Hat-trick of victories fails to bring new mark for McKiernan

 

On a day which added a whole new dimension to marathon running, Catherina McKiernan illustrated her claims to a place among the great long distance runners of modern times by winning the Amsterdam marathon in two hours 22 minutes and 23 seconds.

With the wind gusting and the threat of rain never far away, to add to the hazards of surface water on the road, McKiernan kept her rhythm and her composure to improve by one minute 21 seconds on her previous best, in winning her third consecutive marathon.

It still wasn't good enough to erase Tegla Loroupe's outstanding record of two hours 20 minutes 47 seconds from the book but in every other respect, it was a deeply reassuring day for the runner from Cornafean in Co Cavan.

In finishing 14th overall in the mixed race, she had more than seven minutes to spare over the next woman finisher, Silvia Oberem-Krolik of Germany. Moreover her time improved by no less than six minutes 49 seconds, on the course record which the Japanese athlete, Yosh Yamamoto established in 1993.

Even impressive statistics like that, however, don't adequately reflect the merit of a performance which on more clement days, would almost certainly, have taken her inside the figures Loroupe set at Rotterdam in March.

For 30 of the 42 kilometres, she cut her way through the wind and occasional rain to such effect that for all the hardship imposed by the weather, she was right on schedule for the record bonus of £350,000 at that point.

The next 5,000 metres it was believed would make or break her attempt on history and sadly, the answer was negative. Blown about by the wind, she lost her stride shortly after passing the 33 kilometres mark and in that moment, she sensed that her quest for history would be on going.

From a situation in which she had a cushion of precious seconds to sustain her in the early part of the race, she drifted 30 seconds off schedule going through 35 kilometres and in these kind of conditions, there was no way back for her.

Even as some of the bounce left her legs, she was still battling, still competing in the final quarter of the race and it was not until she approached the 40 kilometres station, that she finally conceded, the record would have to wait for another day.

"People were still shouting at me at that stage, still urging me on but I knew the score," she recollected. "But I still owed it to myself to get to the line as quick as I could and I was delighted to achieve a personal best.

"This is not a day for disappointment. I've finished another marathon, I've won another marathon and I'm that much farther down the road in learning the event. This time, I can honestly say that I had no bad patches. I was alert and composed and enjoyed the race from start to finish.

"I don't have the physique to cope when the wind hits me head on and when it did, it felt as if I was being pushed backwards. But my pacemakers did their job well and it was good to have Gerry McGrath running with me for the first 13 miles."

Throughout the first half of the race which took her 70 minutes 13 seconds, 10 seconds inside schedule, McKiernan was swallowed up in a group of 10 male athletes and there was just the occasional sign of agitation as runners, in search of the spotlight, joined her group of four pacemakers. To make things positively claustrophobic at times.

One by one they fell away, however, and in the end it was left to the leading Dutch athlete, Michael de Maat to give her a lead as she dredged up every last ounce of strength over the last four kilometres. In opting to attack from the start, McKiernan was undeniably gambling and while she paid for her daring in the closing stages, it was a valuable learning experience.

"We always believed that we could get the world record at some stage, now we're pretty certain of it," said her coach Joe Doonan. "We had to find out the hard way just how fast she was capable of going. It was, of course a risk but in an event which can only be run twice a year, you have to learn the hard way - in competition out on the course. And the encouraging thing was that, she didn't fold.

"That, singly was the biggest bonus for us on the day. She went with the pace from the off and was still strong enough to push on over the last kilometre or so. We have to be gratified by that."

The graphic evidence of just how difficult conditions were, was provided in the sad spectacle of Martin Fiz, the former World and European marathon champion, limping out of the race at much the same stage as McKiernan got into trouble.

After encountering problems at one of the drink stations, the 35-year-old Spaniard, a veteran of so many top class races, was dropped by the two Kenyans, Sammy Korir and Simon Bor and his compatriot, Alberto Juzdado. Eventually, Juzdado went the same way leaving the Africans to dominate yet another big race.

Bor, an unlikely man in an unlikely situation, hung on like a limpet for the next three kilometres but gradually, perhaps inevitably, Korir pulled away to repeat last year's win in a splendid time of two hours 8 minutes 13 seconds.

From an Irish perspective, there was the encouragement of a fine run by Tom McGrath who running on his own for most of the journey, claimed a share of the prize money by running into fifth place in two hours 18 minutes 59 seconds.