Two Irish women went stride for stride towards athletic greatness
McKiernan and O’Sullivan appeared when Irish women’s athletics was crying out for a star
Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan at the start of the Bupa Great Ireland Run in the Phoenix Park in 2004. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
We were sitting on the marble steps outside a big hotel in Boston when we first made eye contact. She was over for the weekend to run the World Cross Country at Franklin Park, and even at age 22 some people reckoned she might do something special. Every top distance runner in the world was and wanted to be there.
I was two years younger and a college sophomore, and just off the Bonanza Bus from Providence with five dollars and a folded up copy of The Dharma Bums in my pocket. The only way of getting to Franklin Park was to sneak onto another bus with the proper runners, and one of them turned out to be Catherina McKiernan.
It was March 1992, and Irish women’s athletics was crying out for a big star, someone who could follow or even rival the likes of Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn, John Treacy, Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Mara.
There is one more bus story from that day, in the proverbial sense, because in tracing the trail back to Franklin Park that’s when we properly realised two such stars had come along at the same time.
Here’s the scene: it’s coming into the last stretch of the final lap and Catherina has stunned the entire field and briefly breaks clear, only to be passed in the sprint to the finish line by Lynn Jennings, the two-time defending champion, who grew up not far away in west Massachusetts. In was a hard and fast race and she beat Catherina to the line by just two seconds.
In finishing second Catherina won the first senior global athletics medal by any Irish woman, ahead of Sonia O’Sullivan, who finished in a still very impressive seventh place that day, over a year before she won the first of her senior global medals at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993.
So properly begins too the running careers of these two great athletes, born just two days apart, and which ran not always entirely or smoothly parallel but shared the same sense of destiny even if they differed in exactly how they went about fulfilling it.
They shared the international stage on several occasions afterwards, and still share that rare acknowledgment of first-name recognition: Catherina and Sonia.
What ultimately helped set them apart were those differences: Sonia both courted and ignited a little more recognition by the very nature of her career, and Catherina never minded that in the slightest. For years the last thing she ever wanted or needed was any sort publicity.
It can’t always have been easy for Catherina to advance her running career parallel to Sonia, and at times perhaps vice versa, but it wasn’t in either of their nature to allow even a moment of contention. It mightn’t have been so easy if their greatness had somehow been in greater conflict, which by destiny or otherwise it never really was.
Catherina was perfectly content to run and win races for the sheer pleasure and personal satisfaction of it all, which she did with increasingly impressive dominance. The last thing she would want is any fuss over her 50th birthday either, only she won’t get away so easily here.
Like he did for Sonia’s 50th birthday on Thursday, Irish athletics statistician Pierce O’Callaghan has compiled the complete list of Catherina’s races for her 50th birthday today (Saturday), and it makes for equally impressive reading.
That second place in Boston was the first of four successive silver medals won at the World Cross Country, from 1992-95, only narrowly denied gold in each of them, but winning the outright IAAF Challenge each year, and she also won team bronze in Turin 1997, finishing seventh, Sonia two places behind in ninth.
Catherina continued with a series of first in Irish women’s athletics: the first Irish woman to win the European Cross Country in 1994; the first Irish woman to win the Berlin Marathon in 1997; the first Irish woman to win the London Marathon in 1998; and still the fastest Irish woman’s marathon runner of all time, her Irish record of 2:22:23 still standing from her victory in the Amsterdam Marathon in 1998.
She also won 16 Irish senior titles, set eight national records, including a record 10 in cross-country, and when she moved to the roads in 1997 she was mostly unbeatable: in 1997 she ran 13 races and won nine; in 1998 she also ran 13 races and won them all except for one.
Like Sonia her career was also twice briefly stalled to give birth, to daughter Deirbhile and son Patrick, and like Sonia she has never stopped running either, still making the medal podium of road races in Dublin earlier this year.
Their backgrounds were a little different, Catherina’s properly rural in Cornafean, Co Cavan, Sonia’s a little more urban in Cobh, Co Cork. They had to overcome different obstacles too in fulfilling their destiny, Catherina given a strict ultimatum between running and camogie at school, Sonia in surviving a series of injuries while in college at Villanova.
There are some echoes of all this in the other close tale of destiny and greatness of Irish sport, Seán Kelly and Stephen Roche. Born not two days apart but 3½ years, Kelly and Roche – in their case first names rarely required – made their rivalry, as much as their shared talent, their driving force. That rivalry was typically perceived as equally gracious when it was often the opposite.
Both Kelly and Roche (who incidentally turned 60 on Thursday) appeared on the Late Late Show in January 1982, hosted by the late Gay Byrne. Roche was presented as the stronger light: in public Kelly said nothing, in private he was seething.
“I was the guy who was out there and was performing, and then Roche rocks up and he wins Paris-Nice and he wins Tour of Corsica and a few races...when there’s somebody pushing in there and getting the exposure that does definitely make you work harder, and say to yourself ‘I have got to get butt out of the saddle’.”
Catherina and Sonia were at times also driving each other. They last shared the international stage at the European Cross Country in Edinburgh in 2003, part of the senior team that won silver medals, Sonia in fourth, and Catherina in 34th, fitting because that’s where it all began.
Back in 1987 they both ran the Irish Schools Cross Country at the Mullusk playing fields in Belfast, Sonia winning the senior girls’ race, Catherina finishing ninth.
I know that because I was also there, warming up for the boys’ race, too shy to look either of them in the eye.