In The Running: Women’s Marathon And The Lure Of The Olympics
The 100m may be, for many, the showcase event of the Olympic Games: the ultimate measure of the fastest man or woman on earth. But it is the marathon, the ultimate battle of endurance, attrition and resilience, which epitomises the Olympic spirit more than any other event on the athletics programme.
Perhaps it is the prestige of the Olympic marathon, or maybe it’s just the slightly easier qualifying standard, but few events inspire ordinary runners to make an Olympic team the way the marathon does. Images of Pauline Curley, who finally made her Olympic debut at 39, kissing the ground after finishing the 2008 Olympic Marathon in Beijing, will have inspired the Olympic dreams of one or two Irish females.
While Ireland won’t have a single marathon representative at this week’s World Championships, come August 2016 the three available women’s marathon spots on the Olympic team will, no doubt, be filled. Indeed, with half a dozen or more athletes capable of the 2:42 standard, a selection headache far worse than that which emerged last time round may well transpire.
Possible contenders for Olympic selection
Fionnuala McCormack (nee Britton) has for a number of years been the top female Irish distance runner. Last summer, the Wicklow native made a surprise marathon debut at the European Championships in Zurich. Despite never having competed in a race longer than 10km at that point, McCormack showed her undeniable endurance ability. She finishing 10th in 2:31:46, a time that places her 4th on the Irish all-time list.
Since last August, McCormack has changed coaches, raced more on the roads than normal, and made her half marathon debut. The two-time European Cross Country champion will not only be looking to make her third Olympics (in a fourth different event) next summer, but will go to Rio with aspirations of getting among the medals.
Maria McCambridge will be 41 when Rio rolls around, but she has Olympic qualifying very much in her sights. The Dublin woman competed in the 5000m at the 2004 Olympic, but missed out on selection in both 2000 (5000m) and 2012 (marathon) when more than three Irish athletes had the qualification standard. With a personal best of 2:34:19 from 2014 and no sign of slowing down anytime soon, McCambridge is surely set to become Ireland’s oldest athletics Olympian.
Breege Connolly, with a time of 2:37.29 from London earlier this year, is actually the only Irish woman to have the Olympic Qualifying time under her belt within the current qualification window. Given the standard of the other athletes in contention, Connolly may need to knock a couple of minutes off that time to put herself into serious consideration next year. But at least for now, she’s the woman in pole position.
Lizzie Lee, like many endurance athletes before her, has come back from childbirth stronger than ever. The Cork athletes, who only took up the sport in her late twenties, has a marathon PB of 2:38:09 from 2013. She was a clear winner of the recent Irish Half Marathon championships, and the personal best of 73:27 that she set along the way suggests that she can go much faster over the full marathon distance.
Nicola Duncan, with a best of 2:33:28 from 2014, is another strong contender. She hasn’t raced since May of this year, however. Scottish-based, Galway-born Duncan was another latecomer to the sport. She made her international debut at the World Half Marathon Championships in 2014, just 5 years after taking up running almost by accident, but was unfortunately unable to complete the course due to injury.
Sarah Mulligan, like McCormack, made her marathon debut in Zurich last summer. The DSD athlete, who has also represented Ireland in mountain running and cross country, has shown great promise on the roads, winning the 2014 Irish Half Marathon title. She will need to improve considerably on her Zurich time to put herself in the frame of Rio selection, but may well do that in a fast city marathon.
Barbara Sanchez (2:37.14); Gladys Ganiel O’Neill (2:39.26) and Claire McCarthy (2:39:27) have also ran faster than the Olympic standard in recent years, and may well be looking to shake up the selection race. And as is the case with the marathon, there’s always room for a surprise or too.
Mayo native Sinead Diver, with a best of 2:34.15, is another who would have been in contention had she not declared for Australia, who she will represent at this week’s World Championships in Beijing.
