Lizzie Lee on age, motherhood and the road to Berlin
‘The marathon is not a young women’s game’ - Lizzie Lee is almost 38 and a mother of two
Lizzie Lee in action at the European Cross Country Championships in Slovakia. Photograph: Inpho
Most athletes will tell you that age is but a number, and Lizzie Lee is certainly no exception. She turns 38 next week, and nearly two years on from running the Rio Olympic marathon, and 11 months after giving birth to her second daughter, she’s back training at full tilt for the European Championships in Berlin in August.
She’s not alone either: Lee is one of five Irish women selected for the marathon in Berlin, and not only have they an average of 38, they also have 11 children between them: another small step or perhaps even one giant leap for gender balance in sport.
“Look at the all the major marathons, and the average of the top women is 33, 34,” says Lee. “ And we’ve just seen Des Linden winning Boston at age 34, in her sixth attempt.
“The marathon is not a young women’s game. Yes, you have some 22, 23 year-olds, but to me, the marathon is so mental and so physical that you only really get to know it as you get older. I’ve had two babies, and can tell you that at the end of a marathon you’re head goes to places that it will never go to at any other point.
“And in endurance running, in the second half of your 30s, there’s no reason why you can’t still be improving.”
Joining her in Berlin will be Breege Connolly, 40 earlier this year and who like Lee developed late in her career to qualify for Rio; Gladys Ganiel, a mother of one, is 41 and Claire McCarthy, a mother of four boys, turns 42 next month. Laura Graham is the youngest at age 32, and also a mother of four.
Lee’s first daughter Lucy (now three and three-quarters) was born in late 2014, and she came back in late 2015 to run her fastest marathon (2:35:51 in Berlin), qualifying her for Rio (where she finished 57th); her second daughter Alison was born 11 months ago, and the Cork woman sees no reason why she can’t run faster again. She’s also a full-time employee of Apple and that hasn’t slowed her down either.
The age thing hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. Writing in her column in this newspaper last week, Sonia O’Sullivan acknowledged that “it’s fantastic that these women are still running at a level where they can qualify for the European Championships”, only “not at a high performance level on the European and world stages,” and then asked: “where are the younger women with less miles in their legs, aspiring to not just represent Ireland but to be competitive at international level?
While Lee isn’t critical of O’Sullivan’s comments, she points towards the bigger picture: one sure way of improving Irish women’s marathon running is to create more depth, and in turn more incentive for the younger women to progress at the same rate.
“And when was the last time we had five women capable of breaking 2:40?” she asks, “regardless of their age? I know the Irish record is 2:22, which Catherina McKiernan has run, and is an outstanding time, but let’s go for some depth, because what happens with depth is a snowball effect, more women aspire to it, see the possibilities.
“I also visit schools a lot, and there is a problem keeping young girls involved in sport. Image is a part of it, and in some case they’re just not bothered, and don’t realise the benefits. So the more encouragement we can give them then the better.
“I also think we have a group of young Irish women who are getting better all the time, all targeting the 10,000m in Berlin, and who’s to say they won’t target Tokyo for the marathon? And Laura Graham is 32, with four children, and getting faster all the time. What’s wrong with that?”
Indeed Lee herself ran her fastest half marathon time of 73:19, in Valencia back in March, just eight months after giving birth. She’s also previously pointed to some of the benefits - perceived or otherwise - of running competitive marathons after childbirth. There is still some debate as to how pregnancy may help women distance runners in the long run; red blood cell count does increase, improving endurance and oxygen capacity, although Lee is sure it’s given her some advantage.
Her longevity may also be explained by the fact she came to running late, aged 26, and still has the desire to train despite the work and family obligations: “For me that’s what works, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course my two girls are the most important thing in my world, and if everything is right with them, my running will go well. But it’s an efficiency thing with the training, military style organisation.
“After giving birth to Alison, I was swimming after three weeks, got back running after six weeks, and just got the joy back. You can’t plan anything being the pregnancy. But she’s been the dream. I was getting a full night’s sleep from 12 weeks on. The motivation came back with that too. It just went from there.”
Her Olympic experience in Rio not only lived up to all expectations but surpassed them, although that doesn’t mean she’s considering Tokyo, not yet anyway; although her age then - 40 - will still be but a number.
Lee was speaking at the launch of the 2018 SSE Airtricity Dublin marathon, set for Sunday October 28th, part of the theme of which is to celebrate women’s participation, linking with the nationwide commemoration of Vótáil 100. Constance Markievicz, a key campaigner for Irish women’s voting rights, will appear on all finishers’ medals.
Some 15,000 of the 20,000 places for Dublin are already filled, the rest selling out fast. For race entries see www.sseairtricitydublinmarathon.ie