Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning in Africa a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up you’d better be running.
Somebody, somewhere once attributed this to Roger Bannister, when no way would a man of his intelligence and, indeed, running prowess have given such plaudit to either animal or beast.
Even without his medical grounding Bannister would likely have known that neither gazelles nor lions are up early in the morning: gazelles don’t actually go to bed at all, but rather snooze for a few minutes throughout the day, and lions typically hunt their prey at night. As it turns out gazelles are probably quite safe around lions when the sun comes up.
It must be 10 years already since making that whim decision to get half-fit again before my next birthday, and with that headed off to Iten, the small village that lies perched at 7,875ft on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, to live, eat and train like the Kenyan runners for a few weeks.
Safe to say we never once saw a gazelle or a lion running in the morning, although we did see loads of other people, up and out at 6am when the sun comes up for the first of their sometimes three daily training runs.
It was also during this time in a small concrete house belonging to Brother Colm O'Connell that we sat around an old television set to watch Fionnuala McCormack – running then as Fionnuala Britton – win the 2011 European Cross-County Championships some considerable distance away in Slovenia.
McCormack, then aged 27, had finished fourth the year before (given the same time as the bronze medal winner) only she made no mistake this time, running away from the front “with all the smoothness of a gazelle and fighting strength of a lion”, as Brother Colm duly noted.
Her victory came 17 years after Catherina McKiernan won the inaugural European Cross-Country in 1994, and the following December, in the freezing Hungarian air somewhere outside of Budapest, McCormack went one better, the first woman to win back-to-back titles, while also leading the Irish women’s team for a first ever set of gold medals.
Hearing Amhrán na bhFiann played twice, in quick succession, made for one of the most memorable days in the long history of Irish athletics, and the night too.
Some of our athletics aficionados were up until the wintry dawn, still assessing the performances in the hotel lobby, as they do, only to catch McCormack heading out into the sunrise for her morning run not long into the morning after. To anyone who knows her it was just one small measure of the woman. There is an added honesty about the morning run beyond the mere commitment to success: it invariably happens away from the spotlight and any attention, thus without immediate recognition or reward, exactly the way McCormack likes to do all her best running.
There’s been a lot of talk already this year about more women in Irish sport getting the recognition and plaudits and respect than they deserve, and it is true, only it’s not always all about that either. There are those who simply don’t want and never will go looking for it, who would rather let their success and achievement be judged on merit alone, man or woman, and there’s no finer example of that than McCormack.
Now aged 37, and a mother of two, McCormack is set to extend her women’s record of Irish international caps in athletics to 42, assuming Athletics Ireland do the obvious thing and select her for next month’s European Cross-Country in Dublin. That would also mark her 17th appearance in the event, from junior upwards, more than any other woman in European athletics history.
McCormack has decided against competing at the National Cross-Country in Santry this Sunday given she’s not long back to full training after improving her half-marathon best to 69.32 in Valencia last month. Yet in her words she “can’t resist the allure” of that home European Cross-Country in Abbotstown on December 12th, and with that is putting her hand up for selection. Between the now combined inter-club and inter-county events, she’s already won nine senior cross-country titles, the most recent in 2019.
Lots of noise is made around international caps in other sports, and for good reason, and given distance runners typically only get three or four international chances per year, McCormack’s achievement should perhaps be speaking louder too: she’s raced beyond both Sonia O’Sullivan (33) and Derval O’Rourke (32), and only javelin thrower Terry McHugh with his outright record 48 Irish caps lies ahead.
In running the marathon in Tokyo she matched O'Sullivan and Olive Loughnane as the only Irish female athletes to compete in four Olympics, and with Paris 2024 closing in fast she's got every chance of qualifying for number five.
When she lined up in Chicago in 2019, a month after her 35th birthday, she produced one of the runs of her life, finishing a superb fifth in 2:26:47, carving almost four minutes off her personal best.
Were these championships staged as originally scheduled last December, McCormack would have missed out given she was pregnant with her second daughter, and she’ll be central again to the Irish women’s medal chances, leading them home to team silver with her fourth place in Lisbon 2019 (her fourth fourth-placing in the event). She also has a European indoor bronze to her name from 2013.
McCormack rarely does much talking outside of her running, and when she does it’s inclined to come straight from the heart and the head. Like when World Athletics approved the Nike Vaporfly technology in 2019, she said “they were weak and it makes me sad, to me that’s not what the sport is about”.
Likewise when World Athletics was slow to amend its transfer of allegiance rule which unquestionably cost her medals – most infamously when Yasemin Can won the European 10,000m title in Amsterdam in 2016 for Turkey just over four months after completing her transfer from Kenya – McCormack, who finished fourth in the same race, didn't hide her feelings, declaring "it's a joke, really, the exact same every f****** time".
Just because athletes like McCormack don’t go looking for the plaudits or attention to match their success and longevity doesn’t mean they’re any more or less deserving of it. They’re simply of a different nature, in her case knowing when the sun comes up over her home in Wicklow she’ll always be running.