She was a European cross-country champion, one of the most promising middle-distance athletes on the international circuit. 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 was part of the job," Emma, now 25, says. "Being a physiotherapist I should have known that I was often pushing myself too hard but I was 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 to another. Little more than a year after hanging up her cross-country shoes, Emma is a champion again – in an entirely different sport.
Double British Triathlon Super Series Champion in her first season, Emma seems all set to repeat her success this year and already has several major wins as a prelude to the really big one – making a bid for gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
And currently she's never been fitter and more optimistic. "I'm training up to six hours a day, maintaining a higher mileage and pace – and so far I'm injury-free," Emma told us. "Life is really great." Pallant's massive change in both lifestyle and ambition came after 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 since having a 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 former Olympic triathlete and 10km star Michelle Dillon, now a top trainer, who persuaded her to try the triathlon, the tough discipline involving running, swimming and cycling.
A key part of the plan to keep Emma 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 was doing six or seven hours. "Somehow Michelle got me staying afloat in open water, upright on a bike and then there was the small matter of a 10km run," Emma remembers with a smile. She needn't have worried... just eight weeks after she had taken up her new sport Emma came sixth in the London Triathlon and the discipline's new star was born. And with the physical challenges came a massive lifestyle change. She gave up her job, became fully professional and moved from Hampshire to London to join Michelle's Team Dillon for fulltime training.
"It was a big decision, but the right one and I'm loving it and now have challenges that I feel had been lacking in recent years as a runner."
Training is relentless, often three times a day and results in Emma covering up to 200km on her bike each week, swimming up to 30km and running 55km. Dividing the training between three sports means there is less demands on her body and although she is training harder she is more injury-free than at any time in her career.
Emma can't remember a time when she wasn't competitive. "From the time I could walk, I could 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 school's cross-country 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, Emma was expected to compete in the London Olympics, but persistent knee problems put paid to that, sparked 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." Now Emma hopes to make up for her Olympic disappointment by competing in Rio as a triathlete. "The nature of triathlon lends itself to a long career so I hope I've got a couple of Olympics in me," she says.
"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… I think we are at the stage where we're happy and it's a case of putting the miles in now."
Travelling the world competing in – and winning — major pro triathlons, Emma has transformed herself from one of the UK's best running talents to a world class triathlete in less than two years – something experts say has never been done before.
"It could have all been over at 22 and I'm so fortunate to have been given another chance," Emma 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 buzz, a happy buzz, and I can't wait to buzz my way through this long and exciting journey ahead!"