Sonia O’Sullivan: Nothing compares to finishing a marathon
I can fully understand what it is that draws so many people to the 26-mile run
Sonia O’Sullivan wins the 2000 Dublin City Marathon. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho.
Nothing compares to these last few days before the marathon. It doesn’t matter how many you’ve run or what time you’re aiming for, because there will always be questions racing around in your head.
Have I run enough miles? Have I run too many? What should I eat the night before and, more worryingly, on the morning itself? The final countdown is different for everyone and yet in other ways a shared experience.
This time last year I was in that position, getting ready to run the Dublin marathon, people asking me these same questions as I collected my race number down in the RDS. I won’t be part of the nearly 20,000 runners this Sunday, although I can still feel that sense of anticipation.
I put a lot of thought and preparation into last year’s race, doing all the right things in the weeks and months before, because I wanted to enjoy the experience, and finished in a time of three hours and three minutes.
This was all very different to the preparation for my first marathon, also in Dublin, now 16 years ago. Not long home from the Sydney Olympics, I’d been travelling around Ireland, showing off my silver medal, and although still relatively fit, was keen to get back into a regular training routine.
Because once the Olympics were over that routine was thrown out the window. I flew to Qatar for the IAAF Grand Prix final, won the 3000m, then on to Loughrea for the Great Ireland Run. By then, I felt I was losing my fitness. The open top bus, the celebrations and civic receptions were all taking a toll and, as enjoyable as it was, I knew I needed to take back control and regain the structure in my day.
Physical activityBack in London, I was sitting in my favourite Teddington cafe, having the usual coffee and toast, when Richard Nerurkar, the British marathon runner, walked in. I’d trained with Richard before Sydney while at altitude in Falls Creek, and this was our first time meeting. Richard wasn’t just excited about the Olympics but also keen to let me know he was going to Dublin in a few weeks for the marathon.
I’d also planned to be in Dublin that weekend to launch my book, Running to Stand Still, a reflection on my Olympic year. The marathon was on the Monday morning, the book launch that evening, and with that it just clicked. Immediately I found what I’d been looking for, something to focus on. I could run the marathon that morning, and still have plenty of time before the book launch that evening. There’s nothing better than doing some physical activity before an evening of socialising, so why not?
Last year, on the day of my statue unveiling in Cobh, I managed to squeeze in the Charleville half marathon that morning, then rush back to Cobh with just enough time to stand there and help unveil the still version of myself.
Anyway, before running Dublin in 2000, I called up my coach Alan Storey, just to make sure he gave me the thumbs up. As long as I treated it like a like a long training run, with no pressure or expectation, and stopped if things weren’t going to plan, he was happy with it. Mostly for fun, in other words. What he didn’t realise was that I’d already looked up some past results and was convinced that without too much effort I could probably win the thing.
This was the carrot I needed to get back into regular training, a reason to get down to the park every morning, that feeling you only get when everything clicks into place on a run. With a bit of commitment, belief and desire, it doesn’t take much to get back to full fitness.
I’d just over two weeks before Dublin, so embarked on a highly abbreviated training plan. When most people were easing down, I was increasing my mileage, doing two long runs of two hours each on both weekends, plus regular hour runs throughout the week. The magic was returning, and I knew I made the right decision.
Still not many people knew of my plan, maybe four or five, not even my mother. We left Cobh and headed to Cork airport the evening before, only as luck would have it, the incoming plane slipped off the runway, and it seemed unlikely we’d be flying to Dublin that night. We were given some vouchers to get some food in the airport restaurant, not much choice and not exactly the perfect pre-marathon meal: eventually a spare plane turned up and we got to Dublin just in time for bed.
I’m often asked for advice from first-time marathon runners, and while that sort of preparation is not ideal, it worked out for me. Everyone’s preparation is different, and there is no definitive right or wrong way.
That Dublin marathon also happened to be run in the worst conditions ever, rain and wind all morning. I showed up at the start line, taking everyone by surprise, and remember Jim Aughney the race director handing me my number, probably thinking I was mad. I really was just aiming to finish, and ended winning the women’s race too (running 2.35:42).
Last year was a totally different experience, the threatened rain and wind staying away, conditions nearly ideal. Even though I ran a lot slower than in 2000, when I won, I enjoyed the experience even more, always felt in control of my running and actually finishing quicker than my predicted time. I was able to take in the crowd and atmosphere too, all part of the experience, and for the first time fully understood what it is that draws so many people to the marathon.
Fondest memoriesI’ve run six marathons in all by now, all very different experiences: two in New York, the two in Dublin, and also London and Boston. I don’t think I’ve ever truly mastered the distance, but I can say that running Dublin on both occasions, even if not in my fastest time, or with the best preparation, have provided the fondest memories. There’s also something about the marathon that once it gets inside your head you never let it go, and always think about doing another one.
So not this Sunday, unfortunately, but I do look forward to the next one, at some stage, because still nothing compares to that feeling of finishing a marathon.