Top Irish performances 2013-2015
1. 2:31:46 Fionnuala McCormack, 2014
2. 2:33:28 Nicola Duncan, 2014
3. 2:34:19 Maria McCambridge, 2014
4. 2:37:14 Barbara Sanchez, 2013
5. 2:37:29 Breege Connolly, 2015
6. 2:38:09 Lizzie Lee, 2013
7. 2:39:26 Gladys Ganiel O’Neill, 2013
8. 2:39:27 Claire McCarthy, 2013
Irish Alltime Top 10
1. 2:22:23 Catriona McKiernan, 1 Nov 1998
2. 2:28:07 Carey May, 27 Jan 1985
3. 2:29:01 Sonia O’Sullivan , 17 Apr 2005
4. 2:31:46 Fionnuala Britton, 16 Aug 2014
5. 2:32:56 Regina Joyce-Bonney, 4 Dec 1982
6. 2:33:28 Nicola Duncan, 13 Apr 2014
7. 2:33:59 Marie Davenport, 6 Nov 2005
8. 2:34:19 Maria McCambridge, 27 Oct 2014
9. 2:34:49 Monica Joyce, 2 Dec 1984
10. 2:35:05 Deirdre Nagle, 1983
*Mayo-born Sinead Diver ran 2:34:15 in 2014, before declaring for Australia, where she resides.
The World Championship Contenders
Predicting winning lottery numbers can sometimes be easier than predicting the winner of a championship marathon event. Favourites flounder, early leaders often burn up, and those trying to keep their powder dry until the final stages often leave it too late. Sometimes, as was the case with the women’s race in Beijing seven years ago, somebody steals a march and is completely forgotten about by their pursuers. The East Africans don’t show near the same domination that they do at the big (and not so big) city marathons, and the Kenyans, male and female, have only one Olympic marathon title between them!
The heat and humidity of Beijing will do its best to spring some surprises, but despite the unpredictability of the event and the absence of two of Kenya’s stars – Florence Kiplagat and Mary Keitany – it is difficult to look beyond an East African winner. Edna Kiplagat, the 2009 and 2011 champion, is back, attempting to complete the hat-trick of titles. A strong Ethiopian team includes Mare Dibaba, who tops this year’s rankings, and Tirfe Tsegaye, who was fastest in the world in 2014.
If the Africans do falter or expend too much energy racing each other, Shalane Flanagan (USA) and Sairi Maeda (Japan) are among those most likely to sneak a medal. Mariya Konovolova (Russia) and Sultan Haydar (Turkey) may also wish to cause an upset, and raise an eyebrow or two along the way.
Interestingly, none of the medallists from the London Olympics or from last summer’s European Championships will toe the line, and Kiplagat is the sole survivor for the prizewinners last time around. If she does win again, it will be a truly remarkable achievement.
Rankings of athletes competing in Beijing (during entire qualifying period)
1. 2:19:52 Mare Dibaba (ETH) 03.01.2015
2. 2:20:18 Tirfe Tsegaye (ETH) 28.09.2014
3. 2:20.21 Edna Kiplagat (KEN) 13.04.2014
4. 2:20:41 Jemima Jelagat (KEN) 21.04.2014
5. 2:21.14 Shalane Flanagan (USA) 28.09.2014
6. 2:21:52 Tigist Tufa (ETH) 02.11.2014
7. 2:22:08 Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa (BRN) 08.03.2015
8. 2:22:27 Mariya Konovolova (RUS) 08.03.2015
9. 2:22:48 Sairi Maeda (JPN) 08.03.2015
10. 2:24:03 Helah Kiprop (KEN) 22.02.2015
2015 World Top 10
1. 2:19:52 Mare Dibaba (ETH) 03.01.2015
2. 2:20:02 Aselefech Mergia (ETH) 23.01.2015
3. 2:20:03 Gladys Cherono Kiprono (KEN) 23.01.2015
4. 2:20:21 Lucy Wangui Kabuu (KEN) 23.01.2015
5. 2:20:59 Shure Demise (ETH) 23.01.2015
6. 2:21:17 Aberu Kebede (ETH) 23.01.2015
7. 2:21:56 Mulu Seboka (ETH) 23.01.2015
8. 2:22:08 Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa (BRN) 08.03.2015
9. 2:22:09 Tetiana Shmykro (UKR) 25.01.2015
10. 2:22:27 Mariya Konovolova (RUS) 08.03.2015