The MS Stena Adventurer left Dublin Port at 8.15am and among the few passengers sharing the early morning glory of the sunny crossing is Aoife Cooke. In her backpack which she'd just checked for the millionth time is a pair of running shoes and her vest and shorts. These, along with the stopwatch around her left wrist, is all she needs to keep on chasing her Olympic dream time.
On Thursday afternoon she'd left her home in Tower, close to Blarney, about 12km west of Cork city and drove on her own to Dublin. She stayed overnight and before sunrise on Friday morning met up with another Irish marathon runner, Breege Connolly, and together they drove for the ferry leaving time to spare.
On arrival in Holyhead just before noon they drove the 130km to Chester, checked into their accommodation, then went for a previously booked test for Covid-19. Hoping and not assuming that will come back negative, Cooke will do little more than a light run on Saturday before shifting all of her focus and energy to Sunday’s Cheshire Elite Marathon, which starts at 8:30am and is almost certainly the last chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic marathon.
It’s actually happening in Pulford, a small village 15km southwest of Chester and right on the border with Wales, the marathon route of 42km – or 26.2 miles in old money – set over 7½ laps of a flat, rural countryside loop. The course and timing is approved by World Athletics and Cooke will need to improve on her personal best of 2:32:34 by just over three minutes to hit the women’s qualifying standard of 2:29:30. There will be no spectators and no Olympic fanfare whatsoever: it will also feel a very long way from Sapporo, 800km north of Tokyo, where the Olympic marathon and race-walking events are set for the summer. And still there’s nowhere else Cooke would rather be in the here and now or there and then.
Every Olympic journey from a sprint to the marathon begins and ends somewhere, some over short hard months and others over many long years. After another week where almost all the talk around Tokyo this summer is not why they should still proceed but why they shouldn’t it might be tempting or simply easier to turn back, only Cooke has come too far and is still so close to even contemplate such a move.
Also running in Cheshire is Ann-Maria McGlynn, who like Cooke improved her best in the 2019 Dublin Marathon, clocking 2:32:54. For Connolly, who ran the Rio Olympic marathon five years ago, qualifying for Tokyo will require a more considerable improvement on her best of 2:37:29, and likewise Mick Clohisey, who is looking to run the men's standard of 2:11.30.
What brings their marathon Olympic journey together and sets it apart is that it’s beginning all over again. All four Irish runners were eying up the big city spring marathons in 2020, before Covod-19 took care of that business. Cooke was originally targeting Vienna, and while she did manage to get in one 10-mile road race in Waterford in February of last year, her last marathon was Dublin in October 2019, 18 months ago. She also won the national title that came with being the top Irish woman, her 2:32:34 a 14-minute improvement on her previous best, moving her from 55th to fifth on the Irish all-time list.
At age 34, still perfectly young by elite marathon standards, that also picked up on a running journey that first took flight when Cooke was only 17, following the well-worn trail of Irish athletes taking up a US college scholarship and ending up in Russellville, deep in the heart of the southern state of Arkansas, home to Arkansas Tech University. That journey was later halted due to injury and overtraining, only once she rediscovered her love of running there’s be no turning back on that journey either.
Three Irish men – the full quota per event – have already achieved the Tokyo marathon standard: Stephen Scullion, Kevin Seaward and Paul Pollock all hit their necessary mark over a year ago, and are unlikely it seems to be ousted by a faster time at this point. Fionnuala McCormack remains the only Irish woman so far qualified, in line for her fourth Olympics, after she ran 2:26.47 in the 2019 Chicago marathon.
Cheshire is being put on by Michael Harrington, who realised the normally busy spring marathon calendar was effectively being abandoned for another season due to Covid-19 – London, Boston and Paris among those postponed to the autumn. So rather than sit around and do nothing, what might be done for those athletes still chasing that Olympic journey before the May 31st cut-off? The 350 runners will set off in four waves, some running the half marathon distance, and for Cooke, to hit 2:29:30 will mean running just over 3:30 per km (or around 5:42 per mile, in old money), which she knows from training is possible, only won't know until racing just how probable.
Running twice a day
She’s also been funding this journey entirely off her own back, working about 30 hours a week as a personal trainer, while running twice a day, every day, expect Sunday, on which she does one very long run. The only daily allowance for being an elite athlete was being able to train beyond a 5km radius from her home. She paid for the race entry fee and the Covid-19 test on the basis the whole thing may not even go ahead, could be cancelled out at any moment, and when set against all that talk of why the Olympics shouldn’t proceed as planned begs one obvious question: why?
“I’m so just grateful to get the opportunity,” she tells me. “It’s been such a long time coming, it was all so uncertain for so long, and it was only two weeks ago that this race was fully confirmed, so there was a strong possibility there wouldn’t even be this chance. So I’m just really excited, a little nervous obviously, and grateful too for Michael Harrington, who had the foresight, in fairness, pulled out all the stops to get this up and running. So I’ll go out to enjoy it, make the absolute most of it.”
The forecast for Sunday is fine, all the running in the legs and uncertainty over the last year ready to be spilled out over the rural Cheshire countryside, where this one marathon Olympic journey will either begin or end, before dreamtime begins all over again.