Sonia O’Sullivan at 50: It felt like I would keep running fast, forever

Sonia O’Sullivan’s  Irish Olympic portrait in 2004. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Once a runner, always a runner. It’s the old cliché that often gets thrown around this sport, and when you suddenly find yourself looking back over five decades of running it certainly rings true.

Looking back on my 50th birthday this is even more so because it still feels like so much of my life as a runner was a whirlwind of travel through time and space that would sometimes make me wonder – how did I do that with such ease?

It felt like I would always keep running fast, forever. Then in a moment it was all over.

There are often times now when I think to myself: how can I be so bad at something I was once so good at? I was never really comfortable with the idea of retirement, so to slow down and put things in another life perspective has never been easy. 

In 2006 it was decided my final race was to be the Great Ireland Run. Only it wasn’t my idea, and never once felt comfortable, so I kept fighting with my mind and my body to keep on running. Always a runner. 

This is partly because it has always been about the motivation for me and not the destination. If I have that desire to succeed it’s all about the passion and emotion that comes from successfully completing something you set out to do – in running and now in life.

When for most of your life all you have known is lacing up your shoes each morning, the pace and destination determined by the day of the week, it’s hard to let it go and move on.

You start to feel yourself coming around full circle, trying to do things I did as a schoolgirl, looking back at old training programmes to try to reignite the fire one more time. Yet even that was difficult for a while, so there was a period of detachment and perhaps even a falling out of love with running. 

For such a long time I was only a runner, so it was always going to take some time to realise there was so much more. 

I tried swimming, then cycling. Then people told me I should try the triathlon. So I tried that too, and even though I enjoyed all these new adventures and still do, running was what I craved the most. The problem was finding its new purpose in my life. 

It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve come to understand that many people see running as something to be enjoyed and beneficial to their health, while I was still trying to be a competitive runner and not happy to join the everyday runners.

Qualifying time

In 2006 I ran the New York Marathon, and finished just a few seconds outside the 2008 Beijing Olympic qualifying time. I wasn’t trying to hit a time, just get around and enjoy the event, or so I thought. Yet once again the competitive juices were awoken, and that perhaps once more I could run one more lap of the Olympic stadium. Beijing would have been my fifth Olympics. 

It wasn’t to be. I could never quite regain the momentum and miles required to chase the Olympic dream again. This is in part because I didn’t listen to my own body, and so many weeks and months of training ended in injury and frustration.

So it seems strange now that in recent weeks I’ve found myself heading down to the local track again on a Tuesday morning, finally accepting where I am at in my running life, and enjoying pushing myself a little harder.

It’s as if I’m only now realising that as I get older it’s not all about how far you run, but about regaining some speed and keeping the mind and body fresh. 

I also started back reading running books, trying to understand more about training and realising that to enjoy running you still have to do all the extras, just like when training for the Olympics.

Naturally these are on a much lower and more manageable scale, but all those little extras – the gym work, plyometrics, nutrition, regular check in with the physio, the extra sleep – all add up to less injuries and a fitter, stronger body. Especially at age 50. 

It’s not just to run a faster race or park run, as nice as that is, but to build a more durable and stronger self, both physically and mentally.

When you give so much to your sport you sometimes expect something back. For me that was after all the years when the pain and the pleasure was intertwined for all to see.

As the years go by I kept looking to find the joy, and it seems only now I have finally let it back into my daily run.

The runner in London in 1998. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
The runner in London in 1998. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Learning in life

It’s strange how you never stop learning in life, and for me that includes running. It means realising too that as time goes on you also need to change how you think and do things, and learn to appreciate what once came so easy takes a little more effort for a little less reward.

There was also some sense of regret at being allowed to fall away without any question or encouragement. Was there one more race to run, one final contribution to Irish athletics? 

I was never one for running just for the sake of running. There always needed to be a purpose, a target and an end goal. In some ways that part of me hasn’t changed. 

Like when I found myself last Saturday morning at one of the local park runs in Melbourne before travelling back to Ireland, trying to achieve something that I hadn’t done in four years; breaking 20 minutes for the 5km distance.

It seems ridiculous when I think that my best time was over five minutes quicker, but that’s one of the things I’ve learned – to live in the present and not look back. 

