‘You have to get up that morning and lace those shoes – words don’t teach, life experience does’

Irish Olympian Catherina McKiernan explains how anyone can become a runner

Catherina McKiernan finishing the Women’s Mini Marathon in 2014. Photograph: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Catherina McKiernan finishing the Women’s Mini Marathon in 2014. Photograph: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

 

Like many people over the lockdown, a chef in Co Dublin took up running.

He started in March, 2020, with the Couch-to-5k app, working his way up to a 45-minute run, before eventually completing a virtual half marathon. And, not only did he lose 5st, but he also realised that up until March, 2020, he’d been stuck in a rut, that he didn’t want to be a chef anymore, that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do. And so, he studied to become a driving instructor, happily following his true ambition.

“How would you explain it?” asks Catherina McKiernan – Irish Olympian, European Cross Country champion, winner of London, Berlin, and Amsterdam marathons, and the current Irish marathon record holder – after telling me the story of the chef-turned-driving instructor. “Running makes people feel more their true nature, it relaxes them, gives them time on their own to think. That’s why there’s so many people out pounding the streets now.”

Catherina McKiernan celebrates winning the 1998 London Marathon.
Catherina McKiernan celebrates winning the 1998 London Marathon.

Running, jogging, or walking, have always been accessible to the masses, only requiring you to put on runners and leave the house. This rang especially true in the year gone, where the gym, swimming pools and pitches were often reserved for the professional athletes, if at all. Running became a rediscovered hobby for some, and newfound for others.

“I live beside the Phoenix Park, and it was unbelievable to see the amount of people out running, especially in the springtime when the weather was nice and the evenings were bright,” McKiernan says.

While running is accessible, it isn’t always simple. The lay runner might be able to spot the newcomer from their clothes, but McKiernan can immediately spot those who are new to running by how they hold themselves. “The new runners are easy to spot, but I don’t like to be critical! You’d like to stop them and give them advice. I teach people good mechanics for running [in her one-day workshops], to make it easier so there’s less impact on their body.”

Getting injured

Almost a year into the pandemic, those who may have (re)discovered running may be currently feeling the physical brunt, incorrect form leading to injuries. “That’s the unfortunate thing in a way, people could get a few little tips to help make running easier on themselves and unfortunately they don’t do that, and get injured. They get the bug for running but injuries can stop them for a while, it can be very demoralising for them.”

Running is a part of people’s lives currently in a way that it probably has never been before, one of the only ways of exercising safely and relieving stress. “Even if I never competed, I would have run anyway. I loved the feeling of confidence, wellbeing, calmness, quiet time by myself. That’s why so many people run. They love the feeling that it gives them.”

That feeling of calmness is something McKiernan has worked on for years, one of the first Irish runners to incorporate the practice of Chi running – a combination of Tai Chi principles of focus and flow with the power and energy of running – into her training. “It’s something I was always interested in. You learn to: run with better posture; become more relaxed; land better; put less pressure on joints and hips; be more mindful of your body. The beauty of it is it gets you into this quiet place, where you block everything else out in your life. It takes a little bit of focus, ‘Where is my foot landing? Where am I holding tension in my body?’ It’s a mindful practice, it gets you into the moment, where you’re not thinking of what happened yesterday or tomorrow.”

Rena Buckley (left) and Briege Corkery (right), with Catherina McKiernan, who was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Women's Sport Award at the Irish Times Sportswomen of the Year 2015 awards. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Rena Buckley (left) and Briege Corkery (right), with Catherina McKiernan, who was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Women's Sport Award at the Irish Times Sportswomen of the Year 2015 awards. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

While some – like myself – may need to be distracted by music or podcasts while running, McKiernan reckons it should be used as a time to slow down, to use running as an almost meditative practice. “With Covid we’ve had to pull back a little bit and slow down, and there’s no harm in that. It helps us spend more time in that quiet area and move on from that rather than rushing, rushing, rushing. It lets you take stock, even for just 15 minutes a day, where you’re out on your own, completely present in what you’re doing.

“We know that’s the best place to be, the present moment. We’re always looking for distractions in life and there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s more healthy to sit there and become more aware of your breathing, quieten that mind, as opposed to having noise all the time, in your mind or other distractions, get more in tune with yourself.”

Anyone can run

And yet, methods and mindfulness aside, anyone can have success in running, whether that be an Ironman or a stroll within 2km, as long as they actually want to. McKiernan herself is testament to this. “A journalist came to Cavan and saw where we did our strength training, and called it a ‘glorified shed’ and she was probably right! You don’t need all the big fancy places. You need the desire, the hunger. That’s all. Everything else will fall into place.”

McKiernan would know, given that this was the reason for her own retirement from professional running. “I lost the desire needed to compete. I still loved to run and everything about it, but I didn’t want to put in the hard work that was needed.

“We can’t put excuses in our own way. If you have the hunger and the desire to get up early every day and train hard, your path will be laid out for you in that things will happen for you, but you need to have that hunger.”

“It’s not about facilities in any sport,” she adds. “Look at Jack McCaffrey [speaking on the Bernard Brogan podcast], he still had the facilities, the backroom team, had training partners, he himself lost the hunger, that’s what it boils down to at the end of the day.”

Ultimately, whether you’re an elite athlete missing competition – “keep working towards goals, no doubt there’ll be plenty of races in time” – or a beginner , you can run, says McKiernan. “If you have that hunger to get up and put on the gear and get out again in the evening, you can do it. I know that deep down that if you want it you can get it. At the end of the day you have to get up that morning and lace those shoes. Words don’t teach, life experience does.”

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