Saturday 20 July 2019

Athletics: Distance education plots route to success

Today is a red-letter day for Ireland's Marathon Mission

John O'Brien

AS 2009 drew to a close, Jim Aughney reflected on another fine year for the Dublin City Marathon. In the 13 years he'd served as race director, Aughney had overseen a period of dramatic growth in which the number of entrants had mushroomed from around 3,000 annually to in excess of 12,000. Elite runners arrived from all corners of the planet, running faster times and drawing ever increasing numbers roadside to cheer them on.

Still, Aughney wasn't entirely happy. One grim statistic ate into his peace of mind. It was good, of course, that athletes were running fast times, less satisfying, however, that none of them happened to be Irish. A decade had passed since Gerry Healy ran 2:15.37 in 1999 and not a single Irishman had broken 2:20. A generation of Irish endurance runners, it seemed, had simply vanished into the ether.

Aughney wondered why this should be so. The enthusiasm he encountered on the streets of Dublin every October suggested there was base rock there to be mined. Santry had staged the European Cross-Country Championships a year earlier and the atmosphere it generated had thrilled him. That was the spur. Find a way of harnessing that energy, he thought, and Irish distance running could yet be saved.

"I just thought there must be something we can do here," Aughney says. "If we could somehow nurture an environment where Irish marathon runners were encouraged and given support they would be capable of running faster times and we could be competitive again at major championships."

So he flitted ideas around his head and spoke to people who might share his vision. Eugene Coppinger, a colleague on the Dublin marathon race committee. Athletic Ireland's endurance director, Jim Davis. The national marathon coach, Teresa McDaid. As luck would have it, they'd each, more or less, arrived at the same conclusion. There was rich potential out there lying fallow, as yet untapped.

Arresting the decline, they knew, wouldn't be easy. After Barcelona in 1992, where John Treacy, Thomas Hughes and Andrew Ronan ran the marathon, three Olympics would pass without any Irish involvement in the race. The slide was halted four years ago when Martin Fagan and Pauline Curley lined up in Beijing, but the lack of contenders was still startling. A once-proud tradition had all but expired.

And for people who loved the marathon, that knowledge hurt. As a kid, McDaid remembered being inspired by the exploits of Mary McKenna. Davis looked back to the 1970s and 1980s when Irish marathon running was a formidable force, driven by great names: Dick Hooper, Jerry Kiernan, Donie Walsh, John Treacy. When an Olympics rarely passed without Ireland having at least three athletes competing in the marathon.

"Life changed," Davis says wistfully now. "People weren't prepared to put the same effort in. When the Kenyans and Ethiopians started dominating, I think a lot of athletes, not just in Ireland but in America and across Europe, said 'well, we can't match these guys' so a lot of them retired or just maybe lost a bit of the push they needed to move on."

So they gathered in a Lucan hotel in January 2010 and bounced ideas across a conference table. Aughney invited Dick Hooper along because Hooper had forgotten more about marathon running than the rest knew between them. They compiled a list of athletes they could target, talked about ways to support them, standards they'd have to reach, the hard and diligent work that needed to be done.

And so, amid a whirlpool of positive energy, Marathon Mission was born.

* * * * *

ONE day, early in 2010, Catriona Jennings turned on her computer and sifted through her emails. One from Athletics Ireland quickly caught her eye. It explained how a new marathon project had been established, a joint initiative between AI and the Dublin City Marathon, and was casting its net wide in search of athletes who might fit the profile. Jennings was one of those on their radar.

Not yet 30, Jennings had been running since 2001 when she left her native Letterkenny to move to Dublin: 5km club races, half-marathons, the odd cross-country. She loved the buzz of competing and had contested the 2009 world half-marathon championships, yet the idea of being part of an elite squad had never registered. Now she saw it in black typeface, on a screen in front of her, and her confidence soared.

"I remember looking at the target times and thinking 'Oh my God, I'll never run those anyway'. There's such a huge jump from club to international running you don't ever really feel you're going to make it. But it gave you a focus. You were among a group of like-minded people. It gave you the belief you could do it."

Making athletes believe. That was the mission in a nutshell. In truth, the initial standards weren't punishingly severe but to meet them still required a certain level of ability and, in the two years since the project was launched, all but the women's full-marathon standard times have been significantly lowered as athletes run faster and push the bar relentlessly upwards.

In many ways, Jennings is a prototype Mission athlete, acknowledging that she wouldn't be where she is today without the help and support the project has given her. She'll line up in Rotterdam this afternoon, hoping to knock six seconds off the time she ran in Dublin last year and achieve the 2:37 Olympic standard that has already been attained by Ava Hutchinson, Linda Byrne and Maria McCambridge.

"The thing is, you see the girls running the times," she says, "and it makes you think maybe I can run those times as well. You look at the Dublin marathon and you see six female athletes running under 2:45 for the first time in . . . the first time ever, I think. Okay, a year before the Olympics the standard generally increases but a huge amount of it is down to Marathon Mission."

Athletes train individually with their own coaches, of course, but once a month, under Hooper's tutelage, they gather for weekend sessions in Dublin and the benefits are incalculable. While, fundamentally, they are rivals striving for the same goal, the group sessions help foster a team ethos and, because they appreciate how hard they all work, friendships are forged easily and naturally.

