McCormack shining in Rio sun as she sets PB in gruelling marathon
It might not have been her highest Olympic finish, but it was certainly her strongest. Beneath a scalding sun on the streets of Rio yesterday, Fionnuala McCormack kept her pace when all around were losing theirs, eventually coming home 20th in the women's marathon in a personal best 2:31:22.
The 31-year-old made a conservative start, but sliced through the field over the latter half, passing such a flurry of athletes that when she reached the finish - in a race won by Kenya's Jemima Jelagat Sumgong in a time of 2:24:04 - she couldn't help but wonder if she had started too cautiously.
"It's nice to be top 20, but I'm not really sure what to think," said McCormack.
"If you run a PB, you have to say it's good."
McCormack finished 15th in the 10,000m at the previous Games in London, but that was a race of less depth, given a record-breaking entry of 156 athletes toed the line in the Sambodromo yesterday.
By the time the gun fired at 9:30am, the sun was high in the sky and the mid-20s temperature began to cook the athletes. McCormack, though, relished the idea of the race being a struggle for survival.
"It's not something that would frighten me," she said.
"The tougher, the better. With any course or conditions, I like it when they're tough. I was certain the heat wouldn't affect me, but obviously you can't just tear off."
McCormack was in 60th when she passed 10km in 35:41, but had picked her way through to 40th when she reached the half marathon in 1:15:23. Her plan was working perfectly, with the overly ambitious athletes ahead beginning to pay for their exertions.
"When the conditions are like that, there should be carnage at some point," she said. "You always hope it's going to be more than what it is. At the end I was racing quite well, which feels better than when you're slowly dying. I had a plan and it paid off."
With this performance it's highly likely McCormack will continue her gradual transition to the roads, though she didn't rule out future forays on the track and her old stomping ground, cross country.
"It's nice to have the three things. This was better than my other two Olympics, so I'll have to come back again now for a fourth."
Next across the line for the Irish was Lizzie Lee, who finished 57th in 2:39:57, a performance that left her beaming, even though the conditions made the experience a brutal one.
"It was horrendous out there," she said. "Half of me just wanted to finish, but to be top 60 and sub-2:40 in those conditions, I cannot argue.
"I'm so proud, a 36-year-old full-time working mother and now I'm an Olympian. There's not one ounce of me left out there. We rocked it."
The third Irish competitor was Breege Connolly, who came home 76th in 2:44:41.
"This was the best running day of my life," she said.
"At 13 or 14 miles, that was the hardest. I got a cramp and wondered if I should stop and get it treated, but I thought 'no, if you stop you could be in danger', so I just forgot about it and ploughed on.
"I don't think anything can prepare you for racing in that. The support was unbelievable."
When Ethiopia's Almaz Ayana smashed the 10,000m world record on Friday, McCormack was watching on in the stands.
Due to its close proximity to the marathon, the Kilcoole runner bypassed the race, but like many was left wondering about the legitimacy of the performance.
"I don't know what to make of it and everybody is in the same boat at this stage," she said.
"It was such a ridiculous race that I don't know if I wanted to be in it. I enjoyed watching it, though, and even with all the scandals, the fact that there were 35 people in the race shows everyone hasn't given up on the sport."