It is nearly time. The Olympic Games are just around the corner. Tomorrow I set off for the final destination of this three year journey. The realisation that I am going has still not quite set in. Until I put on the Irish racing vest and shorts for the first time, I doubt it will. On this last day in Ireland, spent saying farewell to friends and family, I find my mind wandering back over the past few years. The rare ups. The many, many more frequent downs. The tears, the frustration, the agonising, gut-wrenching disappointment. The past three years has held them all, in a much higher quantity than I could have ever envisaged. However, shining bright through those dark days, are the moments of overwhelming happiness. Those days where all the hard work and sacrifices have come together, to culminate in a performance better than what I would have believed possible. The joy of seeing, at least, some reward for all those times lying exhausted at the side of the road, contemplating whether it would be easier to simply succumb to the inevitable pain. If running was a simple as running, life would be so much easier.
The European Championships half marathon at the start of July was a good indicator of where my fitness lay. Heading to Amsterdam with heavy legs, I knew that it would be a struggle to achieve the position that I wanted. However, with all three members of the Irish Olympic marathon team competing, there was a belief surrounding the camp that we might have an outside chance of winning a team medal, if each of us managed to perform. After the first five kilometres in the blistering sunshine, I knew I was already working harder than what I would have liked. The following ten kilometres was a tough grind, trying to maintain my pace while keeping relaxed. Passing through the fifteen kilometre point, I was starting to steadily make my move through the field but I knew it would not last. Within minutes, the race had gone. My race was now a matter of survival. Thankfully the strength of a hard marathon phase came good, and I finished in a solid but somewhat disappointing seventeenth position. With Mick and Kevin finishing little over a minute behind, the team finished in a creditable 7th position but over three minutes away from a team medal. While the three of us had the excuse of being in the depths of marathon training, the take home message was clear. If we want to be in any way competitive in Rio, we will need to up our game.
With little over three weeks to go until I stand on the Olympic startline, there is still work to be done. Amsterdam made that brutally obvious. I have never run a marathon where I have had a clear, uninterrupted lead in phase. At the moment, the body is feeling good and responding well to the marathon training. How it will feel after thirty plus hours of travelling I am not too sure. With a large team of Irish physios in the Brazilian holding camp, I am hopeful that this time, there will be no hiccups.
The nerves will no doubt steadily grow over the next month. However, the marathon, and this phase of my life, will be over before I know it. What happens next, I don’t quite know yet. That is a conversation to be had on the 22nd of August. For now though, it is time to zip up my suitcase, focus the mind and prepare myself to possibly, just possibly, have the race of my life. The last thing my girlfriend said to me before I set off was ‘This is the Olympics. Enjoy every moment of it.’ Yes, I am petrified of ‘failing’ on the biggest global stage of all. That explains part of the nerves. But even more so, I am nervous about succeeding. About what might be. I have heard every reason about why I should not or can not succeed. I’m not black. I’m not African. I don’t do drugs. I didn’t run for the first 18 years of my life. Or quite simply, I’m not good enough. Rarely though, does someone remind me of how, despite the long odds, I just might succeed. Indeed, I am often wary of airing my running desires in public for fear that they be mistaken for arrogance or delusion. It is much easier to put someone down rather than offer support. One of the main strengths of my coach, Andy, is that he has fortified my belief in myself. The knowledge that someone else believes in you is mentally refreshing and stimulating. And over time, others begin to buy into that belief. Friends, family, other runners. The circle widens. As more people believe in you, your belief in yourself continues to grow too. As a runner, I think it is important to not set limitations on your dreams and nor should anyone else.
Before I head off to Brazil, I would just like to say thank you to all those people who have helped me over the past number of years. To the people who have believed in me. The people who have supported me. The people who needlessly went out of their way just to help someone try to achieve their dream. The people that I don’t even know but have shouted for me in races or sent me good luck messages. Thank you. It feels like a long time ago that I phoned Andy Hobdell in 2011 from the Belfast City Hospital medical ward asking him to coach me. His response: ‘If you can keep up with the guys, you can train with us.’ We have come a long way together, let’s see if we can go that little bit further.
Kevin, Mick and I are taking part in the Rio Olympic marathon which takes place on Sunday 21st August at 9.30 Brazilian time or 13.30 Irish and UK time. Perfect viewing to have on while enjoying your Sunday roast! The three of us hope to do you and the vest of Ireland proud. A journey travelled together is a journey worth remembering!