When racing, athletes often travel together, staying in the same hotels, with Davis and Hooper accompanying them, with all the privileges and benefits that confers. Jennings remembers travelling to the Great North Run last year, how beautifully simple it all was. "Turn up at the airport, get on the plane, run your race." Pampered and all thanks to Marathon Mission."

At the last squad gathering she spoke to McCambridge about her plan to run Rotterdam. McCambridge told her she had opted for Paris over Rotterdam the previous year because the latter would not afford her the privilege of handing in her drinks on the eve of the race. This year, though, Marathon Mission has snagged that privilege. At most races now, Irish athletes are guaranteed elite numbers. These days Irish marathon runners are given respect again.

"It's little things like that," Jennings says. "Like in January, I'd arranged to go on a training camp with Maria and Linda Byrne so I emailed Jim [Davis] to say I wouldn't make the next squad weekend. Okay, he said, no problem, let me know how much it cost and we might be able to help out. Things like that are great because you don't expect it."

Between travelling costs for races and support staff like physios and nutritionists, it costs in the region of €40,000 a year to fund the project and, so far, the return has been far beyond what anyone had originally anticipated. By qualifying three female athletes for the Olympic marathon they've made history and there is every chance that the story is far from finished yet.

When she sets off from the Coolsingel in the centre of Rotterdam shortly after 10.0 this morning, Jennings will be just one of a number of Irish Olympic hopefuls: Breege Connolly, Gladys Ganiel, Lizzie Lee in the women's event; Sean Connolly, Tom Frazer, Gary Thornton, Sergiu Ciobanu and Gary O'Hanlon all striving to join Mark Kenneally by breaking the 2:15 standard for the men's marathon. Elsewhere, Alan O'Shea and Lorraine Manning try their luck in Paris.

Davis, along with Hooper, will be in Rotterdam, optimistic of more fast times.

He hates to single athletes out but sees Jennings, Ganiel and Sean Connolly as good bets. Connolly ran just over 2:17 in Rotterdam last year so just another small heave is required. The grit he has shown, Davis says, is remarkable. He thinks too of Sean Hehir from Rathfarnham, reaching the Mission standard last year. "I'll make the standard Jim," Hehir had promised the year before. "I want to be on that squad."

The sheer weight of numbers presents a potentially tricky problem, of course. The Olympic Council of Ireland can only select a maximum of three athletes in any single discipline so those who have already achieved the A standard still face the scarcely believable prospect that they might not make London. A tough position, for sure, but how you'd like things in an elite squad all the same.

"It's a very healthy sign for any discipline within your sport when you have a problem like that," enthuses McDaid. "It's very positive. It means you've more and more people looking for places, driving each other on and the standard keeps going up all the time. It's a good place to be."

Among the athletes there is talk about it, but it is a tricky and delicate subject. Jennings remembers feeling thrilled for McCambridge, her fellow Letterkenny athlete, when she dived under the A standard in Rome last month, then suddenly realising how tougher that made her own task. It's a weird feeling, she says. Competing against athletes you know and respect but such is life at the elite end of the scale. Not too much room for sentiment.

"It's funny," she says. "I was saying this to Dick recently, how great it was to have three girls qualified and he said, yeah, but Kenya have something like 250 men with the standard and 61 women so three or four isn't that bad really. It puts it into perspective anyway."

Two years ago -- heck, six months ago -- they didn't foresee such issues. Their targets were long-term. For his contribution to the project, Aughney hoped for a spin-off for the Dublin marathon and Byrne's soaring victory in the women's event last October came as a wonderful bonus. "If somebody came to you after Beijing and said a couple of months before the next Olympics we'd have 15 athletes qualified and a quarter of them would be marathon runners, you'd have laughed your head off," he says.

So much done in a little more than two years then. And so much more yet to be done. Davis speaks about the next Mission squad gathering in May, an expected influx of new and younger athletes, exploding the age-old perception that the marathon was the sole preserve of the ageing athlete whose speed over the shorter distances had been blunted.

Nothing excites them more than the 2014 European Championships where they will have genuine prospects of winning at least one gold in the team event. That is where the four-year plan ends. "London," says Aughney, "is just the icing on the cake." He reminds you too of Jill Hodgins' memorable victory in the Seville marathon in February, another feather in the cap of Marathon Mission.

It serves too as an important reminder of the progress that can be made when a vision is shared and people work together towards a common goal. "It's a great partnership between ourselves and the Dublin City Marathon," says McDaid. "When you knock a few heads together, it's amazing what you can achieve."

Jennings sips a coffee in a cafe in Parkgate Street and bears the testimony of those words. Because she has one realistic chance at the qualifying mark she has left nothing to chance, taking two weeks off work and arriving in Rotterdam on Thursday so she'd have plenty of time to get settled in and to familiarise herself with the course. All possible, she knows, because of the support she has been given.

And she knows that before she heads for the starting line this morning, Hooper will impart a few quiet words of encouragement, and then her destiny is finally in her own hands. Everything then will be up to her. What more could any athlete ask of a system?

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