Paul Kimmage meets Ciara Mageean: Tasting blood, bouncing back from Belgrade and why doping isn't an option
Ciara Mageean is in love with running again and looking forward to the World Championships
For as long as she has been running, Ciara Mageean has raced with a taste of blood in her mouth, and the sound of a voice in her head. The blood told her she was trying as hard as she could try. The voice told her not to stop.
For 10 years, from her debut in a schools' cross-country in County Down to the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade, she was the golden girl of Irish athletics, the best middle-distance runner the country had seen since Sonia. "I wanted it all," she says, "an Olympic title, a World title, a European title. I wanted to be one of the best athletes Ireland has ever had."
And mostly she was.
There were injuries and setbacks of course, but she kept coming back with that old look on her face . . .
. . . the look that made her the tough of the track.
"I had this little click in my head that told me that whenever it starts hurting you don't stop," she says.
And then she did.
She steps from the track, takes a couple of easy strides and bends forward with her head between her hands. It's Saturday evening at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade. There are two laps to go in the final of the 1500m and as Britain's Laura Muir races towards the gold medal, Ciara Mageean is numb with pain.
Three minutes earlier, she had taken to the start with her game face on and that little voice in her ear:
'No regrets, Ciara.'
She rolls her shoulders and fills her lungs with air.
'You're going to walk off this track happy tonight, girl.'
She slaps her cheekbones and whips her thighs with her palms.
'Remember, happy might mean a medal, or a season or personal best.'
She raises her arm and salutes the crowd.
'Or it might mean walking off the track with just blood in your mouth.'
She toes the line and awaits the gun.
She makes a good start and seems comfortable and in control for the two opening laps. Then Muir glides past from the back of the field and a seed of doubt is sown. The field spreads. She slips from fourth to sixth with four laps to go. Muir has opened a gap with two others. Then another gap forms and Ciara is on her own. Confused. Beaten. Gone.
She steps from the track and now her little voice is screaming:
'What the fuck just happened there?'
David Gillick is waiting with a microphone. "Are you okay to talk?" he asks, giving her a hug. Her heart is pounding. Her mind is a fog. She steps to the camera and drops her head and the torment comes gushing.
"I was comfortable with the pace but it felt like I was losing power."
She raises an arm and scratches at her ear.
"I wanted to get off and get back to my physio."
She stabs her eyes and pulls at her eyelids.
"Training had been going so well but something is wrong . . . something is up."
She taps her forehead with a clenched fist.
"I'm not here to make up the numbers. I'm so frustrated right now."
She rubs her chin and pulls at her lip.
"I'm very sorry for that performance there today."
Her eyes fill with tears.
Her coach, Jerry Kiernan, was waiting at the airport. They drove to a small café in Rathgar and chose a table in the corner to begin the review: the winter, the month, the week, the day, the race. Her preparation, they agreed, might have been better. She had (literally) run herself into the ground at the European Cross Country in Sardinia and spent the winter fighting colds and treading the fine line between sickness and health.
"It wasn't ideal," he suggested.
"No, it wasn't," she agreed.
"We'll learn from this," he said.
"We will," she concurred.
The outdoor season was looming into view. There were sessions and schedules to plan but she wasn't ready for it yet. "I was tired being 'Ciara the runner'," she says. "I wanted to be happy. I wanted to go home to Portaferry to take the dogs for a walk and to spend some time being just 'Ciara' - mummy and daddy's little girl. I needed to escape.
"I felt like a total failure; I had let myself down; I had let my family down; I had let Jerry down; I had let Ireland down. I was staring at the walls with all these demons in my head and it was hard to deal with."
She returned to Dublin after a two-week break but the scars were slow to heal. She was tetchy and irritable in training . . .
"That was a good session, Ciara."
"No it wasn't, Jerry"
. . . and was still being haunted by Belgrade.
