Wednesday 24 October 2018

Loneliness of the long distance runner all too real for Mulcaire in injury trauma

A few years ago Kevin Mulcaire was the ‘next big thing’ but the 20-year-old is back enjoying his running with Oklahoma State University after injury. Photo: Sportsfile
A few years ago Kevin Mulcaire was the ‘next big thing’ but the 20-year-old is back enjoying his running with Oklahoma State University after injury. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Springtime at Stanford University, California, it's just after 7pm on a Friday evening and the sun creeps a steady descent through the oak trees, the branches resting still in the tranquil air.

It's cool but not cold - ideal conditions for distance running - and over on the back straight of the track, 25 runners bob restlessly on the start line ahead of the men's 5000m. They're college athletes, mostly American, but among them is a 20-year-old whose skin is tinted a bronze that's a long way from his home in Clarecastle, Co Clare.

A few years ago Kevin Mulcaire was the next big thing in Irish athletics. He was - and still is - the fastest teenage distance runner we've ever produced: In 2015 he broke John Treacy's 40-year-old national junior 5000m record with a run of 14:02.30.

But on this night in Stanford, that feels a lifetime ago for the now 20-year-old Mulcaire.

When the gun fires he slides to the back of the pack - the refuge of hangers-on - as the leaders churn out a sub-14-minute pace. With each passing lap the pain becomes more pronounced on Mulcaire's face, his shoulders starting to rock under the grip of fatigue.

But this is the easy part. After what he's been through, pain like this is a cinch.

Every time a gap opens in front of him Mulcaire surges through it, creeping from the rear of the pack to the middle as the race reaches its business end. He crosses the line 16 seconds behind the winner, 16th place in 14:05.02 - three seconds slower than he ran at the age of 17.

Few will notice his result, only a handful will care, but he's never been happier to be a nobody.

The downfall of a distance runner, much like the rise, tends not to happen in an instant. It's usually a slow burn, an unfortunate series of events that eventually makes fitness feel like a forlorn memory. For Mulcaire, the wheels began to come loose in January 2016.

"That was the worst year of my life, for sure," he says.

A mild but persistent pain showed up in his foot, too deep to pinpoint, but not severe enough to push the panic button. With each run he did, it got worse.

"I'd never had an injury up to then, I had four years of training however I liked," he says. "I never thought it would last as long as it did."

By March it had worsened so much that he could no longer run without piercing pain, at which point he sent the distress call to Athletics Ireland.

As a funded athlete, Mulcaire was booked in for an MRI scan in Limerick, but all that showed up was tendon inflammation. Nothing major, he was told, and certainly not something that would cause severe pain.

His foot screamed otherwise.

Mulcaire travelled to Dublin for treatment at the Sport Ireland Institute, but as weeks dragged into months with no improvement his frustration grew.

"They said it's only minor, you shouldn't be feeling any pain, this is in your head," he says.

Later that summer he decided to go outside the system for a second opinion, spending €800 of his own money for appointments and another MRI at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry. The results were grim.

"I had this bone growth at the back of my ankle, a messed up big toe, inflammation in tendons and a broken navicular bone," says Mulcaire.

"I was like: what the hell do I do?"

He soon found himself opposite Johnny McKenna, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon, who explained to Mulcaire how he could help him - and how he couldn't.

"We had done so much damage to the navicular (bone), there was no option to put it together again - even right now it's in two pieces. Johnny didn't want to do the surgery on the navicular, but I was grasping at straws so I had surgery to remove the bone growth on the back of my ankle."

As he awaited the operation - no more than an outside bet to save his career - Mulcaire felt his self-worth crash like bad stock.

"I was slipping into a state of depression because I wasn't working, I wasn't in school and I was just at home constantly thinking, 'I'm broken, I'm never going to run this time again, I'm never going to do this'. It's a real feeling of loneliness."

A year earlier everyone wanted a piece of him, but now he realised why people said success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

"I definitely found that," he says.

"I used to think people that happened to were surrounding themselves with bad people, and if you got injured it was because you went to the wrong college or became an alcoholic - that you didn't have the dream.

"But I found myself in that situation and I don't think I did anything majorly wrong."

Those who remained have a special place in his heart, like his coach Pat Hogan.

"Those days in 2016 were so rough, but he was there the whole time. He told me everybody comes undone at some point, everyone gets a big-time injury, and only some people will come through it."

Then there was his physio, Odhran O'Dwyer.

"He saw me pretty much every day for three months and gave me so much help."

And National Endurance Coach Steven Macklin.

"He supported me the whole time and still always reaches out to me. He wants to see me succeed."

When it comes to Athletics Ireland, he's keen to stress that he holds no bitterness about how things were handled - he's not one to rage against the machine without seeing its various parts.

"There's a lot of good people in there who take a lot of abuse when they don't deserve it. Paul McNamara is making good changes, Steven Macklin is making good changes and Gillian Brosnan was incredibly helpful. It's just a few rotten apples."

Regrets, though, he's got a few.

"I wish I just stopped and went outside the system earlier, then maybe I would have been able to fix my foot before it was too late."

In the autumn of 2016, after an aborted track season, Mulcaire's funding was reduced by Athletics Ireland, and it may be no accident that in the months that followed he finally said yes to one of the colleges seeking to take his talent abroad.

He underwent surgery on his ankle in December, then in January 2017 set off on an athletics scholarship to Oklahoma State University.

"I needed a change and it was a massive boost that this college was going to invest all this money and time in me to go there with a broken foot. Dave Smith (head coach) said this injury is potentially career-ending, but they were willing to take a chance because I was worth it."

However, life in Middle America wasn't exactly a dream.

Rehab

Mulcaire didn't run a step in his first few months, instead spending his days scrunching up towels with his toes and doing all the other mind-numbing, spirit-crushing exercises that constitute his rehab.

His first runs were short jogs on an anti-gravity treadmill which reduced his impact by 50pc, a setting he slowly built up to 90pc.

"It hurt like hell," he admits. "I had taken all this time off and had the surgery and it felt no different."

In May last year he did his first run outdoors, a 10-minute hobble around astro-turf pitches at Oklahoma State. Back home in Clare for the summer, he considered it a success if he managed 20 miles a week - a quarter of what he used to do.

"I was running with 14-year-olds in my club, guys who couldn't even keep up with me on easy runs before and they'd all take off and leave me for dust. It was pretty humbling," he says.

By October Mulcaire climbed back to 70 miles a week, but then missed six weeks with an Achilles tendon issue - a warning from his body not to push his luck again.

"After that I was content just running 30 miles on the ground and swimming. It became fun again, it was no longer about getting back to a certain fitness level."

In December he toed the line for his first race in 18 months, a 1000m run he describes as "terrible".

But in January a flicker emerged of his old self, his young self, when he clocked a 4:08 mile in Arkansas. From there all roads led to Stanford, where he crossed the line a sweat-soaked snapshot of satisfaction.

His reaction afterwards - "grand, not injured anyway" - tells you a lot about his current mindset.

"I'm very, very cautious now," he says. "I'm a small bit held back by the foot, but it doesn't hurt me day to day so I'll take that. It's easier to have a rest day or run easy than sit out four months - or two years."

In recent weeks he has allowed himself to dream once again, looking up the Irish U-23 records and wondering if he can take another of Treacy's marks in the years ahead. But most of all he appreciates the here and now, aware of how easily it can be snatched away.

"It's only in the last few months I've got the love for the sport back again," he says. "l have a motto I tell myself so I don't take it for granted: Any day you can run is a good day."

Irish Independent

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