Experienced Maria McCambridge enjoying a new lease of life
New training regime has given Dublin Marathon holder a renewed appetite for running
Noel Carroll always said it’s not the distance that kills, it’s the pace. There is another rule the founder of the Dublin Marathon might have added which says it’s not the age that counts, it’s the experience.
Because at age 39, Maria McCambridge is considered a little old by elite distance running standards. Yet she actually feels younger, fitter, and more motivated than ever, more ready to make all her experience count in Monday’s Dublin Marathon – then ideally on to the Rio Olympics, in 2016.
“Well I certainly feel I’m in the best marathon shape of my life,” she says. “And I also feel like I’ve fallen in love with running all over again, that there is still some life in left me. Because I did go through some hard periods there, dark days really, where I struggled with the motivation, questioned if I had any future in the marathon, and got very disillusioned.
“Then it just clicked again, the love came back, and a big part of that is because I feel like I’m running right for the first time in my life, doing the right training. Now, it’s just a question of executing it all on Monday. But I’ve certainly enjoyed the build-up, and feel like I have that experience behind me now.”
Indeed consider that experience: running since age 14, as a schoolgirl in Mount Anville in south Dublin; four years on a running scholarship in Providence, Rhode Island; running with the Irish team that won World Cross-Country bronze medals in Dublin, 2002; running the 5,000 metres at the Athens Olympics, in 2004, at age 29.
Only after all that, at age 33, did McCambridge consider running her first marathon. That was in Dublin, in 2008, where she paced herself almost perfectly to clock 2:36:33, finishing as the best-placed Irish woman.
A year later she improved her best to 2:35:29, and even at age 34, her marathon career appeared to be just taking off.
Then she experienced the heartbreak of missing out on the London Olympics, despite running the qualifying standard: four Irish women had qualified, and the selectors opted for the three younger (and less experienced) runners. No one actually said it, but McCambridge was considered a little old.
“I did enjoy last year’s race, even if that summer had been a bit of a disaster for me, dropping out of the World Championship marathon in Moscow.
“But I really wanted to do Dublin. I knew it was a unique opportunity, and it was brilliant to win it. At the same time I didn’t think I ran well. It was a bit of a struggle to finish. I’d made my debut in 2008, with high hopes of really loving it. Instead, it had all stagnated – so had my motivation.”
She never felt like quitting, because McCambridge will always run: it helps that her husband Gary Crossan is a runner too (himself a former four-time Irish marathon champion), but she’d taken a year out, in 2011, to give birth to their son Dylan, and it was becoming a little harder to justify the long hours of training, especially as it was proving less enjoyable.
“I just felt something had to change,” she says.
So she parted with her coach Dick Hooper, a former three-time Dublin Marathon winner, and after an almost accidental encounter with Chris Jones, Athletics Ireland distance coach, at a warm-weather training camp last spring, he now sets out all her schedules.
“Chris has got me working with heart-rate monitors, running at the right pace. I do three key sessions a week, and the rest is very relaxed, very easing running. So it’s mainly been about doing longer stuff, longer runs, longer sessions, but allowing for longer recovery too.
“Before, I just couldn’t run easy. I could never run a seven-minute mile. I had to be running six-something miles. Even when I was running pregnant. Now, it’s all about running at the right pace, and not always stressing my body. Before, I was always trying to force it, hammering really, thinking I needed to be running this fast.”
Indeed she’s upped her distances, running between 110-115 miles a week, and adding some over-distance runs of around 27 miles, but again allowing for longer periods of recovery. The ultimate test of it all will come on Monday, although she recently ran a half-marathon best of 72:25, in Cork, and despite her age, and all her years of experience, only now is she understanding what it feels like to run injury-free.
“All through my 20s, and 30s, I was getting injured. Now I’ve added some strength and conditioning, and that has definitely helped. And I do feel very competitive again. The confidence is back, too. I want to push myself again, and not just go out to try to win.”
So, if McCambridge knew at 19, or even 29, what she knows at 39, might things might have worked out differently?
“But I don’t know if I’d have been able to listen then,” she says. “You always know better at 19. Now, I’m more relaxed about it. Before this year, I couldn’t accept that you can run over seven-minute miles, in training. To me that was a waste of time.
“But I do need Monday’s race to go well, to still justify living the dream, of Rio, I suppose. Gary is working full-time, but we still live on a shoestring, because we both want to be involved in running. So Monday is critical for me in deciding if I keep going to Rio. It will answer a few questions. Hopefully they will be good answers.”