Friday 24 January 2020

Catherina McKiernan: Barr was brilliant - but where have our long-distance runners gone?

Thomas Barr celebrates his fourth-place finish in the men’s 400m hurdles Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Thomas Barr celebrates his fourth-place finish in the men’s 400m hurdles Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Catherina McKiernan

Rob Heffernan appeared to be pleased with his fifth place in the 50km walk but sometimes, as an athlete, you tell the media that you're happy when secretly, you were really hoping for a medal.

Rob sounded happy and couldn't have done more but I wonder if he was secretly disappointed, which would be understandable given all his previous achievements.

Still, to finish fifth in those conditions, and in his fifth Olympics, was still very good and it looks like he could go again in four years' time.

As he said, there's no-one in Ireland ready to take over from him yet, though Brendan Boyce did well too to finish 18th.

Rob got detached from the lead group after about 35km, and anyone who has ever run a marathon knows what it's like when a gap starts to open up in front of you.

The only way I ever found to get back up to them was just to focus all my concentration on that singlet up the road ahead and keep digging.

I used to talk to myself mentally, think about all the training I'd done and all the people back at home, and that would help get me through it.


Rob was obviously doing the same yesterday. We heard him talking about his kids at home. Sometimes it's something that simple that can get you through your really dark moments.

I have to admit that the 50km walk, to me, is not the most attractive event to watch.

But Rob has proven again that he's among the top five in the world and you have to admire the amount of training he does and the concentration - the event takes for over three and a half hours. They must surely be tempted to break into a run at times!

It is truly gruelling; even the world record holder from France was constantly stopping and struggling.

The Canadian guy only wobbled over the line in fourth but got upgraded to bronze afterwards, and that demonstrates how racing is often much more about the mind than the body. You looked at those men and just knew they had nothing left to give at the end.

I noticed Thomas Barr saying after his race that he felt he might have had something else to give and, if I felt like that, I'd be mad at myself.

But, in fairness, his reaction and attitude afterwards were just great and showed why he did so well in an Olympic final.

You could see him laughing and smiling beforehand; he's obviously naturally relaxed and there's a huge lesson there for our young athletes.

The more you tense up, the more your body gets tight and doesn't function properly. Thomas is obviously talented and trains hard but his attitude also shows how much you can get out of your body if you're relaxed.

That brings me back again to my theory that performance is often more about mind than body.

I genuinely thought Thomas had won a medal! Myself and the kids were screaming and jumping up and down. If the race had been just one stride longer he'd have medalled.

It was still fantastic to see an Irish athlete in an Olympic final but it makes me ask why are we not doing that at 800m and 1500m and 5,000m anymore?

We have a great history at middle and long distance but, apart from Fionnuala McCormack, Ciara Mageean and Mark English, we just aren't making the grade anymore.

You wonder is it a facet of the Celtic Tiger, that kids nowadays are just too soft and not prepared to put in the hard work that is necessary?

Maybe our distance runners are put off because the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate those events.

But the 400m hurdles is a tough sprint event that doesn't have a huge history of European success either and Thomas Barr still isn't a bit afraid of anyone in the world.

That's a huge lesson to our young athletes, that one of the most important things they need is real belief and that's something our coaches need to instil in them too.

His performance should really inspire a lot of Irish youngsters, to think if he can do it why can't I?

Thomas missed a lot of training this year and still didn't let that defeat him - there's a huge lesson there.

The last Irish in competition tomorrow are our three men in the marathon and I feel sorry for them because they must be so frustrated by now.

Imagine being in the Olympic village waiting until the very last day to compete?

You can't be going to the track every day to support your team-mates because even getting transport over and back,will sap your energy.

The longer the Games go on, the noisier the Olympic village gets because athletes who are already finished are relaxed and having parties.

The men's marathon isn't until the last morning, so they'll have been trying to stay focused and away from all of that. They'll probably be on the plane home on Monday too, so the Olympics is certainly no fun for them.

It was 27-30 degrees yesterday so the conditions could be very tough again tomorrow. There were over 150 in the women's marathon and I noticed that 23 of them didn't even finish!

Irish Independent

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