The last thing Aoife Cleary either expected or set out to do was to win. Appearances in running, as in any sport, can sometimes be deceptive, and Cleary didn’t even look like your usual winner.
The yellow floral running top, lime green shorts, pink headband, and Beats-style headphones. No super bouncy running shoes either. More than that, the delightful smile across her face, which by all accounts she never once broke from during the Irish Life Dublin Half-Marathon last Saturday morning, 13.1 miles and uphill sections and all.
Only win the thing she did, Cleary the first woman home in one hour, 18 minutes and 11 seconds – over three minutes ahead of second place, and 25th best overall in the race of just over 8,000 runners. In the bright autumnal sunshine of the Phoenix Park, she was in every running sense a breath of fresh air.
“So many people were commenting afterwards on me smiling the whole way around,” she says. “Only to me, that’s what running is all about. Running is about enjoying every moment, taking it all in, and there was so much about last Saturday, a beautiful morning in the Phoenix Park, people in great form, no Zoo traffic on the road, all that was so smile-worthy.
“For me running is also so much about connecting, it’s such a magical movement. Anyone can run, and can run anywhere, and it connects you with your body, your breathing, and it doesn’t have to be an intense thing, just connect with the place around you.
“And if you’re not doing something which makes you smile, that’s what confuses me, because why would I be out there on my Saturday morning if it didn’t make me smile?
“But I was so shocked to win, hadn’t a clue I was in the lead. It was only towards the end, a camera crew started following me, giving me the thumbs up. At that stage I had been running alone, but I was so surprised, and delighted, yes.”
Cleary is telling me this a few days after her win, from her home on the Waterfall Road on the outskirts of Enniskerry village. She doesn’t, however, confine her running to Wicklow: at least half her weekly total of around 100km is done on the treadmill at the West Wood gym in Leopardstown, close to her workplace at Microsoft Ireland, or else on the roads from there out around Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey.
At 27, she’s only now embracing any competitive element to her running. Her 1:18.11 on Saturday took three minutes off her previous best, run in London at the end of April, now eight minutes faster than she’d run at the start of this year.
It’s also all relatively new: “I would have been very insecure in school, was bullied a little bit early on, so didn’t like any sport really, was so scared of being bad. Which is why later, when I wanted to start some exercise, it was running, because you could do that on your own, at your own pace.
“It started just by being outside, being free from everything. Free of screens, of numbers, so I’d run and walk around the area, mostly walk up the hills. Then just before Covid, I got my first smart watch, could see the pace I was running sometimes, and thought ‘oh!’ My mum as well said I was running some good times.
“Then Covid really changed things, because running was the only thing you could do, to find some freedom, again away from the screens and all that. And my first half-marathon would have been the virtual one, during lockdown, down along the Powerscourt river walk. I ran it 1:38, something like that. Then I started setting little targets after that, listening to running podcasts, on nutrition, things like that.”
All the while, however, she was careful not to make it an obsession: “That’s what I’d encourage anyone who is just getting into running. We’re all obsessed with numbers, people checking their watch every minute, and are so attached to the outcome, they miss the process and all the magic going on around you.
“Miss the blue sky, the warm breeze, that connection with nature. I always say that, connect with your body, and your breathing. Even connect with any negative thoughts, which all helps keep on top of your mental health so well.”
So, she has no coach, no club, runs mostly alone, and for now at least has no desire to get too competitive about things; least of all the full marathon. “I’ve thought about the marathon, ever since first running the half, but I just don’t think it’s for me. I love the freedom and flow of running, and when it gets to over an hour and a half, I just don’t feel that flow any more. It starts to take its toll on the legs, the bones.
“And I’ve no interest in running a marathon once, just to say ‘I did it’. No one cares.”
She briefly worked with a coach before but now prefers the freedom of coaching herself: “Except I like to run off my own feeling, my own intuition, know when I’m able for more, or not. I just couldn’t follow any plan, because for me, it’s more about waking up and doing what my body feels like, or if the sun is shining, I like that freedom.
“So I coach myself now, meditate twice a day as well, keeping the mind happy, because you won’t enjoy running if the mind isn’t happy.”
Saturday’s trophy and prize didn’t matter much either, except that she immediately donated her winning €500 to Enable Ireland, and a GoFundMe account she set up for her cousin.
It’s not the cost of the super shoes that puts her off, simply the feel: “I did buy a pair of the Nike Next % once before, and all they did was give me mad blisters, on a short run, so I sold them on Depop. I’m happy for now in my regular Under Armour HOVR, the older version, which sell for around €50.”
As for Beats-style headphones, for Cleary running with some music in her ears only enhances the enjoyment part.
“I’d made a playlist for the race earlier on the Saturday morning, having my coffee, songs like Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac, Wildest Dreams by Taylor Swift. And decided it shouldn’t be any longer than 1:20, because I wanted to run under 1:20. And running to your favourite songs, flying along, there’s nothing like that.”
Saturday’s win has perhaps stirred a little more of her competitive instinct: “I’m looking at the Galway Bay half-marathon, next weekend, partly because it’s on my birthday. I’d love to run all over Europe, run a half-marathon in every country, would love seeing new places through running like that.
“I am on Strava too, and love to talk about other peoples’ running. But I prefer to run alone, mostly because I’m quite an extrovert as a person, outside of running. It’s the time of day I can be in my own little dream world.”