Plan comes together for Fionnuala McCormack

Jemima Sumgong wins Kenya’s first ever gold medal in the women’s marathon

Even for a city famous for its street carnivals this was wild and beautiful, and in the end turned into a parade of women in various states of agony and ecstasy, each one loudly celebrated as they ran up the final stretch of Marquês de Sapucaí and into the Sambódromo.

To see three Irish women among them - Fionnuala McCormack leading the way in an excellent 20th place - only added to that sense: nothing captures the spirit of the Olympics more than the marathon, and if there is any value left in de Coubertin’s old motto then it spilled out here in all its glory.

There could only be one winner, Jemima Sumgong actually becoming Kenya’s first ever gold medallist in the women’s Olympic marathon, although for so many of the other women, it was more about the taking part.

Getting back to the Sambódromo - the permanent parade ground for the annual Rio Carnival - having completed 26.2 miles in the sweltering heat, was certainly no easy achievement: of the 155 starters, 33 failed to finish, and what made the Irish performances extra satisfying is that they all improved over the course of the race, McCormack moving from 73rd place at 10km to run her way into the top 20.


“Yeah, it’s nice to be top-20,” said McCormack, the Wicklow woman also improving her marathon best by 22 seconds, clocking 2:31:22. “The best part was I had a plan, and it paid off. In one way I’m thinking should I have got harder at the start, but I’m not sure I could, because I still slowed down anyway, it’s just other people slowed down a bit more. I think everyone knew we had to be a little conservation at the start.

“But 20th, from after where I started off from, is probably okay, yeah. We knew it was going to be hot, but it didn’t seem too bad. It’s only my third marathon, and a 22 second PB in a marathon is not major, but it’s going in the right direction. It’s better than my other two Olympics, so I’ll have to come back again.”

Then came Lizzie Lee and Breege Connolly, who at age 36 and 38 respectively, were competing in their first Olympics after many years of trying: Lee finished 57th in 2:39.57, with Connolly finishing 76th in 2:44.41, certainly surpassing her pre-race ranking.

"A 36-year-old full-time working mother, and now I'm an Olympian," said Lee. "No one can take that away from me. And not one girl passed me, from 10km on, except for Anne Holm Baumeister (from Denmark), in the last 200m, but we've a bit a rivalry, so that was a bit of craic.

“Top 60, sub 2:40, in those conditions, I cannot argue with that. When you stand at the start line of a marathon half of you just wants to make sure that you finish. And then when you get to 20 miles you just dig in, and I’m just so proud, and so happy. It was so tough, in the closing stages, and the humidity as well. There’s not one once of me left out there.”

Indeed there wasn’t, except for maybe the few toenails that the Cork woman lost midrace, such was her determination to stick to her pace and unleash every last ounce of energy.

“And the Brazilians out on the street were brilliant. Because my name is quite big (Lee written on her race bib) and easy to say, there were tons were of people. And I have about three crews from home, and they scattered themselves, were everyone, were amazing, and I could hear Cork accents all over the place. And there are so many people behind this. You don’t just rock up to the Olympic marathon. In two days time I’ll be home to my baby girl, and I can’t wait.”

For Connolly the rewards were just as special, especially given she had some fear of the heat: she’d also come to Rio hoping to prove that every runner could aspire towards the Olympics, and the experience in no way let the Leitrim woman down: “Oh my God, I would recommend it highly. It was hard during the summer. You dread it a little, the pressure of training, worrying about performance, and the weather. But I’d highly recommend it. It’s been the best running week of my life.

“The support was fantastic, and it’s always good to know you’re marching on to the end. My whole family, my mum and brothers and sisters, my aunt, were all out there, the whole of Leitrim I’d say.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics