'I don't like the word retirement, but I have to let running find me again' - Ó Lionáird
Injury nightmare leaves Corkman at end of track
Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30
For years he struggled, usually in vain, to nurse his body back to what it once was, but it seems the time has come to stop fighting.
At the age of 28, Ciarán Ó Lionáird has decided to take an extended break from athletics after injuries put an end to his Olympic ambition. Having stepped off the track for what may be the final time, he's accepted a truth that for so long he tried to reject: his race, it seems, is run.
"At some point you have to realise the writing's on the wall," says Ó Lionáird. "My body just doesn't allow me to be at the level I want."
Ó Lionáird was a world finalist over 1,500m back in 2011 and a European indoor bronze medallist over 3,000m in 2013. In between, he clocked a 3:52.10 indoor mile and even handed defeats to global stars such as Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.
His career peak was high, so high that when his body failed him - chronic problems with his Achilles tendon requiring multiple surgeries - the journey back to the top no longer seemed possible.
His most recent surgery was in June last year, but Ó Lionáird made a promising return in January, running 3:41.41 for 1,500m, putting him on track for the Olympic qualifying time of 3:36.20. Two days later, though, he couldn't run.
A year before the renowned physical therapist Gerard Hartmann had told him the blunt truth that if he wanted to continue as an elite athlete, he would have to deal with pain in his Achilles for the rest of his career.
That's exactly how it's been all year, Ó Lionáird finding that chronic pain awaited him not just during - but also after - his biggest work-outs. "I had been working through it, rehabbing, staying positive, but the results I've seen are not reflective of the effort."
Three weeks ago in Portland, he reached breaking point. Having developed pain in his other Achilles weeks beforehand, Ó Lionáird stepped off the track midway through a 1,500m race, knowing the door was finally closed on his Olympic dream.
As he walked away he can recall being met by his coach Mark Rowland of the Nike Oregon Track Club, who put a conciliatory arm around his protégé.
"He said: 'You did everything you could, we both did and there's nothing I want more for you to be able to do it, but it's not there.' We both knew that was it, and there was a peacefulness, a tranquillity."
For 20 years it's been his life, but in recent weeks Ó Lionáird has harboured little ambition to run.
Instead he's seeing what life is like when existence isn't predicated upon running a metric mile as fast as possible.
"The last couple of years I've been in such a narrow focus and I really want to broaden my horizons, to learn and live, and just do s**t all day. I don't have that post-running depression. There's a whole world out there outside of this," says the Corkman. Aware that he would eventually reach this crossroads, Ó Lionáird has been doing internships over the past year at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, two hours up the road from his base in Eugene.
He sat in on meetings, gained experience in product development and decided that full-time work away from the track is his next port of call.
"You read a lot of stories about the negativity of Nike, but I couldn't have had a more positive experience," he says of his long-time sponsor.
"They supported me all the way."
He can't definitively say this is the end, but right now it feels like it. "I don't like the word retirement, but I'd have to let running find me again instead of forcing it to ever come back. You do running for the love of it, but there is an opportunity cost to starting another career. I think I can be really successful in another sphere."
And if this is his long goodbye, how will he reflect on his career?
"I've had a little success, but also a lot of injuries and a tonne of disappointment," he says.
"How you handle yourself in those moments of disappointment is more important than the success. What I'll be most proud of, if this is it, is that I gave it everything I had and walked away with no regrets."