The aloneness of the long-distance runner


SPORT: CATHERINA McKIERNANreviews Miles to Runby Ian O'Riordan, Boglark Press, 239pp, €15

NEAR THE BEGINNING of this book Ian O’Riordan refers to distance runners as slightly mad. As a distance runner I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of being described as such. But as the book went on I began to realise that maybe I am, after all, slightly mad.

A great characteristic of Miles to Runis that it isn’t about any one individual, or one person’s experience, although it includes insights into the running lives of many athletes, like Eamonn Coghlan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Ronnie Delany, Roger Bannister, John Treacy, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie and this writer. In a way it manages to explain to the outside world who we are and what we are, vindicating our hermit-like existence to achieve, and why running is an addiction.

But this is not a book that cheerleads the glittering careers of famous athletes. Instead it focuses on the background work and the sacrifices made to reach the top. And in doing so O’Riordan doesn’t hold back in giving a raw and sometimes unflattering account of the route they took to achieve success.

He talks about his dad, Tom, who hailed from a farm in Tubrid, Co Kerry. In 1957 Tom gained an athletics scholarship to Idaho State University. But the airfare was prohibitive, forcing Tom’s father, Jack, to sell two of his prize cattle before the air ticket could be printed.

I was particularly interested in the section about Delany. When Ronnie retired he could never run around his native Dublin because people would try to race him. Having retired from competitive athletics, I can associate with this. This is where the author, himself a dedicated runner, manages to get inside the mind of the athlete.

There is a passage about the great Czech runner Zatopek and his extreme training regime, covering 420 x 400m repetitions in the space of a week. Then there is the account of Frank Short getting drunk the night before winning his gold medal in Munich in 1972.

Unlike the authors of other running books, O’Riordan, who is an Irish Timesjournalist, explains the technology and science involved in running in a very simple, reader-friendly way. For the uninitiated, he talks about everything from the idea of altitude training to ice baths and how coffee can help endurance runners. He also tells a very funny story about the day he had a session of cryotherapy at minus 110 degrees.

Br Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary living in Kenya who has coached numerous Olympic and world champions, is quoted in the book as saying “sport is the person, not the facility”. The area of Eldoret in Kenya, where a lot of world-beaters come from, has a pure rundown dirt track with cows grazing on the infield. I found this chapter particularly interesting as someone who had limited facilities here in Ireland during my career. The book tells a few great stories that demonstrate that if you are mentally strong the sky is the limit.

Miles to Runis timely. Running is going through a boom, with record numbers training and competing all over Ireland. “It’s not really the loneliness of the long-distance runner that attracts us, but rather the aloneness and the freedom that comes with it” is a line that sums up what running means to me.

I really liked this book. It is a great read and explains why running is so important to so many, why it gives peace of mind to people. The anecdotes about famous athletes’ eating and drinking habits will interest readers, while aspiring runners will gain plenty of insights.

As a former athlete, now retired but who still goes for six- to eight-mile runs every day, this book helps justify this daily routine while managing to make me accept that I am – we are, as distance runners – slightly mad.

Catherina McKiernan is a four-time world cross-country silver medallist (1992-5). She is the Irish marathon record holder and winner of marathons in Berlin, London and Amsterdam. She also competed in two Olympic Games, in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996). She is now a Master ChiRunning Instructor