'People laugh if I say Olympic or World medal. They say to cop on'
Injuries have held him back but Ciarán ó Lionáird is aiming to compete with best.
HE stepped off the boards in the Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg that night in March and went calmly to face the cameras. The same cameras he'd faced in the Olympic Stadium in London six months earlier when, crushed by disappointment, he'd muttered vaguely about quitting the sport. Now he was back, though. A point proved. A European Indoor bronze medallist. A better athlete in a better place. Redeemed.
But happy? Well, that was another story entirely. Ciarán ó Lionáird's life quest is to find a place where running isn't frustrating him. For all its glory, Gothenburg wasn't that place. He knew how important it was. He'd delivered a message to those who mattered that he could deliver on the highest stage. That he could live with the best middle-distance runners on the planet. That he was worth the money and faith they'd invested in him. And still, inside, the frustration gnawed away at his bones.
"Even when people look and think you're doing great, the people who know me can see I'm frustrated coming off those races. After the European Indoors, I was like I should've won that race. I came back after and I was pissed. I didn't go out. I didn't celebrate. My coach in Oregon [Mark Rowland] wasn't happy. He was pissed too. Should've won that race."
So he sensed he was reaching a critical point in his athletic life. How many times, he wondered, would he compete at a major championships or finish a season, reflect on the fast times he'd run and the medals he'd won and then, as an insidious after-thought, contemplate how good it might have been had he been fully healthy? Not hampered by niggles and the care-worn anxieties that enjoyed squatters' rights alongside them.
In February, he'd run a 3.52 mile at the Millrose Games in New York. Not bad, but how much better might it have been had he not been forced to miss the previous week's training due to a herniated disc? And what might he have done in Sweden if his Achilles tendon hadn't flared up immediately after his final work-out before the championships? To be left with such infernal questions. That was becoming the cruel refrain of his running life.
"I just wanna be in a position where I go to a competition or a training camp and not have to worry about what my body's going to do," he says. "Just the little things. Staying healthy. Rather than having to do things and waste energy in order to get healthy."
In truth, he'd rather be fine-tuning his preparations for this week's European Team Championships in Santry than sitting in a northside hospital, waiting for a scan on his troublesome Achilles. He'd prefer to be chasing the 'A' standard for Moscow rather than contemplating making his peace with the summer and taking the grown-up, long-term approach. Fixing the little things that need to be fixed. For once and for all.
A little portrait of the athlete at 25. "A niggle in my Achilles, a chronic injury. It's not terrible but it doesn't go away. An L5 herniated disc from 2006. Still there. A dislocated shoulder that pops out routinely. All on the left side from my shoulder down to my Achilles. It affects my pelvic rotation and my muscle-strength and power on the left side."
The shoulder is a relic of a house party during his student days in Tallahassee when he intervened to break up an argument and, for his efforts, got set upon by four thugs and felt fortunate to escape with a few bruises, a damaged shoulder and a life lesson to think twice before playing the hero. Sometimes it pops out when he sleeps or during the discomfort of a long flight, the pain nothing compared to the gripping anxiety that regularly precedes it.
So that's his goal now. To be free from persistent, nagging injuries. He thinks back to Daegu in 2011, the blissful narrow window when he was bubbling with health and, from nowhere, propelled himself to a final at his first major championship. If that's what he could do off a virtually zero base, he wondered, what could he do given three years of relatively uninterrupted training? The infernal question again. Time to get himself healthy.
You need to understand that ó Lionáird is not despondent about any of this. When he signed up for the Nike project in Oregon after Daegu, Alberto Salazar, the great Cuban marathon runner, told him he was the weakest world finalist he'd ever seen. Salazar meant it as a compliment. Essentially, ó Lionáird was a Formula One athlete trapped in a Formula Ford body. There was bucklet-loads of potential waiting to be tapped. They just needed to get his engine purring.
"When you think about it, I've really only been running two years since I was 18 with all the injuries I've had," he says. "Physically, I've grown an inch over the past year and put on 8lbs of muscle. I'm still growing and when you're in intense training that can take a toll on your body. In the past three years since I left Michigan, I've grown a lot. I'm a late developer. I'm still playing catch-up."
In ways he feels like the luckiest athlete alive. He flew into Dublin on Tuesday and headed straight for Abbotstown to meet the people in the Institute of Sport. He sees a strong network of support staff here he is keen to tap into. ó Lionáird has always been a vocal supporter of Kevin Ankrom, Athletic Ireland's high-performance director, and appreciates what he is trying to do. Maybe it's just the Irish way to complain, he thinks. But he's been away too long to be certain now.
He just knows his own set-up is slowly taking shape and that excites him. Last year he switched bases to join Rowland's training group in Eugene, still under the Nike banner though, still close to Salazar and the Nike hub just north in Portland. He spent last winter back in Tallahassee, happy to be reunited with his old coach Bob Braman, whom he still regards as a father-figure, and close to his girlfriend, Erica, who lives in Sarasota and offers a blessed respite from the cloying obsession of athletics.