"I hadn't addressed what had happened," she says. "I didn't look at the race. I didn't look at the interview. My mother had kept all the newspaper clippings but I didn't want to see it. I did a lot of talking to Jerry, and to people in my closest group but hadn't opened up about the stuff that was really troubling me.
"You catastrophise so much in your head: 'Is this the end of my athletics career? Is this me now? A washout. A one-trick pony. Is that it? Was I mentally weak in that championship? Is that what broke me? Am I weak?' But it's hard to verbalise, and not an aspect you want to share, so you keep it to yourself."
She kept running - twice a day, every day - but there was no bounce in her stride. The season was drawing near and she had planned a training camp in Spain but her physio, Emma Gallivan, could tell something was eating her.
"Why don't you speak to Kate?" she advised.
Kate Kirby is the lead sports psychologist at the Irish Institute of Sport. Mageean was 'as thran as a bag of weasels' - Portaferry speak for grumpy - when they met for the first time.
"Why do you run?" Kirby asked.
"Because I'm good at it," she snapped.
"Is that all?"
"There's nothing else?"
"Do you like it?"
"You don't like it?"
"No, not right now."
"Okay, I want you to go away now and have a think about that and maybe we can talk again next week?"
"A think about what?" Mageean asked.
"Why you do athletics? Why you became a runner?"
Portaferry is a small nationalist town on the tip of the Ards Peninsula. Ciara Mageean is 14 years old. To get to school every day, she takes the boat to Strangford and the bus to the Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch where Miss McCambridge is the PE teacher.
Miss McCambridge likes Ciara. Miss McCambridge thinks she can run. Miss McCambridge enters Ciara for a schools' cross-country.
Ciara The Runner is born.
"I was 24th or something. I couldn't move after the race and felt like throwing-up," she says. "It was my first experience of running so hard that I could taste blood in my mouth. And as crazy as it sounds I enjoyed it."
Gaelic games had always been her poison. Her father, Chris, had played hurling for Down and Railway Cup for Ulster. Her aunt, Edel, had played camogie for Down and been nominated for an All Star.
"My heroes growing-up played camogie or hurling," she says. "There was this player, Máirín McAleenan at the local club, Leitrim (Fontenoys) - "Mo Mac" - and I loved watching her play. And I'd watch DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin in the All-Ireland final, and sprint out the door to take the final free."
But it was something deeper, something feral, that made her want to race.
In 2007, a year after running her first cross-country she was the Schools' District Champion. Two years later, she won a silver medal in the 800m at the World Youth Championships in Brixen. But it was a silver medal in the 1500m at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Canada that set her apart - she was the only non-African to medal in a distance event.
"I got to the final and everybody was like 'Jesus! Isn't it great that you got here!'" she says. "It was accepted that Africans had an upper hand in athletics - and I suppose genetically they probably do - but I remember going to the line and thinking: 'No! I did not come here to bow down at the final hurdle.'
"All through the race that little voice was in my head. The pressure came on and I could see Jordan Hasay in the group: 'Well if that white American can stay with the Africans, you can!' And then I joined them and it was: 'See! They're not running as fast as you thought! You can take these girls!'"
For the eight years that followed, that little voice in her head propelled her toward her dreams . . .
. . . until she got to Belgrade.
Now it was asking a question she couldn't answer: 'What the fuck just happened there?'
The second session. She has spent the week making notes about why she became a runner but Kate wants to talk about the race. "What was going through your mind?" she asks.
Mageean digs deep and delivers 'War and Peace' but the psych has cut straight to the bottom line.
"So you had a bad race?"
"Is that unique?"
"Every athlete has a bad race?"
"Will it have an effect on your future?"
"Not physically, I've had it all checked out."
"What about mentally?"
"Well, I guess that's up to me."
A penny drops.
"You stepped from the track?"
"What were the consequences?"
"I felt terrible."
"What were the consequences if you'd stayed in the race?"
"I would probably have finished further down the field."
"What would the effect of that have been?"
