Zurich this week, Brussels last week, Lausanne the week before, there is something old and familiar about moving between these places at the end of another athletics season, even if my own racing days are long since over.
What happened in Brussels last Friday night took me back further still, being there to witness Ciara Mageean finally break my Irish 1,500 metres record, which had stood to me since July 1995, set in Monaco in my last race before the World Championships in Gothenburg, and winning there over 5,000m.
In some ways a lifetime ago.
That the record was broken on top of a terrific victory, Ciara winning at the penultimate meeting of the 2022 Diamond League, the Memorial van Damme, also made it that bit more of a special occasion for both of us.
Her winning time of 3:56.63 – breaking the four-minute barrier for the first time, improving her previous best of 4:00.15 set in 2019 – took two seconds off my 3:58.85 from 1995, which back then was the only sub-four 1,500m time that entire season.
Things have changed in some ways, still it’s a significant barrier broken. Because for 27 years the record lasted, and Ciara has been the only real threat to the record over all that time.
Back in 1995 Ciara was just three years old when I was racing around the tracks of Europe, and running below four minutes for 1,500m was a rare occurrence. I first ran sub-four in 1993, taking the Irish record to 3:59.60 in Monaco, then ran 3:59.10 in 1994, and after two sub-four times in 1995, only ran one more, in 1996.
This year so far, 16 women have cracked that four-minute barrier, which shows how much the event has moved on, especially from 1995, even though the world record at the time of 3:52 stood since 1980 to Tatyana Kazankina of the old USSR, and had many raising their eyebrows in disbelief.
We also raced a little differently then. Back in Monaco in 1995, all I was thinking about was how am I going to win this race. Even if you were trying to run fast, you knew what the pace might be like until halfway, but I did have sub-four in the back of my mind, because I remember I was well clear of everyone else, they started to close on me, then I kicked again into the straight and got away.
I remember Joe Schmidt telling me a few years ago how the specificity around rugby training, aimed at what you’re trying to achieve, is evolving all the time. I’d also be switching in between 800m and 5,000m, ranked up there in those events too, whereas you can’t really do that so much now.
It’s no longer so common to be a middle-distance runner that can cover all events from 1,500m to 5,000m, not with the specificity required to properly master one event. These days the 1,500m requires very specific training and focus now just to be competitive with the best runners in the world.
Everybody has that feeling where you know that records will be broken someday. Still you want to hold on to it for as long as possible. When it does go, though, you are happy, and I was delighted to see it broken that way, with Ciara winning, rather than finishing fifth or sixth in a very fast race. The way she broke it, winning in style, the fourth fastest in the world this year, she absolutely deserved it.
It’s also catapulted Ciara right up there among the higher echelon of current 1,500m runners, and when you beat these top athletes, you start to think you’ve got the upper hand. The confidence gets such a boost, Ciara can start to think now about global titles, she has to believe she can continue to compete with Laura Muir, who has always been in that mix in recent years. You just keep doing the same things, but just getting better at it, once you figure out what works.
Later I was back at the warm-up area, which is a bit down from the King Baudouin Stadium, as I knew Ciara would be back at some point, and wanted to see her. So I waited around, saw her jogging some laps, and I just backed out into the field and stopped her. It was only after when Ciara asked to get a picture, because I always forget, and she whipped out the Irish flag, a very special moment.
I think some of my other records, 8:21.64 for 3,000m, or 5:25.36 for 2,000m, may be a bit harder to break, though I’m sure Ciara will give them a rattle at some stage. Because Ciara running 3:56 is not as crazy as some people seem to think. Like 63 seconds per lap is not that hard for the 1,500m specialist to run, spreading the effort across all four laps.
To me it was no surprise she would at the very least break four minutes for the first time when she has been in the best shape of her life. With renewed confidence and belief after recently winning silver medals at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, behind Muir, who has run under four minutes 20 times already, since 2015.
Then you break it down, Ciara ran the most perfectly balanced race and as she said herself it was one of those races where you are in the zone and everything just falls into place. First lap 63 seconds, a 64, then another 63, before closing in 46 seconds for the final 300 metres, or 62-second pace. When you are passing athletes, running towards the finish line, not hanging on, the flow is smooth and you avoid that feeling of tying up, or giving hope to those behind you.
As much as I could see that Ciara was going to close in on my record, one always hopes it may last a little bit longer. Now that the dam is broken the times will come crashing down and others will see hope and opportunity in the future. Just like the sub-four minute mile was once deemed impossible. Once Roger Bannister cracked the code in 1954, by 1981 there was 40 athletes running sub four minutes. This year so far 144 men have run under four minutes for a mile, many still only teenagers, so the extraordinary becomes normal and expected over time.
At the same time it felt like a weight off my shoulders to pass on the record that I have been holding on to for so long. I have followed Ciara’s career from when she won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in 2010 and broke my junior 800m record way back in 2009. When athletes are so good at a young age there is no guarantee that they will convert the talent and be able to combine it with the work and commitment required to fulfil the expected potential at senior level.
It makes Zurich this evening, the Diamond League final, so much more interesting again, where just 10 athletes will compete in the women’s 1,500m, with the crown of Diamond League champion on the line.
It’s the very best in the world, Faith Kipyegon the two-time World and Olympic champion from Kenya, Muir again, plus Gudaf Tsegay from Ethiopia, the World 5,000m champion. I don’t think Faith will be chasing the world record, though maybe close to 3:52 is possible.
This will be Ciara’s World Championship race, as she missed out on Eugene earlier in the year. It’s not easy for an athlete to pass up on a Championship event as Ciara did when she was recovering from Covid. She is reaping the rewards now for being patient and sticking to a well thought out plan.
She will be in among them in Zurich, and I have no doubt will run fearless again, even if her name is now standing out a little bit more on the start list than it was just a week ago in Brussels. Right where she always wanted to be.