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After a rough 2017, Ciara Mageean has roared back to form under coach Steve Vernon and the outlook is bright for European Championships

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'While repeating the medal-winning feat of 2016 will be a big ask, Mageean's form has been coming to the boil of late.'   Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

'While repeating the medal-winning feat of 2016 will be a big ask, Mageean's form has been coming to the boil of late.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

'While repeating the medal-winning feat of 2016 will be a big ask, Mageean's form has been coming to the boil of late.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

There is such a thing as wanting it too much, of trying too hard, of caring too deeply, and by now Ciara Mageean knows how that can cause a flourishing career to falter.

For much of the past two years, ever since she soared into public consciousness with a bronze medal over 1,500m at the European Championships in Amsterdam, Mageean's career has chugged along without ever truly clicking into the kind of gear she, and those close to her, knows she possesses.

Injuries were a factor, so too ill-health, but it's one thing to lose those private battles away from the track; it's another to fall short in front of the public's prying eyes, times when all she could do was offer unnecessary apologies after major championship performances where she looked an impostor of her previous self.

The final straw was London, last year's World Championships, where she trailed home 13th in her 1,500m heat in 4:10.60, nine seconds off her best.

After that Mageean knew something had to change, and what came out of the post-mortem was the decision to move away from the sheltered confines of Ireland.

Retired

In December she linked up with Steve Vernon, a retired international British distance runner who was coaching a professional group of middle-distance athletes, Team New Balance Manchester.

"Ciara is a very driven athlete," says Vernon. "But most athletes who are successful are very driven so I don't mind that at all. To be a champion you need to be a ferocious competitor."

It was no easy decision for Mageean to leave Dublin, or indeed coach Jerry Kiernan who had guided her back to that European medal after years of injury.

"Jerry has been so fantastic for me," says Mageean. "But it was more of a change for me personally to go and join a professional athlete set-up and it's paying dividends.

"I'm still learning and Steve is still clipping my wings a little bit if I don't do things right."

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After a long break in the autumn to allow her body and mind to recuperate, Mageean moved to Manchester full-time just before Christmas and the 26-year-old has made steady progress ever since.

Vernon's ambitions with her are two-pronged: maintain consistency and build her aerobic engine.

This winter Mageean slowly raised her training volume to a lifetime high of 70 miles a week, and she also became more robust in the gym, more durable in competitions.

"She needed to become a lot more aerobically strong and that's what we worked on so she can put races back to back, put hard training back to back and be consistent," says Vernon.

"I think if she can be consistent for 12 months, two years, she can run very, very well."

When they first sat down last autumn, they thought not of 2018 but 2020, the Tokyo Olympics, still way out on the horizon but prominent enough to keep in mind with every step.

"Everything is working back from that," says Vernon. "She's a huge talent, we all know that, but the big thing was for her to be consistent in training. That's all about staying healthy, not just injury-wise but immune-system-wise.

"I told her it's not going to happen overnight, you've got to give me at least a year before we move on again and get you to your best and we're seeing parts of that now.

"Things are moving in the right direction but it's going to take time."

In February Mageean showed promising signs by finishing third in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in New York, but as she cooled down afterwards she rolled her ankle, which laid her up for a week and limited her in training for weeks after.

Undaunted, she went to the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham but that was knife-to-a-gun-fight stuff, Mageean finishing seventh in her 1,500m heat in 4:11.81.

She could easily have brought up the ankle afterwards - information that only comes to light through Vernon - but if there's one thing she hates it's excuses, so instead she called it a bad day.

The following month, she went to the Commonwealth Games in Australia not quite in shape to win a medal, but strong enough to put two 4:07 races back to back and finish 13th in the 1,500m final, where Mageean threw herself towards the front to see what happened.

"I asked her: 'what do you enjoy about those races?' and she said 'getting stuck in,' so I said go for it," recalls Vernon. "Sometimes you're not where you want to be but I said to Ciara, 'let's go out there and be positive, get as much out of yourself as you can.'"

It wasn't a vintage championships, not by her standards, but it was better. For Mageean, that was what mattered most, particularly with more than three months left to prepare for the European Championships in Berlin.

And now, she finds herself a little over a week away. While repeating the medal-winning feat of 2016 will be a big ask, Mageean's form has been coming to the boil of late. She clocked 4:04.13 for 1,500m to win in Barcelona and 2:02.13 for 800m at the Morton Games in Dublin, the second fastest time of her career.

"Things just clicked," says Mageean. "It was finally me producing in a race what I've been doing in training and I felt like I had much more in the tank. There are faster times in me than I've run but there's no point saying you can run a fast time if you can't race a championship."

At this weekend's Irish Life Health National Championships in Santry, Mageean will be one of a few dozen Irish athletes having their final tune-up races before Berlin, with Thomas Barr, Phil Healy and many others also set to star.

Mageean will square off with Claire Mooney in the 800m tomorrow evening and perhaps also tackle the 1,500m just over an hour later, where Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner will be the chief threat.

Competitive

"I just need to get back out, practise good competitive running, getting boxed in and spiked halfway round the track and still finishing strong," says Mageean. "That's what's going to win races at championships."

In recent weeks she has watched with great pride the exploits of Irish underage athletes, and on the build-up to Berlin (August 6-13), Mageean knows the mantle now rests with her and Barr to try to do the same.

"They've lifted Irish athletics and it's great to see so much coverage. I just hope the younger athletes can be patient and not try to increase and increase because consistency is key."

That, above all, is the lesson she's learned this year, and it's why Mageean has good reason to dream of a return to the medal rostrum a fortnight from tomorrow.

"This is what I do at every championships: go out there, progress through the rounds and once you're in the final, it's anybody's game."

As Vernon puts it: "All Ciara has to do is get in that final and be the best version of herself. If she can do that, hopefully she'll be well up there and do the Irish flag proud."


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