She was a European crosscountry champion and a world-class middle-distance athlete. Then, at 22, Emma Pallant was told it could be all over. Despite an operation, a knee injury was still causing her pain and medical experts warned that if she carried on with her relentless running training, her racing days could be numbered.
“I had come to accept that pain and discomfort were part of the job,” Pallant says. “Being a physiotherapist I should have known that I was often pushing myself too hard but I was always running to win. Reality, when it came, really hit home.”
But what could have been a sad end to one story was, in fact, only the extraordinary beginning of another. At 30, and fitter and more confident than ever, Pallant has become a major figure in one of the most gruelling and merciless disciplines in sport.
Now an elite Ironman athlete, twice ITU duathlon world champion and aquathon world champion, HOKA ONE ONE athlete Pallant is currently training up to eight hours a day for the Ironman 70.3 (half marathon) triathlon world championship in Nice in September. “That’s the one I want,” she told us. “I’m training well and feel great. I came second last year. Now only a first will do.”
Pallant is on a roll. In May, she had back-to-back wins in the Ironman 70.3 Pay d’Aix in France, the Challenge Gran Canaria and the Mallorca Olympic Distance, and is now odds-on favourite for the Nice title.
She’s modest, friendly and tough. She has taken the crushing disappointment of being pulled out of the legendary Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, last year after fainting in the heat, with remarkable resilience.
“I learned a lot at Kona,” Pallant says. “I will wait until I’m fully prepared to race there again. It just makes it more of a tasty challenge. It will still always be the big goal long term.”
Pallant’s massive change in both lifestyle and ambition came in 2012 when her coach, former Olympic star Michelle Dillon, persuaded her to switch to multi-sport endurance events. “It was the right decision,” she says now. “The tougher things get, the more I like it. I haven’t got the patience for tactics. I just go for it!”
Despite winning Ironman 70.3 races in Spain, England and Ireland last year, Pallant regarded the 2018 season as “a bit disappointing.” She attributes this year’s flying start in no small measure to the newly developed HOKA One One Carbon X running shoes in which she has won all her races this year.
“I got mine the day after they were launched and was wearing them when I won the Pays d’Aix. Normally you wouldn’t run in new shoes in a race but they couldn’t have been more comfortable. The rocker system gives you the most efficient point of landing and really helps your stride pattern.
“It almost feels as though you are not wearing shoes - which reinforces everything Michelle teaches about being light on your feet and running from the hips rather than the ankles. That was part of the problem when I got my knee injury.”
Pallant’s thoughts return to the day in 2011 when she had pulled up injured in the 5,000m Olympic trials and realised that something drastic had to be done.
“I enjoyed a lot of success as a runner, including winning the European U23 cross-country championship, but I just kept getting injured. It seemed like every time I was starting to feel good and pick up some decent results, my body would break again.
“I just couldn’t handle living like that - pushing but never being able to push to the max. I had some pretty low times after the knee operation and constantly had injury problems. I knew I couldn’t go on like that and wondered seriously about packing it all in.”
It was then that she met up with Michelle Dillon, who persuaded her to try the triathlon, the tough discipline involving running, swimming and cycling.
A key part of the plan to keep Pallant injury-free was to rebuild her running technique. “I used to be totally off-balance and so one leg was a lot stronger than the other. It’s taken a lot of time and some hard graft but we managed to iron out the problems. I also did a lot more strength and conditioning work.
“My life totally changed from when I was a runner - I actually train more. A hard day for me as a runner would be a maximum of two and a half hours’ training but now I do seven or eight hours six days a week.
“Somehow Michelle got me staying afloat in open water, upright on a bike and then there was the small matter of a 10km run,” Pallant remembers with a smile. She needn’t have worried, just eight weeks after she had taken up her new sport Pallant came sixth in the London Triathlon and the discipline’s new star was born.
Life would never be the same again. She gave up her job, became fully professional and moved from Hampshire to London to join Team Dillon for full-time training.
Training is relentless - often six in the morning until eight at night - but dividing it between the three disciplines means there are less demands on her body and although she is training harder she is more injury-free than at any time in her career.
Pallant says every aspect of life has changed since joining Team Dillon, including her approach to nutrition. She confesses: “I have a lot healthier outlook on food now, but I’m still allowed my favourite breakfast, bread and jam!
“Some athletes need a high fat, low carbohydrate diet but I’m definitely a high carb, low fat person. That’s my excuse anyway.” Pallant can’t remember a time when she wasn’t competitive. “From the time I could walk, I would run. I was a hyperactive child and my mum soon realised the more sport I did the less of a handful I was.
“I was always competitive and even entered a schools crosscountry race when I was seven because I wanted to beat my older sister! I got spotted by an athletics coach and competed for the UK every year since I was 15 in 2004.”
As one of the UK’s brightest middle-distance prospects, Pallant was expected to compete in the London Olympics, but persistent knee problems put paid to that, sparking off a serious rethink about her future… and led to her meeting up with Michelle Dillon.
“I know that my goal is her goal and that’s just so motivating. She’s also been through everything that I have - she started out as a runner and due to injury became a triathlete so she knows what I’m thinking and feeling before I even have to say it. I owe all my success to her.
“When I started, swimming was definitely my weakness and I’ve worked really hard to improve it. Michelle has been fantastic and taken my stroke apart bit by bit and helped me put it back together. It’s also worth remembering that I hadn’t been on a road-racing bike until I switched to the triathlon. I think we are at the stage where we’re happy with my progress and it’s a case of putting the miles in now.”
Pallant has transformed herself from one of the UK best track talents into a world class Ironman triathlete - something experts say has probably never been done before.
“It could have all been over at 22 and I’m so fortunate to have been given another chance,” Pallant says. “I love training and working hard to reach a whole new set of goals. In a weird way, the feeling of being tired gives me a happy buzz, and I can’t wait to buzz my way through this long and exciting journey ahead!”
So long as she can have bread and jam for breakfast, who knows what she will achieve?