The wind picked up on the last lap and the country roads felt increasingly unforgiving and still Aoife Cooke has zero complaints, after aiming for and then smashing the Tokyo Olympic marathon qualifying time with victory in the Cheshire Elite Marathon on Sunday morning.
With no Olympic fanfare, and her first and likely last chance in over a year, Cooke was just under a minute inside the necessary Tokyo standard of 2:29:30, improving her personal best by almost four minutes to 2:28:36 in winning the women’s race, also moving her to number four on the all-time Irish list, only the fifth Irish woman to break 2:30.
The sunny, dry conditions were otherwise ideal but still it was a big task for the Cork runner: the elite-only event was run without any spectators 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.
It was also Cooke’s first marathon since Dublin 2019, 18 months ago, where she also won the national title that came with being the top Irish woman, her 2:32:34 a then 14-minute improvement on her previous best. This was a whole new level again.
“Absolutely thrilled with that result,” she said. “Things got tough, over the last few miles, the wind seemed to pick up, it got a bit warmer too, but to finish under the qualifying time by a minute is phenomenal, so delighted.
“I definitely felt it over the last few miles, faded a small bit, but that’s the marathon for you. So I was happy enough with the game plan, banked the few minutes there to have that bit of leeway.”
Indeed Cooke started out at 2:27-pace, her Tralee-based coach John Starrett confident she was in that sort of shape: after passing halfway in around 1:13:30 she did slow slightly in the closing miles, but never once fell off the qualifying time.
“I was lucky to be in good group most of the way, could tuck in a little bit. It was just about grinding it out at that stage. It was only on the last lap I was running on my own for quite a bit. The surface was hard enough on the legs, being country roads, but look no complaints at all, and so grateful for the organisers to put on the race, after such a long wait. I would have run a marathon anywhere at this stage.”
In truth it was over a year coming, Cooke originally targeting Vienna this time last year, before Covid-19 took care of all the big city spring marathons. Although it doesn’t yet guarantee her selection, the Cheshire event will likely be one of the last likely qualifying chances for Tokyo before the May 31st cut-off.
With that in mind there was proper heartbreak for Ann-Maria McGlynn, who like Cooke improved her best in the 2019 Dublin Marathon, clocking 2:32:54. She too improved by over three minutes, clocking 2:29:34; so agonisingly close but just outside the 2:29:30. Having turned 41 in February, it was a no less impressive run for the Donegal woman, though little consolation perhaps given she too was on pace for much of the race, a toilet break in the final miles possibly costing her.
For Cooke, who averaged just over 5:40 per mile (dropping to 5:30 at mile 11, and 5:31 at mile 18, slowing a little to 5:50 in mile 24), the attention will now turn to Sapporo, 800km north of Tokyo, where the Olympic marathon and race-walking events are set for this summer.
“It’s really exciting, I’ll take a few days off next week, then look forward to another block of training, with the Olympics in mind. Up to about 22, 23 miles everything felt good, then the legs starting hurting that bit more than Dublin, but that might have been just the road surface. The legs are definitely sorer now than they were after Dublin, but effort-wise, and aerobically, it felt more or less similar to Dublin.”
Her 2:28:36 is now fourth best Irish woman behind Catherina McKiernan (2:22:23), Fionnuala McCormack (2:26:47), and Carey May (2:28:01), and moves her ahead of Sonia O’Sullivan (2:29:01). McCormack was the only other Irish woman so far qualified for Tokyo, in line for her fourth Olympics, after she ran 2:26.47 in the 2019 Chicago marathon.
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, also unlikely it seems to be ousted by a faster time at this point.
At age 34, still perfectly young by elite marathon standards, it also continues the unique 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 been no turning back on that journey either.
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, except Sunday, on which she does one very long run.
The day didn’t go entirely to plan, the return ferry on Sunday evening cancelled which meant a Monday morning return, her next overseas trip likely to be to the Olympics.
Meanwhile, competing at the MultiStars combined events competition in Lana, Italy, Kate O’Connor improved her Irish heptathlon record with a tally of 6,297 points to finish second in a world-class field – with that putting her firmly in line for Olympic qualification. O’Connor set personal bests in four out of seven events to add 204 points to the Irish record.