He likes how things are evolving now. All these little facets of his life that need to be tied together so they are mutually inclusive and not confusing him or pulling him in different directions. He notices that when he tells people he isn't racing right now, that his return date isn't certain, their instinctive reaction is towards panic. So he tells them it's not like that. It's just part of the plan. And it occurs to him that he's the one doing the reassuring now. How much he's matured since London.
"It's not like, 'oh shit, Ciarán's in for a scan, what a disaster'. It's more we're moving at a calculated pace. I think I could've ran at the Team Championships and been competitive, maybe even have won. But how would that impact on me long-term? It's about taking a step back and taking the emotion out of it. I think that's what you saw at the Olympics last year. I was just trying too hard to stay positive, but the injuries were eating away at it. And then things came to a head.
"I've taken a step back now. Kind of removed myself from it. I don't get too high or low. I stay matter of fact about things. More calculated. Like, this is the situation. Let's deal with it. More robotic. I'm cold. My mam says I have a new face when it comes to my running. Like, I'm not really a person, not like a runner, more like a machine. And that adjustment has been interesting. I'm more removed from the emotions of it."
Less Mad Len about stuff nowadays perhaps? ó Lionáird laughs when it's mentioned There was a time, he says, when the Mad Len caricature had stuck, when he was the so-called bullet with the mullet, and he played along because it seemed harmless and there was some capital to be drawn from it. The truth of his life was always far more prosaic, though. And a hell of a lot more interesting.
Evan Scully, his friend and physio, tells a story. In his office in Dunshaughlin, there is a singlet belonging to ó Lionáird hanging on the wall, immediately noticeable for those entering. "People come in and see the name on the singlet," Scully says, "'oh is that the nutcase on Twitter? That Mad Len fella'. They probably think he's injured because he does stupid things outside running."
ó Lionáird never really minded. If he appeared hyper, that was merely a throwback to his childhood when he could never sit still at home, always wanting to be outside, kicking a football, swinging a hurl or just running as hard and as fast as he could. At 12, he fetched up at Leevale in the city and heard older athletes making plans to visit exotic foreign locations he'd never heard of. He knew instantly he'd found his sporting vocation.
When he'd finished his Leaving Cert and decided his future lay in America, he opted for Michigan because it was off the beaten track, a more invigorating challenge than was available in the more familiar locations of, say, Boston or North Carolina. And that, in a nutshell, was Mad Len. "Just a different guy," he says. "He just does what he wants to do. It's not mad as in he's out there on the piss all the time."
He likes a beer with dinner occasionally but can't remember the last time he was drunk and when Scully visits him in America, they will regularly invite derision by being the first to leave the pub. At home he watches episodes of Game of Thrones on HBO and writes long letters to his girlfriend, preferring the old-school method of handwriting over the scattergun approach of email, the imperative it brings of having to think more about what you say before committing it to paper.
And that was the problem with Mad Len. It hid the reality of a guy who thought deeply about what he was doing and who liked to enjoy himself but not at the expense of his well-being. And it bothered him that there were people who might take the caricature literally and be fooled into thinking you could nurture a wild side and still be a top-level athlete. Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.
They don't see him bustin' his ass now, doing everything he can to get right so that, somewhere down the line, he will emerge as a contender for a World or Olympic medal. Maybe not this summer. Or even the next one to come. What's important is that come 2015 he is ready for the Worlds, as ready as he can be for the lead-up to Rio a year later. Maybe even thinking of 1,500m gold. Why not dream once the hard yards are put in?
"Some people laugh if I say Olympic or World medal," he says. "They tell you to cop on. But if I'm not going for a medal, what else is there to do? I've already made a global final. I got a medal at the European Indoors. It's already in my mind. It has to be the next logical step."
He sees himself as part of a wider development too, a resurgence in Irish middle-distance running he couldn't have envisaged two years ago. He remembers how he shocked the Irish athletics community when he ran 3.34 at a small meeting in Belgium to book his place at the World Championships in Daegu. Now he sees the likes of Paul Robinson and Mark English running fast times and nobody batting an eyelid. The expectations are so much greater now.
By way of illustration, he takes you back to the Penn State relays in April when he was part of an Irish mile team alongside Robinson, English and Brian Gregan that finished fifth to Ethiopia. He ran 3.58, an ordinary enough run, but it was the composition of the team that truly captured his attention.
"In two years I noticed so much had changed, that there was all this talent coming through. Like, in Daegu I was one of the youngest on the team. It was my first major championships. And now in the Penn relays I realised I was the oldest. I remember thinking 'holy shit, this is crazy'. We had a team of guys from 19 to 25, specialising in different distances. We managed to beat Canada, Australia and Great Britain. That is serious.
"It's exciting and I'm excited to be part of that. I don't know if me making the final in Daegu had an impact on Paul Robinson or Mark English. Maybe it did a little bit. It would be nice to think so anyway."
For now, he's just happy to be home. Back to Macroom to see the family again, spend time with his younger brother on the verge of finishing his Leaving Cert. At some point he'll head down to the city and see his friends and old coaches in Leevale and, maybe, tell them of his fond dream to, one day, wear the club singlet again and help them regain the inter-club cross-country title, a token of the gratitude he still holds for them.
Before that, though, there is a little bit of World and Olympic business to distract him. Rest assured, Ciarán ó Lionáird is on the case.