It is the last week of December. A time for reflection. A time to stop and take an objective view of everything that has happened in the past twelve months. And, believe me, a lot has happened. Twelve months in which there has been four major championships in the athletics world. Twelve months that have provided the widest spectrum of human emotions possible. From disappointment and heartbreak to euphoria and happiness, never mind everything else in between. The past year has been one that I will remember for a long time to come.
The year had begun without commotion. I had returned home from a distinctly average outing at the European cross country in France and while I was not incredibly fit, I was healthy. My body was in one piece and I was eagerly looking forward to tackling my first goal of the year, qualifying for the Rio Olympic Games. Everything else was put on the back burner. It was time to focus and concentrate. The plan had already been set. It was sixteen weeks until the London marathon. At the start of February, we had picked a local 10k road race, in order to test the speed in my legs. Winning the race in a solid time in windy conditions, against a high quality field, I could clearly document the progression that was being made. Four weeks later and having won my second race of the year, I had also hit the qualifying time for the World Half Marathon championships. The body was feeling strong and we had taken our time in building the fitness. Everything was going to plan. Two weeks before the World Half, I had my last pre race long run, a twenty four miler. Four laps of Bushy Park completed, I lay exhausted at the side of the path. As I stumbled the one mile back to my home, I glanced at the watch. Two hours, six and a bit minutes. I was getting fit.
The World Half championships was, perhaps, my best racing result to date. Finishing 14th in the World, beating some high quality athletes, I left Cardiff optimistic and with a spring in my step. I was fitter than I had ever been and with four weeks until the London marathon, I was ready to race. I was ready to perform. And then the problems started. Five days following the race, I was unable to put weight through my foot without pain. Several scans, injections and long conversations with the coach later, the painful decision was made. I would not be running the London marathon. With six weeks until the Olympic selection meeting took place, it was to be forty long days and forty even longer nights. There were tears, there was frustration. To be in such good condition physiologically and yet not be able to run was the toughest part to accept. I had done all the hard work, all the tough sessions and all the long runs. The only thing left to do was actually run the race and now, that was not to be.
The days leading up to the selection meeting were stressful. With nine athletes having qualified for three available slots in the marathon, it was always going to be a close call. I will never forget the hour spent sitting on the sofa, waiting for my phone to ring. I was going to the Olympics. The realisation took a while to set in. By the time the selection meeting had occurred, I was back in training. With the European Championships half marathon at the start of July, it was a race against time to see how much fitness I could savage by raceday. With appeals against my selection ongoing, there was to be an added pressure to the race. Despite the fact that my name was not even the last one on the team sheet, having been the second choice out of three, I had been singled out by an athlete’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport. The other two athletes selected were not even mentioned. While I do not begrudge any athlete trying their utmost and pursuing every avenue to reach their dream of the Olympics, I felt that things had turned extremely personal towards me. Thoughts of performing well at the European Championships was no longer the priority. As long as I was the first Irish finisher, I felt that my point would be made. Finishing over a minute ahead of the next Irish athlete, in my mind it was job done.
With the CAS appeal being heard three days before I was due to fly to Rio, I was trying to not get distracted from training. It had been eight weeks since the original selection meeting had taken place and it was still hanging round my neck. My head told me that there was no chance that I could be deselected, especially so, since the athlete who had been selected for the third and final place during the selection meeting was not even mentioned in the CAS appeal. After eight long weeks, the CAS quickly made their decision. Not only did they not have jurisdiction over the decision made by Athletics Ireland but even if they had, they would not have changed the original selections. I could finally say with certainty, I was going to the Olympics. It only cost Athletics Ireland directly, a sum in excess of £75000, as a result of all the fees associated with going to CAS.
The Olympic experience was like no other. From the relaxed atmosphere of the holding camp to the nervous energy surrounding the Olympic village. Every competitor had their own story, each unique and compelling to listen to. With the marathon on the very last day, there was little time to celebrate afterwards. The race itself went as expected. Finishing 32nd, I ran much to form. I had wanted to come into the Olympics ready to show off my talents to the world. With the build up that I had had, it was sadly not to be. I was always chasing fitness, trying to get back to where I had been rather than pushing on to new ground. And at the world level, if you are not at a certain level of fitness, you will be found out. However, I came away from the race, with fantastic memories and a desire. A desire to push forward, to do better. To prove to others that 32nd at an Olympics is not as good as I can be.
I returned home, eager for a break but also eager to get back into training. I was ready to go straight into the hard work again. I raced every other weekend, mostly for enjoyment, for I love the atmosphere surrounding race days. With each race, I was getting stronger and fitter. Normally, December is the time to look forward and determine the goals for next season. However, being in the midst of marathon training the plan is already in motion and the goal for the Springtime quite clear. I want to do better than what I have done before. In 2016, I was the first Irish athlete in four major athletics championships and unbeaten by any Irish athlete on the roads. After a year of ups and downs, I have to be delighted with how everything has turned out. Now it is time to see what 2017 has in store.