Tuesday 23 October 2018

'I felt fine for the first half, then bang, I was gone' - Marathon Mick on bouncing back from his Olympic nightmare

Mick Clohisey draped in the Irish flag on London’s Tower Bridge after the marathon at last year’s World Championships.
Mick Clohisey draped in the Irish flag on London’s Tower Bridge after the marathon at last year’s World Championships.

Cathal Dennehy

It was, says Mick Clohisey, "one of the best buzzes ever."

On a sweltering Sunday morning last August, the 31-year-old Dubliner did something on the streets of London that may have garnered little attention among the wider sporting public, but which meant the world to him.

In recent months Clohisey was ruled out of the cross country season with a hip-flexor injury.
In recent months Clohisey was ruled out of the cross country season with a hip-flexor injury.

Medals may be the only currency that count in athletics, but fixation on them can often lead to stories like Clohisey's slipping quietly into the night.

And sure, an Irishman finishing 22nd in the World Championships marathon is never going to make an end-of-year highlights reel, but to get why this mattered so much you have to rewind to August 2016 - back to a warm, muggy day in Rio when Clohisey's Olympic dream turned into a nightmare.

To qualify for the Games, Clohisey had clocked 2:15:11 at the Seville Marathon, a time which would have seen him crack the top 25 at the Olympics. But when it comes to distance running, there's such a thing as wanting it too much.

Clohisey always had a reputation as an assiduous trainer, but in the build-up to Rio he ran himself into a deep valley of fatigue. Then at the holding camp in Uberlandia, Brazil, he got a blister on his foot which got infected, and likely led to the virus that hit him for six in the days that followed.

There he was, just days away from the biggest race of his life - the culmination of more than a decade's work - and he couldn't run a step. He told himself that's okay, he'd mostly be resting up all week anyway, but the virus left him feeling flatter than a French crepe.

"The week in the (Olympic) village I had no appetite," he said. "The damage was done and it doesn't matter where you are; if you're feeling sh*t you don't really want to be there. When the foot healed and I got back running I was struggling, I was all over the place."

There are some events where muscle memory and a good mentality might carry you through in such circumstances. The marathon is not one of them.

"I felt fine for the first half," recalls Clohisey, "then bang, I was gone."

He passed halfway in 68:25, which on a normal day would have been comfortable, but that morning he felt like a donkey dragging a cart.

The temptation to drop out was overwhelming, the negative voices in his head growing louder and more convincing with every depleted step, but Clohisey reminded himself what was written on his hand, words of advice from his coach Dick Hooper.

"The first thing is: finish as fast as you can," he says. "The second thing is: just finish."

He thought of his dad, his uncle and his cousin who were waiting at the finish, who'd supported him through every step of the journey and who'd forked out a small fortune to be there. "I said, 'you have to finish it out.'"

He crossed the line in 2:26:34, covering the second half 10 minutes slower than the first, which was good enough for 102nd place. Afterwards he hobbled to the changing area with his face , still layered with salt from dehydration, a picture of dejection. "That was brutal," he said of his performance.

That could easily have been that. At 30 years of age, Clohisey had made it to the biggest stage and watched his Olympic hopes go down in flames, but it was then that his time away from the sport in the years before helped him stay on track.

A talented, if unexceptional, junior athlete, Clohisey had always embodied the value of persistence, netting himself a series of Irish caps in his early 20s through an old-school diet of high mileage and hard running.

But he'd spent enough time around obsessive Type-A personalities to know he didn't want to become one, and at 24 he decided life should not be distilled down to just running 100 miles a week.

"I was a bit burnt out mentally," he says. "I wanted to go travelling and felt I lost the hunger for the competitive thing."

He spent a few months travelling the US, then moved to Austria to live with his girlfriend, drinking and partying and staying up all night as often as he wanted.

"It gets old but it's part of growing up so I don't regret it," he says. "I always had that thing where I like to get away from running and the regimental life, so I got it all out of my system."

He always ran, but it became something he did for enjoyment rather than competition, and he soon found it kept him from going off the rails.

"There were times I did too much of the socialising, and the one thing that got me out of that was racing," he says.

Clohisey made a proper return to action in 2013, finishing sixth in the national cross country championships and qualifying for the Europeans in Belgrade. Two years later he was national cross country champion, and he's been a fixture in Irish distance running ever since.

But when it comes to his career 2.0, balance has been the key component.

"I don't feel I get too wrapped up in it ," he says. "That's a trait of distance runners, but I've got more driven in recent years and I want to keep pushing myself."

Indeed, despite his disappointment Clohisey says there was no major post-Olympic blues. After Rio he booked a holiday to America with his girlfriend to recharge his batteries, and by the time the autumn arrived he was raring to go for the year ahead.

It was one which climaxed with that superb showing in London, where Clohisey was a whole lot more content to greet his family at the finish.

"I finished strong, when in previous times I had folded," he says. "There was more there."

In recent months Clohisey was ruled out of the cross country season with a hip-flexor injury, but he used the month off to work on the finicky rehab exercises he'd long been ignoring and to devote more time to his coaching work, which is his main source of income these days.

He's tried the nine-to-five and he's also tried living like a monk, but finds the best approach is somewhere in between. "You can't just be running," he says. "There's a lot of time in the day."

This year his chief goal will be the European Championships in Berlin, and he plans to book his ticket at the Seville Marathon next month. "I'd love to crack a 2:13 and I feel I'm capable of it. I'm trying to get the most out of myself before the window closes."

Such a performance would still leave him 10 minutes off the best marathoners in the world, and like London, it would be unlikely to cause much of a ripple beyond with those who know him. But that's alright, because Clohisey knows what it'd mean to them, and to him.

Mick Clohisey was speaking at the launch of the KIA Race Series, a nationwide series of eight races which will take place this year.

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