Sonia O’Sullivan: Home not simply a place, but a complex sense of being

We can not have realistic medal hopes when it’s not evident this is currently achievable

Ireland’s Ciara Mageean during 1,500m finl at the  European Indoor Athletics Championships at  Kombank Arena, Belgrade, Serbia. Photograph: Inpho

Ireland’s Ciara Mageean during 1,500m finl at the European Indoor Athletics Championships at Kombank Arena, Belgrade, Serbia. Photograph: Inpho

 

There is nothing worse than sitting down all day, without at least a walk outside and a bit of fresh air. It can easily happen when you lose track of time and forget to remind yourself you haven’t actually been out yet. 

It is one of the reasons I like to get in my hour of daily activity in the morning. After that, it doesn’t really matter what else gets in the way. The engine is properly started, and you can happily purr along for the rest of the day. 

Last weekend, I was in Ennis for the annual Book Club Festival, and we had an early start on the Sunday. There wasn’t much time to get out and about as we were on stage for a Sunday Symposium at 10am: it was a panel discussion on the politics of sport, chaired by Alison O’Connor, along with myself, Patrick Deery, sports journalist Christy O’Connor and Paul Kimmage. Needless to say things got a bit lively.

Walking down to the venue in the icy rain, there was no one about. I took a quick detour by the river and back up through the town. Although that would have to suffice. The only company at that hour were the few swans drifting at great speed along the river, surrendering to the fast flowing current. Lucky for them, I thought. 

After the discussion, there was time for a quick coffee, before sitting back down in the car for the long drive back to Dublin. That icy rain hardly let up, although about an hour outside Dublin the sun somehow broke out, illuminating the day at last. Now, it was impossible to avoid the reminder to get out and about. Only where would I stop before the sun went down on the last clearing of the evening? 

Donadea Forest Park

So I took the next turn off the motorway, and drove along the instantly narrowing roads, presuming they were leading to the forest park, which thankfully they were. 

According to the sign at the entrance, the park gates would close at 5pm. I didn’t want to risk getting locked in so found a spot along the road, quickly changed into my walking shoes, and hit the trails, just after scanning for the latest edition of An Irishman Abroad podcast on my iPhone. 

I’m sometimes asked if I listen to music while I’m running and the answer is no. But I do like to listen to podcasts, especially when walking, or when returning to running after a break. I find it helps as I try to get my rhythm back, a way of distracting myself until I have a few runs complete, feel like I can run properly again. 

Listening to a podcast is a lot different to having music coursing through your head. It doesn’t take away from all the sound and beauty around you. And walking around Donadea, I was still able to enjoy the late evening sun shining through the trees, still sense the cold air outside my zipped up puffer jacket and woolly hat. 

Jarlath Regan hosts An Irishman Abroad and for company on this walk was actor Gabriel Byrne. It’s always an engaging conversation, and sometimes feels as if you’re walking along together, drifting in and out of the conversation, while still enjoying the open landscape after all those hours of sitting down. 

The lap of Donadea was just under 6km, although I still had to work out where my car was. Again, the iPhone does the trick, that little notification telling you the location of the car, assuring you the distance is decreasing and you’re going in the right direction, passing by the late Sunday strollers and the last of the dog walkers. 

The easy option would have been to hurry back to watch some of the Sunday sport on TV, although this felt like a more satisfying end to the weekend, the rain passed on and the sun gently setting. 

Belonging

Then no matter how often you return to Ireland, you don’t quite fit in here either. It is a complex sense of being. As I continue to navigate around, it’s something I often find myself trying to come to terms with.  Hearing it come from Gabriel Byrne provided a little comfort. You realise you’re not alone in this thinking. And it’s not just in daily life. 

When you move on from being an elite athlete, you’re also thrown out into a sort of limbo land. Letting go of everything you know best, racing around the tracks of Europe, to suddenly finding yourself trying to find something to replace that purposeful, habitual daily routine. 

It’s possibly why I’m still so obsessed with some daily activity. It keeps me in tune with what I used to do, allows me to explore other areas, although still without that same sense of belonging. 

Even when you step away from competing, it’s hard to let go of that instinctive understanding of how a race is playing out. That often means keeping track of the Irish athletes, sometimes while working on RTÉ, or when the analysis process automatically goes through your mind. 

It is a lot easier to assess the results when sitting on the couch. Everyone can be an expert sitting on the couch. 

Sometimes I wonder if there is some insight that I could give to help the future of Irish athletics. The problem is the athletes are not always willing to listen, or seek advice. It’s easy to be comforted by the people you know, your circle of friends, the people you trust, rather than maybe some outside interference.

 There comes a time when a step out of that comfort zone is required to truly move things on, shake-up of the normal routine. Only then can realistic expectations be set down, targeted and achieved before moving up and on to another level. Confidence and belief is essential to compete at a higher level on the international stage. 

The European Indoors are essentially an entry level championships, and for some events, there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t be achieving a consistent level of success. Still the expectation of delivering a medal is thrown out there when it’s not actually evident this is currently achievable.

 There’s obviously a difference between a podcast and listening to voices in your head, but it’s always good to listen to a new perspective, to turn around and change direction and attack things from a fresh realistic perspective.

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