Life is not an inexhaustible well as some athletes will tell you


ATHLETICS:Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything only happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.

Paul Bowles didn’t exactly have running in mind, or hurdling, or indeed walking, when he wrote that in The Sheltering Sky and narrated himself in the closing scenes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s beautiful film version – but like the sun that rises and sets and hurries around to rise again it’s the backdrop to all our lives.

And because the hardest decision any athlete faces – with the possible exception of facing a syringe full of EPO – is when to retire, the important thing is to know when everything has happened that certain number of times, and you’re absolutely certain about it. Ecclesiastes puts it nicely, too, that no matter how much we see, or hear, we are never satisfied, so there is nothing better than to be happy in our work, for that is what we’re here for, and no one can bring us back to life to enjoy what will be in the future, so enjoy it now.

There is nothing more enjoyable in this sport than watching an athlete on the rise, filled with the superabundance of energy that Tolstoy so admired, lost in the simple aesthetic appeal of their event, and nowhere is that more evident right now than in Brian Gregan. He’s just turned 23, last New Year’s Eve, and three weeks ago, on the gleaming new Indoor Arena in Athlone, ran 46.07 for the 400 metres, still the fastest in Europe this season. Gregan backed that up with a brilliant win in Ghent last Sunday, running 46.73 in a more tactical race, beating Belgian’s finest Jonathan Borlee, and also Luguelin Santos, the London Olympic silver medallist, from the Dominican Republic.

Hopes to emulate

Gregan is back in Athlone this weekend, at the National Indoor Championships, running the 200m as a sharpener for the European Indoors, set for Gothenburg on the first weekend in March. There, he hopes to emulate David Gillick, our former two-time European Indoor champion over 400m, and win or lose that title the important thing is for Gregan to enjoy it, like all journeys, because these things only happen a certain number of times.

Just ask Gillick. Or, indeed, Derval O’Rourke. Now just a few months shy of 32, O’Rourke came face-to-face with retirement after London, like a lot of athletes, wondering if that once inexhaustible well of competitiveness had run dry.

Everything only happens a certain number of times, and impossible as it is to believe that it’s now seven years since she produced one of the great performances in Irish sport, winning the 60m hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, O’Rourke has a very small number of races left to run.

Gothenburg could well be the last of them, but she’s also in Athlone this weekend, and may run the 60m flat, plus the hurdles, where victory would give her a record 12th Irish indoor title. That she’s still here at all is not just about testing again the inexhaustible well, but because O’Rourke is and always has been a fighter, that ultimate sporting compliment. What happened in London wasn’t the fairytale ending, but if O’Rourke didn’t still enjoy it, she would have retired a long time ago.

Breakthrough year

It’s often forgotten how badly beat up she once was, after that breakthrough year in 2006, enduring two dismal seasons back-to-back, before rising again to win European Indoor bronze, in 2009, and follow that with a fourth place finish at the World Championships in Berlin.

That was, possibly, O’Rourke’s best year – even if she ran quicker again in 2010 – although not for the first time, she found herself eclipsed at the end-of-year sporting awards, although this time rightfully so, by Olive Loughnane. Anyone who witnessed Loughnane win the silver medal in the 20km walk, at those 2009 World Championships in Berlin will never forget it: down by the old Brandenburg Gate, hot and crowded, and when the walking got tough, Loughnane got going. It was a display of pure courage and determination only witnessed in Irish sport a certain number of times.

And to anyone who’d tracked her career closely it was a perfectly just reward – for her persistence after finishing 35th in the Sydney Olympics, failing to finish in Athens, taking leave to give birth to daughter Éimear in 2006, before an excellent eighth place in Beijing in 2008, then the major championship medal that every athlete aspires to.

Now a few months shy of 37, Loughnane had already flagged London as the likely end of her career. She might have got another year out of it, but because life, after all, is not an inexhaustible well, there comes a time when you just have to get on with it. O’Rourke’s time will come soon, and Gregan’s sooner than he thinks, because even when it all seems so limitless, and you can’t even conceive your life without another race, everything only happens a certain number of times.

Just ask Oscar Pistorius.

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