Claire McCarthy: staying up and running after motherhood
Returning to distance running after giving birth is not child’s play, but has real benefits
Claire McCarthy running the Women’s Half Marathon at the 2016 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam. Her selection for London was confirmed last month. Photograph: Karel Delvoije/Inpho
There are now several well-founded benefits for women distance runners returning to their sport after giving birth. As there appear to be in most endurance sports.
There’s the physiological, as in some apparent increase in endurance capacity and cardiac output, and then the psychological, or at least some greater tolerance for pain.
Although Claire McCarthy reckons the benefits are probably more practical, or else something to do with her own persistence. As the mother of four sons – aged 12, 10, six and two – and back training twice daily for the women’s marathon at the World Championships in London in August, the practicalities alone have certainly helped make her a better runner.
“The funny thing is, the harder my personal life, with the kids and that, and the busier I seem to get, the more I seem to need the running,” she says. “And the running just seems to come easier, the busier I am away from it.
“It’s hectic in the house, a lot of time. The oldest boy nearly being a teenager, there’s training almost every night, running, GAA. Then matches at weekends and all that.
“So I think it’s mostly about being more organised with your time. Before I had our first child, if I had to pack a bag for a holiday, I’d still forget everything.
“With a child, you have to be responsible for them, more organised. And that’s the same with marathon racing and training. Everything has to be planned well in advance, worked out. As a mother that came really through, and I think that way made me a better runner because of being a mother. And I think it has helped me enjoy it more as well.”
McCarthy’s own persistence has clearly played a part too: next week she turns 41, which may not make her the oldest competitor in London come August, but possibly the only mother of four, running in her first major global championships after more than two decades of trying. If at first you don’t succeed, etc.
It’s not so much a comeback or sporting revival but simply a late flourishing, or indeed rebirth. Growing up in Cork, McCarthy was always eager for running, racing juvenile with Leevale Athletic Club from a young age, all over the country, partly inspired by her older brothers. Only running for Ireland, she admits, always seemed that bit beyond her.
When her older brother Stephen got a US scholarship to Western Kentucky, McCarthy was again inspired to follow suit, and after finishing school upped her training and then took that leap herself, heading for Kentucky in January 1996, That was 21 years ago. So what happened in between?
“Well, after four years in America, I was still dipping in and out of the sport,” she says. “And then I met Martin, in 2001. Before that, I was very naive about running. He’s always been my right hand man, ever since. He’s taught me everything I know about running, really, up to now.”
That’s mostly because her now husband Martin McCarthy was by then already an international distance runner of considerable repute. Also born out of Leevale AC, and also spending four years on scholarship in the US at Iona (“we lived parallel lives, really, before we met,” she says), he won several senior cross-country vests for Ireland, and won the National Senior Cross Country title in 2003, over a very testing course in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow.
McCarthy finished fourth in the senior women’s race that same day, just missing out on selection for the World Cross Country, and the year after that they had their first child, Hayden, who turns 13 in September: Jordon (10), Adam (6) and Alex (2) then followed, and soon the McCarthys became a family of six, although with Martin now retired from running, the role of international distance runner soon changed hands.
“In 2011, I finished second in the national cross country in Sligo, and made my first Irish team, for the European Cross country,” she says. “That felt like it was the first big jump, at that age too. Then there were some injuries, like in 2013 I completely tore my hamstring off the bone, and that took ages to recover. Not long after that my dad passed away, and that took a long time to recover from too, so 2014 was probably one of the lowest years, actually. So I took another year out and we had our fourth child. And our last, hopefully!”
By then, most mothers of four would have had enough on their plate, particularly approaching their 40th birthday, only McCarthy still wanted to try her hand in the marathon, inspired this time by the prospect of qualifying for the Rio Olympics.
“I only really started back full training in January 2016, aiming for the London Marathon, in April. Your first shot is usually best but it just didn’t work out for me on the day (she dropped out at 20 miles). Then I went to Prague, two weeks later, and ran 2:42:04. So I just ran out of time, really.”
That 2:42:04 was inside the Rio standard, only not fast enough to earn her one of the three Irish qualifying berths; McCarthy was selected for the half marathon at the European Championships in Amsterdam (finishing 48th) and, spurred on by that run, went to Berlin last September eyeing up a London World Championship qualifying time of 2:45:00. She finished in 2:38:00, a personal best by over four minutes.
Her selection for London was confirmed last month, along with Fionnuala McCormack (and three Irish men, Mick Clohisey, Paul Pollock, and Sean Hehir) and since then she’s been back to the daily demands of marathon training from their home in Ballinhassig, just outside Cork city, in and around the daily demands of motherhood.
“It’s been a bit crazy, full-time at home, and the training too. The family support has been great, and Martin’s family are also close by. Three of the kids are in school, and there’s one still at home, so I usually run for an hour, in the morning while he sleeps, or we might get a childminder.
“And then I would do another run in the evening, after Martin gets home from work. But every day is different, and so unpredictable. You don’t know what comes around the corner. One of the boys might get sick, and if you can’t run, you have to just accept it. And look forward to the next day.
“And the Dublin Marathon Mission have been a great help too, the support they give is very important, getting us into races and that, and without that in place I don’t think I’d be still at this level, no. I would have packed it up, definitely. They’ve really helped Irish marathon running, and we’ve seen that in getting the full quota of qualifiers for Rio.”
While she does still “bang” most of her running off Martin, she’s now largely coached by Donie Walsh, at Leevale, who also helped Cork’s Lizzie Lee qualify for the Rio Olympic marathon last year, her running career also going through something of a rebirth after motherhood (Lee has just had her second child).
“Of course we sit down and often bang stuff off each other. But Donie would be my coach, because you can’t really mix the personal, like, with the running. I think there is a fine line.”
McCarthy smiles at the question of whether or not she’ll still chase her own Olympic dream, but she’s certainly confident about improving on her 2:38:00, ideally in London come August 6th.
“But the 2:38 will go, definitely. I think so anyway. There’s more to come beyond London, even if the championship races are different, and you have to just run your own race.
“But I think there is a real excitement building about London. I was chatting to Rob Heffernan, and he feels it’s a bit like going back to the London Olympics 2012, some of that excitement. And at my age, I don’t know if I’ll be around for Tokyo.”
Then again, given her persistence, why not?