"I'd have felt bad."
"Would you have felt as bad as stepping off the track?"
"No, because there's nothing worse than DNF-ing."
They were making progress.
Three weeks ago, on the eve of the London Diamond League, they met again. It was Mageean's first big test since the meltdown in Belgrade and she wasn't feeling confident.
"So you're nervous, Ciara?"
"What's the worst thing that can happen?"
"The worst thing that can happen is that I'm left out the back in no-man's land and I embarrass myself."
"So the worst thing is that you're embarrassed?"
"Will that effect the rest of your season?"
"Well, it will be a mental blow."
"Will that prevent you from running at the World Championships?"
"Will it prevent you from running at the Morton Games?"
"So the only negative is that you'll feel bad about yourself?"
"And are there any positives that can come from this race?"
A warm Monday afternoon in Dublin. She bounces through the doors of a café in Rathfarnham and sits down with a cup of tea. Two weeks have passed since she arrived home from London with a new personal best for the mile. Ten days have passed since she finished third in the 800m at the Morton Games. A day has passed since she became a National Champion.
Ciara The Runner is back.
"Sometimes, you need someone to point out the obvious," she smiles. "Because you can get so caught-up in your own little world and in your own little mind. It has been fantastic working with Kate. I've learned a lot about myself and things I can apply to my life. She'll be a big part of my team moving forward."
Forward means a return to London for the 1500m at the World Championships next week and a cloud that even Kate will struggle to shift. Six of the top nine finishers in her event at the 2012 Games have now been busted for cheating. How does Ciara The Runner survive in a sport riven by doping?
"What can I do about it? Nothing," she says. "If I'm told I'm running against a girl that I strongly suspect is doped, what can I do about that? Absolutely nothing. So what I say to myself is this: 'I'm going to walk off this track knowing that I gave it everything out there.'"
"Is that enough?" I ask.
"It has to be enough," she says.
"But it effects the little girl who dreamt of being a world champion."
"Yeah, it has definitely affected my dreams, or my ability to attain them, but I try not to get caught-up with that. I put a lot of trust in anti-doping. I believe they are going to catch the cheats - I have to. Okay, so the reality is that's not happening but I can't get bogged down with that. I can't do anything to change that. And I'm never going to cheat."
"Why not?" I ask.
"There was this fella in Rathgar who cycled past me once and 20 quid fell out of his pocket. I picked it up and ran after him: 'Hey! Your money!' But he kept going - he must have thought was insane. So I gave it to Jerry that night, and told him to give it to (his favourite charity) the Guide Dogs for the Blind."
This is a speech she has made before. Last March, at the launch of the Sport Ireland Anti-Doping report, she told a story about a conversation she'd had with Kiernan after they had watched The Price of Gold, a documentary examining the sacrifices elite athletes were prepared to make to achieve their goals.
"Do you remember that conversation?" I ask.
"I do," she smiles.
"The question was: If you were told you could win an Olympic gold medal but would not be able to walk at the age of 60, would you do it?' And you both said 'Yeah'."
"Yes we did."
And then you asked: If you thought you could take a substance that would do it (win a gold medal) and would never get caught, would you do it? And you both said 'No'."
"Because as much as I love to win, I don't run for the hardware. The medal is . . . it's just an ornament."
"But it's not about the medal. It's about the money and the fame and the glory."
"But I don't run for that," she says. "If I wanted money, I wouldn't be doing athletics, I'd be pursuing something else. I suppose it goes back to the way I was brought up. I want to go through life without any regrets; I don't want to be lying on my deathbed thinking 'I am a cheat. I took a substance to help me win.'
"So that's the difference, I won't cheat, but what I will do is work my ass off to be the best that I can be. I might be disappointed I don't win - I'm always disappointed I don't win - but I'm running for me, and I'm running for Jerry, and I'm running for my parents and for everybody in Portaferry and Ireland. And I want to do that honestly."
Sunday Indo Sport