It was 8am when I lined up alongside Derek Couper and Andy Johnson from Mentone AC where I take a session on a Tuesday evening. They had come along to pace me around the two laps of Karkarook Park, and I soon slipped back to my days of racing around the tracks of Europe in the 1990s, chasing records and winning races. 

If there was no reality check of time, the feeling of relaxation, trust and focus all came flooding back. The only difference was the pace and the lack of changing pace in that final 400m, when I so often collected bonus seconds to finish off with one more record time. 

It was just what I always did. I believed in myself and trusted that I had put in the work, shut out all other thoughts and distractions, and just focused on one thing: getting from start to finish faster than anyone else.

Primary school 

In the early days in Cobh I would run home from primary school at lunchtime. I wanted to be first home, but also to race between the lampposts, stopping for a few seconds, then taking off again. I think it was this natural competition with myself that I developed over time. 

Later when I got bored with running laps of the field and racing myself in training, I started to dream about training with a team. So when the talk of going to the US on scholarship came up, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It felt like a higher calling. 

Sonia O’Sullivan winning a gold medal at the European Athletic Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in 1998. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
Sonia O’Sullivan winning a gold medal at the European Athletic Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in 1998. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

I went to visit Villanova, about a half hour outside Philadelphia, a world away from Cobh. But all I saw was a team and girls to train with, girls who would push me to be better than I could ever be when running around the school field back at home.

I never ran the 5,000m in college. The 3,000m was my distance, and I remember when I first broke nine minutes for 3,000m at George Mason University. It felt like I’d discovered the Holy Grail, a mental barrier was broken. All of a sudden I believed I could achieve more. Anything was possible.

In 2007, at the Victorian Championships at Melbourne’s Olympic Park – across the road from where Ronnie Delany won his 1956 Olympic 1,500m gold – I ran 3,000m in 9:04, taking me back to where I started in 1987 at the Cork City Sports when running 9:01, an Irish junior record that has stood for 32 years.

It’s always been the same: once an idea came to me I could never let it go, always rising to the challenge, sometimes with no sense to what I was doing. Only that I thought it was a good idea, and if I made up my mind it was very hard to stop me. I would go to my coach and convince him this was a good idea. 

It was so intense in the 1990s, often as many as 20 races squeezed into just four months. When I presented my racing programme to my coach Alan Storey in 1997, he questioned if it was the entire season fixture list I had given him by mistake. 

It was also a much simpler time when I was developing as an athlete. There was no real master plan. I just loved to race, and that was the thing that was hardest to let go of when I finally realised that I was training harder, putting in more time and effort than I was delivering on the race tracks. 

Suddenly there was not the same love of running. Not the way I can see it now, because it was purely running for a purpose. The joy was in the winning, and when that was gone I had lost all purpose.

Satisfaction 

I still question myself today: why do you do this now? I have finally reconciled with myself that I truly love to run. There is no greater sense of satisfaction than that which you feel on completing a run, and which is even greater when you can fill an hour of your day with a purposeful run. 

The energy it gives is hard to find anywhere else in life, the time outside in nature a time to escape. There is a calmness to running now that I never even knew existed when I was training and competing at the highest level. 

Back then it was an adrenaline rush that came around every year as the outdoor track season got started after a period of hibernation in the winter months.

The Sonia 5k race in Dún Laoghaire in 2015 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her 5,000m World Championship win in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1995. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Sonia 5k race in Dún Laoghaire in 2015 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her 5,000m World Championship win in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1995. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Olympics, the World and European Championships were all the culmination of the adrenaline, some ending on a high, others not so much.

Cross-country and indoor running never had the same consistency for me, all a bit hit-and-miss. The outdoor season was the most important and what mattered most to me. 

And I only knew one way once the season began: race as much as possible. It didn’t matter the place or the distance, anything from 800m to the 10,000m. I would rather race than train, it was just so much more fun. 

Once the training was complete in June each year, the competitive races began. Then it was just a case of maintaining fitness throughout the season, peaking at the championships, then just holding on through the final races into September.

With autumn leaves falling and cool air and shorter days, my racing days for the year were always numbered as my fitness was running out. Time to refresh again. 

It’s funny as you get older how you start to get fitter and stronger in mind and in spirit.

You start to respect your body for all it has given, and realise to keep pace physically and mentally you have to balance so much more than just simply lacing up your shoes and running out the door. 

Once a runner, that’s still the easy part.