The main difficulty in standing at the finish line of the Dublin Marathon is that every one of the 15,000 runners who begin passing by has their own story to tell. The starving elation. The hysterical exhaustion. The naked satisfaction. And all while mainlining pure endorphin.
Which means looking for the one story to somehow best capture it all. Not long after Pauline Curley crossed the finishing line of Monday's race she provided exactly that, a story of not only why she runs but why, for most marathon runners, there actually is no finish line.
Her story, in case you missed it, was being the first Irish women’s finisher – the Dublin Marathon also doubling as the National Championships – when clocking 2:49:29. There was nothing exceptional about her time, although at the age of 46 years and 231 days, she’d broken the record as the oldest ever winner of a national title in the 143-year history of Irish athletics championships.
The previous record had stood to Danny McDaid, who won the 1980 national marathon title at the age of 42 years and 24 days: some 35 years later, by the way, he's still doing a bit of running. But then age, as Mark Twain liked to say, is an issue of mind over matter: if you don't mind, it doesn't matter.
That’s not the only reason why Curley is still running well into her 40s, slowing down a little yes, but turning back the clock in other ways, particularly her body clock. She drew immediate comparisons with her past achievements, such as running the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing, or winning her first national marathon title in 2005, saying that Monday “equals all of that again, given where I was coming from”.
That’s because she had undergone knee surgery, during the summer, and while that injury never threatened to be career ending, it gave her a greater appreciation for still being able to do what she wants to do at the age she is. Curley, in other words, runs not just because she wants to or needs to but simply because she can.
Distance runners have always been blessed in this way. Indeed most of them never actually retire, they simply slow down. Mainly because they’re spared most of the acutely traumatic career-ending injuries associated with contact sports. That doesn’t mean they still don’t like to push themselves in new and challenging ways.
This is also what set Curley’s story apart. Since her early 20s she’s represented her club, Tullamore Harriers, on the track, road and cross county and also tasted some international success when she was part of the Irish women’s team that won the bronze medal at the 1997 World Cross Country Championships in Turin (with the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan for company). The assumption, if not expectation, is that once she reached her 40s she should retire, Curley didn’t see it that way.
Indeed that assumption is changing, as more women's distance runners continue to compete on the international stage aged well into their 40s. Last Sunday, Britain's Jo Pavey set an over-40 world best for 10 miles of 52:44 when finishing second at the Great South Run in Portsmouth, at the age of 42. The week before that, in Chicago, Deena Kaster, also aged 42, set an American over-40 best in the women's marathon, running a quite astonishing 2:27:47. Kaster was actually the top American woman in Chicago, and is now eyeing up a qualification spot at next summer's Rio Olympics.
Sports science has never been very exact, or indeed presented much conclusive proof, but it would seem that athletes such as Curley and Kaster are setting fresh limits not just for themselves but for women distance runners in general.
Also finishing not far behind Curley in Dublin on Monday was O’Sullivan, 15 years after winning the women’s race outright, in a strictly non-competitive 3:03:31.
Now, one month before her 46th birthday, O’Sullivan is talking about coming back to Dublin next year and trying to break three hours. Again, for no profound reason other than because she can, for the sheer pleasure of it and perhaps because of the fear that the day may eventually come when she won’t be able to run anymore.
Indeed the greatest fear of any athlete must be the traumatic career-ending injury. All athletes eventually realise that nothing lasts forever, no matter how much raging against the dying of the light. Because then for every Pauline Curley, an athlete extending their career above and beyond all limits, there is a Felix Jones, his story of abrupt retirement this week providing the coldest possible contrast.
At age 28, the news on Wednesday that he’ll never throw or kick another rugby ball must have hurt like a bomb. Jones hasn’t lost a leg or an arm or indeed something worse although it will feel that way – for a while at least. No athlete cut down in their prime like that can simply walk away without experiencing a strangely unquantifiable loss.
“It is still unthinkable to believe I will never play another rugby game,” said Jones, after confirming the neck injury he sustained in Munster’s Pro12 win over Glasgow earlier this month was indeed that acutely traumatic career-ending sort. He made 90 appearances for Munster over the last six years, won 13 caps for Ireland. He’ll no doubt find a new challenge in life, although Jones also admitted that “to accept that I will not play with my team-mates again is beyond upsetting”.
It doesn’t actually matter if it’s an individual or team sport: for any athlete, not being able to do what you want to do at the age you should be still doing it must be beyond upsetting. Most marathon runners don’t realise just how lucky they have it, even while mainlining pure endorphin.