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Sonia O’Sullivan: Tricky question of ‘so what is it you do?’

Busy keeping busy: Cycling and motherhood have helped to fill the place of running

Sonia O’Sullivan: Training becomes a lifelong habit, pulling on the training gear and runners first thing in the morning. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

It’s one of those casual throwaway questions you get when riding along in the bunch at a nice, easy pace, the rider beside you looking over and asking, so what is it you do?

It’s a question I’ve often asked myself over the years, and struggled to answer. It’s a bit like after you’ve had a disaster of a race, and you have to face the media, all wondering what went wrong and you don’t even have an answer for yourself.

They mean well, of course, but put yourself in my shoes.

It’s never been an easy question for me to answer because I never really felt comfortable telling people that I got paid to run and to win races. Or that I never really accepted that running was my job.

Getting to run twice a day, every day, was something I enjoyed, whether I got paid or not. And the same with racing. Around Cobh or the Mardyke. At Villanova. Along the River Thames, and through the royal parks of southwest London, At Falls Creek in Australia. In Oslo, Zurich, Paris and Berlin.

It was a dream life, always satisfied with every completed training session, the constant feedback of knowing the miles in the bank were adding up, getting fitter and faster and stronger with each passing week. And the racing being the icing on the cake

Only now, when I do reflect, I wonder if I ever really appreciated what I had at the time, the best job in the world.

Often when I look back I think to myself that maybe there were ways I could have done things better. But then maybe I had the right balance between training and normal daily life. I certainly wasn’t engaged all day long with the training or the resting. If anything the recovery was at a minimum.

Training habit

Training was always mornings and evenings, and after that I’d usually cram all sorts of activities into the hours in between.

The most important thing in my day was the training, or the racing. It was what I was paid to get up out of bed in the morning to do, although I realise now a lot of people train and race and fit it all around a full-time job, and into their daily life. It may not be at the same level of intensity but the amount of time it takes is more or less similar.

I still do a lot of it on instinct, making sure I get in some exercise each day, but also justifying the time it takes and all the other things I should or could be doing. It becomes a lifelong habit, pulling on the training gear and runners first thing in the morning.

Still I don’t have an answer to that question, so what is it you do?

As much as I like a bit of structure and routine, I find every day is different. When I find myself planning my day around the activities of two teenage daughters and a dog that operates on the schedule of an Olympic athlete, there aren’t many hours left in the day that I can call my own. But it is so important to make that time.

The only way it works is when I make a commitment to an event, which also becomes a commitment to myself.

I’m currently training for the Ring of Kerry Cycle, on July 1st, and while I’m not concerned about the pace, any cycle of 100 miles is a fair distance. So I know I need to get some consistent miles on the bike.

It can be challenging at times, especially now that the Melbourne winter is closing in fast, the daylight hours decreasing with each passing day, the temperatures now close to zero early in the morning.

If I can get out early in the morning it’s easier, rather than later in the day, when it always seems to take up more time. It’s too easy for me to be distracted later in the day, in the kitchen, in the office, or just out and about.

So many things going on, yet still no label or title to what I do. Just busy keeping busy, as my daily motto goes.

I recently thought about getting an indoor trainer to sync with my outdoor bike: cycle away looking at a screen, sweating buckets and going nowhere. Then I decided against it, thinking it would bring back too many bad memories of being injured and unable to run, and instead forced to ride the old fashioned stationary bike in the gym.

If only I knew back then the joy that can be had when you head outdoors on the bike, the freedom and exhilaration, from that moment you close the door and head off into the distance.

Now I take out my diary every Sunday night and look ahead at the weather forecast, picking out the best days, then working out where I can squeeze in a few bike rides.

Hours alone

Lately that means putting the bike in the car on Sunday night, so that after dropping Sophie at school for her early morning gym training at 7am, I’m straight out on the bike. No time to think or to procrastinate, just claim a few hours for myself before the day gets away from me.

I used to think it was hardly worth getting changed for an hour bike ride, but now I’ve discovered if there’s a even a small break in the weather or a spare hour before the girls are home from school, it’s still worth it. One hour is better than no hour.

As long as you have a session planned in your head or written on a piece of paper, you just need a few stretches of roads with not much traffic and also avoiding the traffic lights as I go back and forth. Working on cadence or using a heart rate monitor as a guide is a great distraction from riding around on a short circuit like that.

Olympic velodrome

Recently I discovered an outdoor velodrome, a short ride from home, the perfect warm-up distance. The Carnegie velodrome was used as a training track for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, and is still used today. You can just turn up and ride around.

I never thought I’d be so enamoured with constant lapping around a 335m track, but just focusing on the cadence and the heart race can easily pass an hour, and I come home feeling like I’ve done something worthwhile in a short space of time.

Still I can’t find the answer to the question. Maybe it’s because athletes never really retire, and maybe the same might go for any other sport. The only time I have to answer it is on those the airport departure forms, which asks for your occupation, and where I always write “mother”, because that seems appropriate to me, covering so many daily jobs, all undefined and never once done.