the US, the Temple runner’s collegiate career came to an abrupt end when last year’s NCAA Indoors was cancelled due to coronavirus
It wasn’t the way Millie Howard imagined seeing out her US collegiate career.
The day after arriving in New Mexico for her NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships debut, the Temple University runner’s dreams were dashed when the event was cancelled last-minute because of the pandemic.
“At that point in time, it was really hard to take,” says Howard, who ran 4:36.37 for the mile to qualify for the championships. “I’d had a really good cross-country season and I knew that my fitness was the best it had ever been. So going into that winter indoor track season I had loads of confidence and momentum and I had been training really well so I knew a fast time was coming.
“I went into the NCAA meet ranked 11th out of 16, so I was really proud to get there. I had been close before but never quite there, so it was a really big deal and then to have that taken away from you the day before just really stung. Looking back now, it was the right thing to do, but it was tough in the moment because I had worked so hard for it.”
After a university career which featured American Athletic Conference titles in the 1500m, mile and distance medley relay, plus conference and university records, the end of the season marked the start of a new chapter for Howard, who went on to graduate with a degree in economics and gained the Elite 90 award in recognition of both her sporting and academic achievements.
The GB junior international had planned to remain in Philadelphia but amid the pandemic she decided to continue her studies on home soil. After four years living and training in America, thus began her transition back to UK life.
“Going there was obviously harder than coming back because I was used to the system here, but the transition going out there was really tough,” explains the Harrogate athlete, who is now working towards an MSc in international business and strategic management at the University of York.
“It’s really exciting but it’s also really hard and tiring, physically and mentally. You’re racing weekend after weekend. I have nothing bad to say about my experience because it was fantastic but there were times that I didn’t want to race but I had to.
“I think my biggest advice [for other athletes considering a US scholarship] would be do your research – where you’re going, the state you’re in, the city, town. Research the team and its history and coach, you need to know everything about it because they will give you a hard sell and they will want you to go there but you need to make sure that you know exactly what you are going to be in for.
“Have fun, as well,” she adds. “The more I started relaxing towards the end of my experience the more fun I had and the better I ended up running.”
On the return transition, the former English Schools champion adds: “Coming back, it is something that shouldn’t be downplayed. You spend four years in this bubble where you have got all the support you need at the click of your fingers. If you need an MRI, you’ll get an MRI the next day.
“You get so much support out there and then coming back, especially if you’re unfunded like I am, you just don’t have that network. Suddenly you’ve got to find a gym and a physio or a chiropodist – anything you need, it is on you to get it yourself and often pay for it and it is quite daunting, that aspect. But the support is there, you’ve just got to find it.”
For Howard, that support has come in the form of the Leeds talent hub.
Last year British Athletics announced a partnership with London Marathon Events as the governing body looked to improve the future development of athletics talent with a structured network of ‘talent development hubs’. The running programme hubs are designed to provide athletes with a ‘seamless experience through the performance pathway’, to ultimately fulfil ambitions of success on the international stage.
“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” says Kieron Hall-coached Howard. “I get access to physio and the track. It is not too far from me, about a half an hour drive.
“I picked up a small injury in November and the support I received as a result of the talent hub and the physio was great. I’m not sure I’d have been able to access that level of support without the hub so I’m very grateful for it.”
Having last competed in February 2020, Howard’s aim this year is to achieve her master’s degree while reestablishing herself back on the UK athletics scene.
“I don’t want to put any big pressures on myself, because it is a real transition year and I am getting my master’s degree,” she says. “I would like to start to be competitive again among the girls that I was competitive with when I left [the UK]. I just want to establish myself a bit more because I have been away for a few years.
“Middle-distance running in Great Britain is really strong at the moment and it’s an exciting atmosphere to be entering into again.
“I have got my eye on the Commonwealth Games. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t,” she adds. “I love Birmingham, I have always run well there. That is definitely a goal. Then if I can make other senior British teams, that would be amazing.”