Sonia O’Sullivan: preparation key as Sinéad Diver romps Melbourne marathon

41-year-old knocks over six minutes off her personal best as she breaks course record

There is no such thing as running the perfect marathon but Sinéad Diver has come pretty close. The first-placed woman in the Melbourne marathon on Sunday morning, running 2:25:19, a course record, Diver knocked over six minutes off her previous best. She is now the second fastest Irish-born woman of all time.

Only Catherina McKiernan’s Irish record of 2:22:23 is faster, set 20 years ago, although these days Diver is running for Australia, the 41-year-old mother-of-two moving here from her native Mayo in 2002 with her husband Colin.

It was a fantastic performance and an exciting race to watch unfold.

The temperatures were already in double digits when I left home at 6am to travel along the bike paths aiming for the 5km mark. Initially it was perfect conditions for about the first hour, there was even a cool breeze off the Albert Park lake and in the midway stages along the sea front of Port Philip Bay.

The race start was at 7am and it wasn’t uncomfortable for the athletes in singlet and shorts: no need for extra layers, just turn up ready to run. In recent months Diver has been training with Melbourne Track Club athletes, throughout the winter months and it’s been a pretty cold, windy and wet winter. The only escape was a few weekends away to races in Sydney, the Gold Coast and Adelaide – a welcome few days of warmth and sunshine.

In her build-up she won nine races and set two course records and five personal records, across four different distances.

The evidence was clear in training and racing that she was in good form: the only question was the marathon distance, which can sometimes throw up curve balls even for the best prepared athletes.

She was also the clear favourite to win the prize of AUS $20,000. The other question was would she double her earnings by producing a course record, which had been held by Lisa Weightman since 2013 at 2:26.05?

Diver was escorted for much of the race by Melbourne track club athletes Stewart McSweyn and Jack Rayner, who has matched Diver winning the same races throughout the Melbourne winter. He had just returned from winning the Commonwealth half-marathon championships in Cardiff last weekend in a superb time of 61 minutes.

At 37km, with just over a parkrun to go, Sinéad was on her own, already the first woman on the road by some considerable distance (and eighth best overall in the field of 30,000 men and women). The gaps were big and she really had to put her head down and grit it out over the final incline through the Botanical Gardens, before dropping down to St Kilda Road with the finish line in sight after one final lap of the hallowed turf at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

With halfway reached in 1:12.38, the record looked within her grasp, but the temperatures were rising and a warm northerly wind was gaining momentum as the course turned back from the sea. After a drop in pace through the blustery wind, Diver was able to pick up the pace in the final kilometres and surprise herself as she crossed the line 46 seconds under the previous course record and so collected the AUS $20,000 bonus.

You can’t do all the running by yourself and expect to compete at such a high level, which is one of the reasons this year she stepped outside her comfort zone and joined training sessions twice a week with international track runners. She also included longer, difficult runs on the weekend in the Dandenong ranges with Melbourne Track Club athletes.

Her winning time of 2:25.19 would be competitive in many marathon races around the world, her winning time was just under 22 minutes ahead of the second placed female runner, a full 5km in distance. The European marathon was won in 2:26.22 this year in Berlin, the World Championships last year was won in 2:27.11.

When you know you can run faster than Championship times then it gives confidence lining up in World Championships and Olympic Games.

The big target for Diver now is the Olympic marathon in Tokyo 2020. She would dearly love to represent Ireland, but having already represented Australia at the World Championships – due to tougher standards set by Ireland in 2015 – there may be a few too many hurdles to cross to ensure Olympic selection, and getting the preparation right without too many distractions along the way.

*Sinéad Diver's 2:25:19 is second fastest by an Irish woman, behind Catherina McKiernan's 2:22:23 in Amsterdam in 1998; Carey May moves to third with her 2:28:07 from Osaka 1985, while Sonia O'Sullican is now fourth fastest with her 2:29:01 from London in 2005.

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