Irish athletes are facing a race against time and opportunity in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic marathon, the worry being not just where to run, but whether that run will even happen.
With the normally busy spring marathon calendar effectively abandoned for another season due to Covid-19 – London, Boston and Paris among those postponed to the autumn – a handful of elite-only races present the last chance before the qualification cut-off date of May 31st, given the nature and distance of the event that’s fast becoming a sprint.
Three Irish men – the full quota per event – have already achieved the qualifying standard, although they are not yet officially selected. Stephen Scullion, Kevin Seaward and Paul Pollock all hit the necessary mark over a year ago, unlikely, it seems, to be ousted by a faster time at this point.
Fionnuala McCormack remains the only Irish woman qualified, in line for her fourth Olympics, after she ran 2:26.47 in the 2019 Chicago marathon. McCormack gave birth to her second daughter in December, and has now resumed full training in the build-up to Tokyo.
Two more Irish women still have Tokyo very much in mind, and are targeting the elite-only Wrexham marathon in Wales on April 25th. Aoife Cooke won the national title that came with being the top Irish woman in the 2019 Dublin Marathon, clocking a personal best of 2:32:34. That moved her from 55th to fifth on the Irish all-time list, and within touching distance of the Tokyo standard of 2:29:30, with possibility also of still qualifying via the ranking quota.
The 34-year-old from Cork was all set to race the Vienna marathon this time last year, before that fell victim to Covid-19, and, despite the long and uncertain wait, is for now on course at least to give Tokyo her best shot in the unlikely surrounds of the seven-lap course in Wrexham.
Also running in Wrexham is Ann-Marie McGlynn, who improved her best to 2:32:54 in Dublin in 2019, and then ran 2:35:41 in Valencia last December. Mick Clohisey is also down to run in the Welsh event, the 2016 Olympic marathon representative eying the men's standard of 2:11.30, which will require some improvement on his best of 2:13:19.
Of the three Irish men’s qualifiers already, Stephen Scullion is the fastest, thanks to the 2:09:49 he clocked at the elite-only London Marathon last October, over two minutes faster than his previous best, and 11th best in a strictly elite field of the world’s finest marathon runners.
While Scullion’s time was actually outside the Tokyo qualifying window (suspended between April 5th and November 30th, 2020), it stands as the fastest official Irish marathon. John Treacy’s Irish marathon best is still considered the 2:09:15 he ran when finishing third in Boston back in 1988, although for world record purposes Boston is considered a slightly downhill course, and therefore not deemed eligible, according to World Athletics.
Although ratified at the time, Treacy's only other sub-2:10 was the 2:09:56 he ran when winning silver at the LA Olympic marathon back in 1984. Scullion was just inside that in London, his 2:09:49 bettering his own 2:11:52 run in fifth place in Houston back in January (also his official Olympic qualifier by virtue of a top-five finish in a Gold Label marathon such as Houston).
Kevin Seaward put himself first in line for selection after clocking a lifetime best of 2:10.10 at the Seville marathon, in February 2020; Paul Pollock clocked his qualifier in December 2019, in the Valencia marathon, a new personal best of 2:10.25, and also inside the automatic Tokyo time.
That marathon – and race walking events – will be taking place in Sapporo, 800km north of Tokyo, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deemed the conditions there to be less gruelling come the height of the Japanese summer.