Sunday 18 February 2018

Athletics: Streets of London sing out for brave Jennings

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

WHEN the boys with the logoed blazers around here toss out the phrase 'Olympic family' it usually means a certain class of VIP with an all-access pass and a free limo.

But the real Olympic family was out in force around London's city centre yesterday.

And the athlete that London 2012 took to its exceedingly warm heart, and carried home kindly on its collective hands, was an Irish marathon runner.

Caitriona Jennings (32) was in trouble a long time before she rounded Buckingham Palace for the last time and faced that torturous final 400m down The Mall towards Admiral's Arch.

Hit with a foot injury known as plantar fasciitis five weeks ago, she had used an anti-gravity treadmill with weight-bearing technology in the build-up.

She felt the tingle in the warm-up but had desperately hoped the adrenalin would help get her home in only her third time over the distance. But by mid-way the fire in the soles of her feet had become a furnace of pain.

So 59 minutes after the winner had crossed the line, Jennings was making her last 100 agonising strides towards it, tears streaming down her face as the effort and the emotion of it all proved too much for her.

The women's marathon started at 11.0 yesterday and by 2.20 there was no one else left on the course.


Sixteen minutes earlier, the athlete from East Timor had followed home the woman from Myanmar and then there was just one.

Yet hardly one of the real Olympic family, at times six deep along the roads on which Jennings' penitential marathon was run, deserted her.

The Irish were there in force of course, but everyone else cheered just as loudly to try to lighten her load and salute her bravery.

You see, this they could all understand. Most of them struggled to identify with another flying African.

They didn't know that Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana (who ran the Dublin marathon a few years ago) was a niece of the Sydney men's winner Gezhagne Abera or that her 2:23.07 win ahead of Kenya's Priscah Jeptoo (2:23.12) was a new Olympic record.

But this 'Paddy Last', her agonised face and hobbled cadence, this they could understand.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Mo Farah had looked immortal when creating Olympic 10,000m history, but in this Irish woman they saw just as much bravery and nobility and perhaps a lot more of themselves.

And as the sound of their kindness became deafening -- clapping their palms and the banging the hoardings and shouting at the top of their lungs -- Caitriona Jennings realised she couldn't quit now.

At any stage of this race -- started and finished in a thunderstorm -- it would have been easier to stop.

She wouldn't have been alone.

Eleven athletes quit, including Kenyan-born Dutch star Lornah Kiplagat and top British hope Mara Yamauchi.

But still the Letterkenny woman ploughed on, perhaps minded of her sister Sinead who had come so close, as a world-class rower, to Olympic qualification, yet never made it.

"I couldn't stop," she explained. "I had so much support in the lead-up to this, I just wanted to thank everyone who had supported me through it."

In the midst of apologising for "letting people down", for finishing last in 3:22.11 -- a full 46 minutes slower than her PB -- Jennings was asked about the helping hand played by London's real Olympic family and broke down again.

"They were fantastic, amazing," she gulped. "I couldn't have finished it without the crowd and I'd just like to thank everyone for travelling over and for their support throughout the whole thing."

Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle was first to catch her on the line and protected her from the international newshounds who all wanted to question 'the woman who finished last'.

Earlier DSD team-mates Linda Byrne and Ava Hutchinson had finished 66th and 68th in 2:37 -- just two minutes outside their PBs -- which, in the stormy conditions, was very respectable for two more second-time marathoners. But it wasn't them or the image of the Ethiopian winner most people walked away with, but the Irishwoman who simply refused to quit.

In Jennings they saw the frailty of the human body, the resilience of the human spirit and the embodiment of De Courbertin's original Olympic motto. Her torrid experience also underlined the locals' fantastic generosity to their nearest neighbours at these Games. "The British crowd have been unbelievable to the Irish, the boxers have told me the same thing," McGonagle said.

"We've got an unbelievable welcome here. That was obvious on the course and for this girl in particular. She was never going to win Olympic gold but she won it for effort and for courage."

Irish Independent

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