Every person has many strings to their bow. Their own attributes, their personal successes and their individual failings. Each string represents a portion of who that person is and the interests on which they choose to spend their precious time. For the past number of years, I have chosen to spend a large portion of my life in training to become quicker, faster and stronger. Waking up in the morning, my single goal was to become a better athlete, so that on raceday I would be able to perform to my best. But it was not always so. My life was never always consumed with athletics, indeed it is only relatively recently that it has become so.
I started university in Belfast in 2004, studying medicine and graduated a long six years later. I had two Irish athletic vests, one from scraping onto an Irish European junior cross country team in 2005 and another one from 2008, again from the European cross country, this time at U23 level. I was never good enough to make a senior team or track championships. Indeed, the thought that I might ever become an Olympian was not a realistic dream. Medicine was my life and while, at times, I may have complained about the job, it was my passion. As I gained more experience, my enjoyment also grew as I became more involved in my medical career. But then I contacted my current coach, Andy Hobdell, and running entered my life. My vision of the future changed and the pull of becoming an Olympian took over. I achieved that goal last August, as I ran in the baking heat down the wide street of the Sambodromo in Rio. It could have been the natural conclusion to an athletic career. I could have gone back to medicine, picked up where I had left off and been quite happy working in an emergency department somewhere throughout the UK. But yet, I know I would not have been truly happy.
I have never understood how a runner can retire. How they can wake up one day and say enough is enough. I can understood, with not much difficulty, how someone does not want to do the training anymore. How they have finally given in to the pain of training and the many miles on the road. I do not understand though, the need to give up racing, to turn their back on something that is so intrinsic and so internal. I run because I love to run. There will come a time when I am not as competitive as I am now but I hope that I will still continue to run with friends to keep fit and compete, simply, for nothing more than the love of racing.
On the flight home from the Olympics, it was a strange feeling. I was happy and could take comfort in the fact that I would forever be an Olympian. There was however, a niggling fact that I had unfinished business. I felt like I still had much more to give and if I were to end it there and then, I would still question if I had really achieved my potential. With the World Championships, the next major championships, still twelve months away, I decided that I wanted to keep pushing forward with the running. After a solid nine months of training behind me, just as I was to begin marathon specific training, my luck was to change. In May, I suffered a recurrence of my hip labral tear from three years previously. The believed cause was quite simply, twisting in the wrong way as I stood up out of my car. Having already qualified for the World Championships marathon, I was not keen to give up that easily. By the middle of June, I was able to start back training. With little more than seven weeks until race day, time, or more precisely the lack of time, was a major factor. The miles and pace increased exponentially, once I was given the green light after the labral tear.
It was two weeks before raceday, and somehow, I had managed to get back into a level of fitness in which I believed I could do myself justice in the marathon. The nerves of being able to produce a performance on a world class stage were well and truly growing. With having such a short phase of training, the need for a taper was dramatically reduced. With only one tough session remaining, that was when things began to go wrong. It started the day before the session, on a rare easy five mile run. As soon as I started, I felt a bit of a dull ache in my foot. As the run progressed the pain began to grow. Trying to be sensible I stopped at the three mile mark, and knowing that there was nothing to be gained by finishing the five miles, walked back to my house. As I warmed up for the session the next day, the ache was still there. I lasted thirty seconds into the first rep before I had to stop with intense pain. It took me a long time to hobble back to my house. An MRI the following day revealed the news that no runner ever wants to hear. I had a stress fracture on my left foot’s third metatarsal and an even worse one on my second. With the fracture extending from the base halfway into the bone, every time I was going up onto my tip toes the fracture line was opening a little bit further. The only treatment available was to rest. While there was an option of numbing the pain via injection fifteen minutes before the marathon start-time, the risk of causing potentially career ending damage to the foot was too great. Instead of running around the streets of London, being supported by friends and family who had already booked to make the journey over, I was on the sidelines with them. Cheering Mick, Sean and Claire through their races, the atmosphere was electric at points. It only served to add to my frustration and disappointment.
For the past month, I have been crosstraining on the bike. Each day, I walk out of the gym leaving behind a small swimming pool around one of the bikes. Surprisingly, I still feel relatively fit and the pain in my foot has begun to ease. The recovery is one that cannot be rushed and with fifteen weeks until this year’s European cross country championships, I am in no hurry. As I returned to work in the Belfast emergency department, my passion in medicine has grown again. I know how fortunate I am to have the option of medical work, for when things go wrong with the running. So while, for now, medicine is taking priority, once my foot has healed it will be back to the grind. As always, my determination is strong, perhaps even more so now. I know what I want to achieve, I just have to make sure that my body stays in one piece until I get there.