Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Five months after I started running, I ran the Cork Marathon and finished in the top 10'

Mum-of-two Nollaigh O'Neill juggles her busy family life with that of a competitive athlete. Her passion for sport began as a child, she tells Alison O'Riordan

Nollaigh O'Neill: I'm a very stubborn person and very competitive with myself.
Nollaigh O'Neill: I'm a very stubborn person and very competitive with myself.
Nollaigh finishing second in this year’s Cork City Marathon. Picture: Sportsfile

Alison O'Riordan

Cork sportswoman and busy mother-of-two Nollaigh O'Neill (42) began pounding the pavements just seven years ago.

It all began while her children Sarah (17) and Ryan (15) were training at Leevale Athletic Club in Cork city. She would jog around the track for a few laps while waiting for them to finish their session.

"I couldn't and still can't sit still for a minute. Also, at the time I was playing soccer with Passage West Ladies Club in Cork city so I took advantage of any given time to train. While Sarah my daughter definitely has the potential to be a distance runner, the two children gave it up and I carried on," she laughs.

Fitness and athleticism have always been in Nollaigh's makeup. For the last 10 years, she has worked in Leisureworld, Bishopstown.

"I have been active all my life. Living in Saudi Arabia with my parents as a teenager they ensured I was involved playing a lot of sports to keep ourselves busy, which gave me a good foundation for later in life. I also played basketball at school and wanted to join any sport really that was going at the time.

"Then for 18 years I played soccer as a right-back for Passage West Ladies team which I started when I was about 17 years of age."

Working as a pool lifeguard in Leisureworld, Nollaigh soon progressed to become an aerobics and swim instructor and presently works as a gym instructor in the fitness establishment.

"I am also involved with the Project Weightloss there, a 12-week exercise intervention programme targeted at overweight individuals," she explains.

Nollaigh's first long-distance running event in the form of a marathon amazingly occurred only five months after she first donned Lycra and took up running. However, the thoughts of a beginner running a lengthy and demanding 26 miles didn't sit well with her coach at the time.

"My coach wanted me to do the team relay, which offers runners, joggers and walkers of all distances an opportunity to take part in the marathon without having to complete the full 26.2 miles. He said I'd be mad to do a marathon after just five months of taking up running.

"However, it was Cork's first year introducing their marathon in June 2007 and of course being the competitive person I am, I told him it was all or nothing for me. It was late February when I decided to train for the race and I did it mainly to prove to my coach at the time that I could do it. I finished in 3 hours 15 minutes and placed in the top 10 women, something my coach could not believe. I was very proud of myself," she says.

After this outstanding sporting achievement, the marathon runner from Passage West began to take the sport more seriously and has now varied her training from speed to endurance sessions.

These training periods involve cycling 10 miles to the track twice a week, performing a speed session with her coach Donie Walsh and cycling home straight after again, another 10 miles, all together a three-and-a-half hour session.

"Warming up on the way in, a vigorous workout and cycling home with tired legs are all similar to how one would feel physically on a marathon race day. Sunday is my long run day, so three days of endurance, three days of speed and strength, a cross-training day or a rest day every two weeks," she adds.

Nollaigh also trains with Leevale Athletics Club three times a week, on a track Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings at 7 before she goes to work.

Short distance races don't appeal to the avid runner and she understands she will never be a sprinter as she relies on her trademarks which are a combination of her strength and endurance.

"My weight prevents me from being extremely fast at short distance so I use the short races as a speed session. Although I won gold in a Novice Munster Cross Country race one year, and placed in a few five milers, I don't like the short distance, I'm definitely more into endurance," says Nollaigh.

Having excellent mental strength is another key advantage to have in the competitor's armour.

"When it comes to a marathon, on race day, it's 90pc about mentality. All the physical training is done, so it's how you put it all together and cope with it, is what matters.

"I'm a very stubborn person and extremely competitive with myself. I always like being challenged and having worked on a farm since I was 11 years of age helping my grandfather, made me the strong person I am today, physically as well as mentally," she adds.

