Sunday 24 March 2019

Athletics: Cullen back on track after year from hell

MARY CULLEN was already thinking about her flight back to America in four days' time while the doctor in Sligo Hospital was examining the small lump on the side of her forehead.

It was only a few weeks after she and Derval O'Rourke had won bronze medals at the European Indoor Championships last March.

She'd returned from Turin to flashlights and receptions -- an especially proud one from her home club, North Sligo AC -- and even an appearance on the Late Late Show.

But in the midst of all the celebrations her mum, a nurse, spotted a worrying lump near her daughter's hairline and insisted they investigate it.

It might be simple, the doctor assured them, perhaps just a cyst that needs draining. But he immediately advised her to cancel her travel plans, ordered MRI and CT scans for the following day and his fears were quickly realised.

The growth had already started eroding her skull bone and he quickly referred her to a neurosurgeon in Beaumont Hospital.

A week later her world came crashing down -- and not just because she was told that a node on the lump was already growing straight towards her brain tissue.

Later that same day, last April, an entirely different specialist confirmed her other fear. A month after Turin she was second in the Great Ireland Run, but finished it in agony and an MRI confirmed a stress fracture in her hip.

Now Mary Cullen is not like most of us. Hit with the news that we needed brain surgery, most of us would have seen our lives flashing in front of us, grabbed the first backless gown to hand, and thrown ourselves at the mercy of the medics.

But Cullen is an athlete, and athletes think differently. The US collegiate 5,000m champion in 2006, Cullen was only two seconds off a bronze medal at the European Cross-Countries in Brussels last December.

After a spell of New Year training in Australia she returned to her US base, ran a 5,000m personal best (15:18) and ran 8:43 to break Sonia O'Sullivan's Irish indoor 3,000m record, so her long-awaited breakthrough in Turin was overdue, but no surprise.

Which is why, with August's World Championships in Berlin just four months away and finding herself prompted to have brain surgery, her first question was: "Could I put it off for a while?"

Admittedly, that came before confirmation that she would have to take a training break anyway because the hip injury. As her family and coach still muse; maybe that stress fracture was a blessing in disguise.

"To be honest I was more upset, initially, about the injury," Cullen confesses. "As a runner you always think first about training.

"That was one depressing day. There was lots of tears, and poor mum had to help me through it. As a nurse she probably understood the dangers much more than I did but she didn't show it."

As an athlete Cullen still had unique worries, like when it was mentioned that there was an outside possibility that steroids might be needed in her treatment.

Steroids! Alarm bells went off straight away for someone subjected to the invasive, regular scrutiny of rigid drug-testing. But the specialist, Dr O'Brien, was reassuringly calm and straight with her.

Any delay and the growth might invade her brain tissue. Once there, she could develop seizures. . . or worse.

Within a fortnight the lump was removed during a two-hour operation in Beaumont. "On the scan it looked like I had an egg in my head, but that magnified things. It was actually only the size of a couple of little marbles," Cullen explains.

A titanium mesh and screws were inserted to replace the eroded skull bone -- "Otherwise I'd have a dent in my head!" she quips -- and, most importantly, subsequent tests confirmed that the lump was benign.

Her mum actually removed the 19 staples and Cullen jokes that a bit of a dodgy fringe growing back over the shaved spot is now the only clue.


An annual MRI for the next five years will monitor it and the first, last month, was clear. She had a lucky escape then, a fairytale ending to a tough year?

Not in Cullen's eyes.

Her injury, not the skull surgery, ultimately robbed her of competing at the World Championships in the summer, when many of her regular Irish team-mates did so well.

She really believed she could still make it. Her peak fitness meant that she was out of hospital within a week of surgery. She was told to rest completely for the first two weeks and banned from flying for six.

"I had a lot of swelling around my eye and had tightness and bad headaches initially, but I was actually able to do some light cross-training within three weeks," she reveals.

Two months later she flew back to Rhode Island with nothing but the 'Worlds' on her mind.

An athletics scholarship graduate of Providence College, she is still trained there by Ray Treacy (brother of Irish distance legend John). They both desperately hoped she had enough time left to qualify for Berlin but, by mid-July, had to accept defeat.

Given her early-season form, Cullen would have attracted heavy media scrutiny in Berlin and, if not championship-fit, was on a hiding to nothing.

With the European Cross-Countries being hosted in Santry at the end of the year they had, at least, something tangible to focus her energy on.

Sitting out World championships, though, was a major heartache because injury had already robbed Cullen of too many opportunities. She ran the 2007 World Championships in Osaka with a leg stress fracture and 2008, an Olympic year, was a complete injury write-off until Brussels.

She reckons her last decent outdoor season was 2006, when she won the NCAAs, ran 15:25 for 5,000m and was 12th at the European Championships in Gothenburg.

She is particularly prone to stress fractures in her pelvic region and takes calcium supplements to counter them. But when running 90-plus miles a week is your business they're an occupational hazard and, like most athletes, she has a tendency to over-train.

"When you do well you tend to want to do more to get even better," she admits. "The ridiculous thing is that you can see over-training in other athletes, but you don't recognise it in yourself."

Coming home early to acclimatise for the European Cross-Country Championships, which take place tomorrow week in Santry, was always part of the plan and, with a family wedding in October, she returned in September and has trained at home since.

She's from picturesque Drumcliffe, in the heart of Yeats country, surrounded by idyllic sea, sands and Ben Bulben but, ironically, the weather has been unseasonably foul and her preparations epitomise the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

Most of her training has been done around the pitches of Sligo IT, alone save for her boyfriend, Mark Smyth, who braves the elements to press the stopwatch or pace her on his bike if she's on the roads.

Another Sligo athlete good enough to get a US scholarship (Iona College), Smyth subsequently did a Masters in Providence and his expertise and support has been invaluable.

It's a far cry from her regular training group in Providence, or the warm-weather camp Down Under last January which laid down the base for her great indoor form.

But after everything she's been through in 2009, Cullen is not complaining, even about the weather.

She was, noticeably, the second European home in a big international cross-country in Spain last month, won the Irish inter-counties on Kilbeggan Racecourse at a canter and seems energised by returning to her athletics roots.

"There is something very Irish about cross-country," Cullen says. "In America it's run on very different ground and I kind of got it into my head out there that I wasn't good in the mud but, actually, I love it.


"Cross-country is just so hard, much harder than indoors or track, it is a real physical slog, but also the ultimate test of any runner.

"Kilbeggan actually really got me excited about the Europeans," she adds. "Everyone was coming up and saying, 'we'll be there in Santry supporting you all,' which was fantastic."

She was in America when Ireland last hosted a major cross-country event (the World Championships in Leopardstown in 2002), but watching tapes of John Treacy's legendary World Championship victory in Limerick in 1979 has always inspired her.

Doing what she loves most, with big home support and in the whole of her health again, seems a fitting end to Cullen's annus horribilis.

The brain scare "did change my perspective on life a bit, but, you know, I would still always be thinking first about training and running," she admits.

"Obviously, in front of a home crowd, there will be huge pressure on all of us in the Irish team, but we just have to embrace that and use it and, honestly, Santry can't come quick enough for me now."

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