Fionnuala McCormack lets her run talk

Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. He knows he has to outrun the fastest lion or he will be killed.

Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. He knows he has to run faster than the slower gazelle or he will starve.

It doesn’t matter if you are a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up you better run.

Someone, somewhere, attributed this to Roger Bannister, when no man of his intelligence and, indeed, his racing prowess, would have given such praise to any animal or beast.

Even without his medical knowledge, Bannister probably would have known that neither gazelles nor lions get up early in the morning: gazelles don’t go to bed at all, but rather sleep for a few minutes throughout the day, and lions usually hunt. their prey at night. It turns out that gazelles are probably quite safe around lions when the sun comes up.

It must have been 10 years since I made this whimsical decision to get back in half shape before my next birthday, and with that, I headed for Iten, the little village perched 7,875 feet on the West Escarpment. of the Great Rift Valley, to live, eat and train like Kenyan runners for a few weeks.

It can be said that we have never once seen a gazelle or a lion running around in the morning, although we have seen many other people get up and go out at 6 a.m. when the sun first rises. of their sometimes three daily training runs.

It was also around this time, in a small concrete house owned by Brother Colm O’Connell, that we sat around an old television set to watch Fionnuala McCormack – then known as Fionnuala Britton – win the 2011 European Cross Country Championships at a considerable distance from Slovenia.

McCormack, then 27, had finished fourth the previous year (so the same time as the bronze medalist) only she was right this time, running away from the front “with all the gentleness of ‘a gazelle and the fighting strength of a lion,’ as Brother Colm duly noted.

Gold medals

Her victory came 17 years after Catherina McKiernan won the first European Cross Country Championship in 1994, and the following December, in the freezing Hungarian air somewhere outside Budapest, McCormack did even better, the first woman to win back-to-back titles, while leading the Irish women’s team to a first-ever gold medal streak.

Hearing Amhrán na bhFiann played twice, quickly, was one of the most memorable days in Irish athletics long history, and the night too.

Some of our athletic aficionados were up until dawn in winter, still evaluating performance in the hotel lobby, as they do, to see McCormack heading into sunrise for his little morning run. time after the next morning. For anyone who knows her, it was only a small measure of the woman. There is an added honesty to the morning run beyond the simple commitment to success: it invariably occurs out of the limelight and out of all attention, so without immediate recognition or reward, just like McCormack likes to do his best run.

Much has already been said this year that more women in Irish sport are getting the recognition, applause and respect they don’t deserve, and it’s true, just that’s not always all about it. no more. There are those who just don’t want to and never will seek it out, who prefer to let their success and achievements be judged purely on merit, male or female, and there is no better example than McCormack.

Now 37 and a mother of two, McCormack is set to extend her Irish international caps women’s record in track and field to 42, assuming Athletic Ireland does the obvious thing and selects her for European cross country. next month in Dublin. It would also mark her 17th appearance in the event, starting at the junior level, more than any other woman in European athletics history.

Complete training

McCormack decided not to compete in the National Cross-Country in Santry this Sunday, given that it wasn’t long before she fully trained after improving her half-marathon record to 69.32 in Valencia last month. . Still, in her own words, she “can’t resist the lure” of this European cross-country ski in Abbotstown on December 12, and with that, she’s raising her hand for selection. Between the club and inter-county events now combined, she has already won nine senior cross-country titles, the most recent in 2019.

A lot of noise is being made around international caps in other sports, and for good reason, and given that long-distance runners typically only have three or four international chances a year, McCormack’s feat should perhaps also be speaking louder: she has run past Sonia O’Sullivan (33) and Derval O’Rourke (32), and only javelin thrower Terry McHugh with his all-time record of 48 Irish caps is ahead.

Running the marathon in Tokyo, she has equaled O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane as the only Irish female athletes to compete in four Olympics, and with Paris 2024 quickly approaching, she has every chance of qualifying for the number. five.

When she lined up for Chicago in 2019, a month after her 35th birthday, she had one of the runs of her life, finishing a stunning fifth place in 2:26:47, taking nearly four minutes off his personal best.

Had these championships been staged as originally planned last December, McCormack would have missed out given she was pregnant with her second daughter, and she will once again be the center of the Irish women’s medal chances, bringing them home to the team silver with his fourth place in Lisbon 2019 (his fourth place in the event). She also has a European indoor bronze to her credit in 2013.


McCormack rarely speaks outside of her race, and when she does, she tends to come straight from the heart and head. Like when World Athletics approved Nike Vaporfly technology in 2019, it said “they were weak and it makes me sad, for me that’s not the point of sport”.

Likewise, when World Athletics was slow to change its transfer of allegiance rule which unmistakably cost it medals – most infamous when Yasemin Can won the European 10,000m title in Amsterdam in 2016 for Turkey a little more than four months after completing his transfer from Kenya – McCormack, who finished fourth in the same race, made no secret of his feelings, saying “it’s a joke, really, exactly the same every time *** *** “.

Just because athletes like McCormack don’t crave praise or attention to match their success and longevity doesn’t mean they more or less deserve it. They are just of a different nature, in her case knowing that when the sun rises over her house in Wicklow, she will still be running.

About Ethel Partin

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