Sunday 18 February 2018

True loneliness of the long-distance runner

John O'Brien takes a close look at why Martin Fagan will not be representing us in Barcelona this week

HE says he isn't bitter. Blames nobody except himself. Took a risk and paid the penalty. And yet it hurts. Just after nine on Tuesday, he'll watch the athletes form a line for the 10,000m in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona and it will torment him that he is not among them. A fit, determined athlete, comfortably within the qualifying standard, left twiddling his thumbs at home in Arizona while the racing goes on. Something doesn't sit right.

Martin Fagan knows why he isn't running. The warning signs have been there since early this month. Athletics Ireland made it clear that athletes who didn't show for the National Championships wouldn't be considered for the Europeans. The policy had been loosely implemented for years, but maybe this time they meant business. Paul Hession missed a race at Gateshead to make it. Alastair Cragg raced at the same meeting, then defended his national 5,000m title the following day.

And Fagan? He decided to call their bluff. He took a chance. "I knew it was a risk," he says. "I'd run the National Championships the previous five years. I'd never missed one. I just thought they might have understood. I thought they'd have taken me anyway. It backfired. They didn't select me. It was my fault."

Is it really that simple, though? The issue arose when Fagan opted not to run the marathon in Barcelona, a distance which doesn't feature in the National Championships. He had made his decision when he learned that the marathon in Barcelona was scheduled to start at the worryingly late time of 10.30am. Thus the heat would become a more serious factor than he'd envisaged. Running the 10,000m made infinitely more sense.

He immediately informed Athletics Ireland of his decision and that it didn't suit him to disrupt his high-altitude training in Arizona to return home for the National Championships. Athletics Ireland took a dim view. Now you wonder if Fagan had been cuter, invented a strain or a niggle say, or waited until after Santry to relay his change of mind when it would have been more difficult to exclude him. Instead he was up front and suffered the consequences.

It is easy to see AI's side of the argument here. The National Championships are their showcase event and, naturally, they want to see their top athletes competing when possible. And if Fagan wished to contest the 10,000m in Barcelona, was it not reasonable that they wished to see him racing so they could assess his form and fitness? They laid the ground rules and other athletes followed them. Fagan didn't.

Fagan has struggled with an achilles injury for a couple of years now and that, he figures, clouded their judgment against him. Yet he is convinced he is over that injury. He ran badly in the European Cross-Country in Santry in December but the mucky course didn't suit him. In March, he withdrew from a marathon in Los Angeles but that was due to a minor knee complaint. Otherwise, he hasn't felt as healthy in years.

You want form? He'll give you form. In April, he endured a hellish three-day journey due to volcanic ash disruption but still won the Great Ireland Run in a decent time of 29:15. Two weeks ago, he won an 8K race in Tennessee in a perfectly respectable 23:34. In February, he ran a half-marathon in New Orleans in 62:11, the second fastest by a European this year behind Cragg. And the best, he felt, would come in Barcelona.

"I feel very healthy for the first time in over a year and that's a shame," he says. "I just needed an extra two weeks over here to be ready. I mean I look at the table and see only two Europeans broke 28 minutes this year. I know I am competitive. I see myself definitely in the top five in Europe over 10k. I think I've proven myself on the track. I gave them my word that I was healthy and ready to race. They didn't trust me."

And that's what stings most of all: the realisation that they didn't rate him highly enough or trust him sufficiently to consider cutting him some slack. He wonders if it had been Derval O'Rourke or David Gillick in his position. How strict would they have been then? He has seen the rules bent before but not now. Not for him. And it seems cold and ruthless enough to feel as if he is being used as an example, a cautionary tale.

The most alarming thing is the obvious disconnect. Living in America, he feels cut off and alienated from Irish athletics and, even if it was his choice to leave, how proper is it that he should feel that way? For most of his running life, Athletics Ireland has been run in a slipshod manner and communication was, at best, threadbare. "I suppose that's why I didn't take them all that seriously," he says. "I thought it would be no harm to send me. I still don't see why not."

And still he isn't bitter. He knows too that there's no profit to be made by ranting against officials who hold such power over him. There's nothing to do now but savour his health and get ready to tramp the roads and tracks again and start making the money he needs to earn his living. Athletics is his job, after all. And not making Barcelona is, he knows, a cruel and potentially ruinous setback.

"Like any athlete, I'd banked on the Europeans. Get a medal or make the top five. Now I've more or less accepted that I'll lose my grant. If I'm not at the Europeans I can't meet the criteria. Anyway it's time to move on now. I was bitter at first but I'm over it now. I'm feeling healthy so I just want to get out there quickly and prove that I was in shape all along."

So the week will unfold without him. Thirty-three Irish athletes to fixate on, some with genuine medal chances, others with serious potential for the future. Yet it seems strange that an American pole vaulter and an English 400m hurdler can be accommodated in the Ireland team while a distance athlete, whose best times indicated he could have travelled to Barcelona with realistic hopes of a good performance, can't be.

They didn't trust Martin Fagan and something doesn't sit right with that.

Sunday Independent

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