Sonia O’Sullivan: Finding fresh motivation along the Bull Wall

The marker for me has always been running, because it affects so many decisions in my life

The walk towards Bull Island in Clontarf. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The walk towards Bull Island in Clontarf. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Every now and then I need to check in with myself to see exactly where I’m at. The marker for me has always been running – whether I’m actually running or not. Because even after all these years it continues to affect so many other decisions in my life. 

The end goal is always changing. And depending on where the next finish line is, so too are the different paths I decide to take along the way. 

This also means finding different ways to stay motivated. It’s not just the daily run but everything that goes with it. The planning, the timing, the execution. For one person it could be completing that fun or charity run, for another it could be a big city marathon, but it often requires the same amount of focus. 

For me it’s always started by taking out a piece of paper and mapping out a plan of action. Not just how far or how fast, but everything else that will help me to enjoy the challenge even more. That used to be aiming towards an Olympics or World Championships. Now it’s mostly about completing the run, no matter what the distance. 

A change of season or location can be another reminder of where you are at, or rather, where you’ve come from. In my case coming back home from Australia. I have to press the reset button numerous times throughout the year, particularly after one of those long-haul flights, and the first task is restoring some balance and equilibrium so that the mind and body are working together. 

As the body clock readjusts, I’m usually up and about before the sun, knowing if I can get out there for a run, there’s no doubt it’s going to be a good day.

One of my favourite markers these days is the parkrun, the weekly timed 5km run that continues to spread like wildfire all over the world. 

Parkrun community

There are around 66 locations across Ireland by now, where you can just turn up on a Saturday morning, run around at your pace, and share in the parkrun community. You’ll get an email by lunchtime with your time and place – just the carrot needed to motivate you to come back again the next week, or maybe even try a different parkrun. 

A few weeks ago in Sydney, looking for fresh motivation, I saw there was a local parkrun at Sandon Point, just 15 minutes from where we were staying. I hadn’t run faster than a slow jog for a good while, so decided it was time to push myself a bit more. And the best way to do that is to run with others. 

There is a definite sense of contradiction between pleasure and pain when it comes to running, and especially when starting back. And the parkrun at Sandon Point certainly provided that. 

The following day I decided on a long, slow run along the coastline, and it turned out to be one of the most difficult and least enjoyable runs in a long time. Even if, as always, I felt happier for doing it afterwards. 

Still you wonder. I was beginning to question myself . . . maybe this running is wearing me down, too hard on the body. Was I better off spending more time on the bike?

 I was back on the old familiar rollercoaster again, the pain and the pleasure ebbing and flowing. The best thing was running with my friends again, after weeks and months of walking and jogging on my own, building up slowly towards that event in the back of my mind, the Great Pink Run. 

This will be my fifth year taking part in the Great Pink Run, which raises funds towards Breast Cancer Ireland’s research and awareness programmes. Only this year, instead of doing Saturday’s event in the Phoenix Park, I’ll be running the sister event in Kilkenny, one day later. 

Something different, running with different people, and again a different way to stay motivated. To help generate the energy for running there needs to be purpose to what you are doing, a destination, even some kind of emotional connection. 

Downhill all the way home

Last Sunday morning, just before boarding the plane from Melbourne, I met a friend for a run to Caulfield racecourse. It felt like it was downhill all the way home, which it actually is, but, as we chatted along the way, the 90 minutes sailed by. More pleasure, less pain. 

You never know how you’re going to feel after 24 hours on a plane: lack of sleep, lack of movement, lack of proper food. It’s a real test of the mind and body to regain any sense of equilibrium. 

So, up before the sun on Monday morning, there I was again looking for some fresh motivation. I have a few places in Dublin where I enjoy running, only this time I was staying in a different part of town, on the north side. 

I wasn’t far from the Clontarf seafront so I thought, get down there, run along the grass, maybe 40 minutes or so of slow, easy running. As soon as I hit the groove in the grass, cut by others running the same route, things suddenly felt a lot easier. 

It was a still, calm morning, and I imagined what it must be like in winter with the wind blowing in off the sea. I was looking for a turnabout point, still taking in the view across Dublin Bay and to the port where the ships were getting ready to leave. 

Then I spotted the wooden bridge at the Bull Wall. I’d heard of this, I thought, driven past it a few times, but had never been down there. 

Once I turned onto the sea wall there was no turning back. The end was the last piece of land jutting out into the sea, marked by a statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea atop three concrete pillars, the natural turnabout point. 

Over an hour later, a little longer than planned, I was back and ready for the day, recovered and refreshed, and entirely motivated by what felt an entirely fresh running experience. All pleasure, and no pain.

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