Training for any of these taxing marathons can take over Nollaigh's life and needless to say soccer soon got replaced for the sports star by the endurance sport.

"Everyone around you suffers when training for a marathon. When one is competitive, you have to be a little selfish and I explained to my family at the time what seven months training for a race entailed. It takes dedication, discipline and extreme commitment to complete a marathon.

"I used to love soccer and did rounds of the track to keep fit for the game but since I got into running, I am more passionate about it and prefer it by far," Nollaigh says.

So how does such a hectic sporting lifestyle fit in with family life and being a mother?

"I revolved my life around the children all through the years when I played soccer or ran for fun. Now they're older I'm not in demand as much, and since becoming competitive they understand why I have to go to bed early, why I cycle everywhere and why I eat the way I do. They look at me as if I am insane, but they eat like I do, they're active like I am, so I must be rubbing off on them.

"When the kids are in school I get most of my sessions done and on a Sunday morning, I'm out on the roads by 6:30am and if I have 22 miles to do, I'm back before they get out of bed and they don't even notice I'm gone and we then have the day to ourselves. It's all about changing your lifestyle and I wouldn't have it any other way," she explains.

In October 2012, the gifted athlete finished sixth in the Dublin Marathon which is run annually through the historic Georgian streets of our capital city.

"I wanted to break the three hours and did it in 2:55:34, which I was thrilled about. I also earned myself a national medal from the Athletics Association of Ireland. I am proud to now possess six national medals in only two years," she adds.

Improving race on race, in June 2013, the fearless competitor came third in the Cork Marathon in Ireland's second largest city.

"I wanted to break the three hours on home turf since I did it in Dublin, and I ran 2:55:48, and finished third which was a bonus," she says.

Nollaigh maintains her recent successes are down to her new training strategy.

"I listen now and I recover, easy days are easy days, and I train very hard the other days," Nollaigh adds.

In the latter half of 2013, Nollaigh entered the International Lanzarote Marathon which takes place each year in November/ December in the sun-soaked streets of Costa Teguise and attracts a field of around 200 runners.

"I had ran the Dublin Marathon last October and I had a terrible run. I had been slightly injured, and still ran it, and did 3:03, even though I had to run it easy. I wanted to pull out, but being the stubborn person I am, I carried on and finished it. Afterwards, I decided I wasn't going to throw my training away and decided to search the internet for a marathon in December which is why I chose Lanzarote.

"December 8 is also my birthday and I went on to win this hilly marathon in a time of two hours 52 minutes so it was the best birthday present in a long time. This was a personal best for me, and in 21 degrees of heat which was heaven as I function in these conditions extremely well. My muscles don't like the cold at all and either do I, I'd run in the heat all day if I could," Nollaigh adds.

Now an ambassador for the Lanzarote Marathon in Ireland, Nollaigh is helping them promote their marathon in Ireland.

"It is also good for the running organisations, as they want to get involved in the Cork City Marathon and possibly Dublin Marathon bringing their runners over here, and vice versa, developing a relationship with the Irish organisations, so everyone benefits from this," she explains.

On June 2, Nollaigh returned to the start line once again, under the coaching of Donie Walsh, who she calls "the best coach around" to participate in the Cork City Marathon.

"I dug deeper than ever before with a new personal best of, 2:50:21, finishing in second place, to Olympian Pauline Curley, and I felt great so there's a faster time in me for sure," she says.

Running the FIT series race on Castle Road in Mahon Amenity Walk in Cork at 10am next Sunday is something the fitness addict is looking forward to.

"I wouldn't say I'd do it in my sleep, give me a marathon any day as the short races are the hardest. They're fast and way above lactate threshold so you feel every second of it. The marathon is aerobic which makes it easier; well for me anyway," adds Nollaigh.

Nollaigh O'Neill is a Skechers Performance ambassador and will be running in the FIT Series in Cork next Sunday, July 13 wearing Skechers Go Run Sprint.

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