Third in ten-part series: Christine Kennedy’s elite career spans 35 years and counting
Some elite masters athletes never enjoyed success as senior open athletes and many outstanding senior athletes retire long before they becomes eligible to compete as masters.
Former Irish international Christine Kennedy is one of those athletes who can point to equally successful careers as both an open athlete and also a masters competitor.
In the early 1980s, I remember Kennedy as one of the trailblazers for Irish women athletes. It is easy to forget that the first Olympic Marathon for women took place in Los Angeles in 1984. Kennedy was already running marathons and along with other Irish athletes like Carey May, Regina Joyce and Emily Dowling, the Galway City Harrier was one of the key players in the emergence of elite Irish marathon runners in the early 1980s.
While watching the 2011 World Masters Athletics Outdoor Championships at Sacramento City College, Calif., I was reminded of the tenacity that Kennedy showed back in the early 1980s. Kennedy, by now an American citizen, won the the 5000 at worlds running for the USA.
Top Ten Performance: Christine Kennedy makes my top ten Irish masters list for the following performance: Only woman 57 or older to break three hours for the marathon – and she’s now done it four times since turning 57 (2:58:37 — Twin Cities Marathon 2012; 2:55:01 – Boston Marathon 2013; 2:56:04 – Chicago Marathon 2013; and 2:57:44 — Boston Marathon 2014).
In case you missed the 2014 Irish Runner annual, here is an extended version of my in-depth look at Kennedy’s masters career:
Emily Dowling’s victory in the 1981 Dublin City Marathon impressed many an Irish runner, but nobody perhaps more than Galway native Christine Kennedy.
“I was inspired when I saw Emily Dowling win the marathon. I was not a runner prior to that. I was so intrigued by the idea,” Kennedy said. “This is a married woman with two small children — just like me — that could win such a race. From that day forward, I felt that I needed to win that race.”
Success in the Dublin City Marathon did not happen overnight for Kennedy who started her running career at age 28.
By 1990, a 35-year-old Kennedy not only won the Dublin City Marathon in 2:41:27, she went on to retain her title in 1991 (2:35:56). The Galway City Harrier has a lifetime marathon best of 2:35:05 set in Berlin in 1989.
Fast forward 20 years to the World Masters Track and Field Championships in her adopted home state of California, and Kennedy identified another nemesis.
“Part of the reason I ran so well is that I heard so much about Kathryn Martin (USA) that she was unbeatable,” said Kennedy. “I wanted to see if I could beat this girl. … I had not run a 5000 on the track in years.”
With two laps to go, Kennedy made her move.
“One thing about that, I heard somebody say ‘Kennedy you are going too soon’ … and I thought no I am not,” said Kennedy who raced home in 19:36:55 ahead of Martin’s 19:58.74.
In a span of nine days, Kennedy won the 5000 and the marathon at Worlds. Her marathon time of 3:00:48 gave her third female overall and clinched gold in the 55-59 age group.
As well as her World double, Kennedy dominated American masters track and road races in 2011, winning the USATF Masters road 5K, 10K, and 15K championships. This array of national and international performances garnered her national recognition as the 2011 USATF Masters Athlete of the Year. She is the only woman aged 57 or older to break three hours for the marathon.
“Masters level running has changed so much. There is great respect for masters (runners). When I go to a race, I raise the bar very high. I don’t just look at my age group. I look at the overall masters group,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy logs 80 to 85 miles a week — about ten miles less a week than the mileage she ran when she made three Irish World Cross Country teams (1987, 1989 and 1990). In 1990, Kennedy was Irish national cross-country champion and placed third in the British cross-country championships.
She also competed in the IAAF World Championships in 1987 where she finished 24th (2:45:47) in the marathon. Her best finish in the World Cross Country was 33rd in Stavanger (1989).
While some of her running career was spent self-coached, Kennedy said her current coach Tom McGlynn has been a key part of her progression over the past five years.
“Five years ago, I decided I needed a coach. We all think we can train ourselves … but I realized that I needed a coach,” Kennedy said. “Everybody should have some form of a coach. It makes you more accountable. I am now back doing two track workouts a week and having a coach has made me more accountable. … Also, running with younger girls and guys has really changed everything for me.”
Over the last 30-plus years, Kennedy has spent time living in her native Galway, London, France and now the United States where she moved with her family in 1991 after obtaining a green card. Both her daughters — Fiona and Michelle — graduated from high school in California and both now live in London after attending Trinity College in Dublin.
Kennedy is co-owner of the Athletic Performance running shoe store in Los Gatos, California, and her training environment is ideal for running with moderate year-round temperatures and a network of hilly running trails.
The national athletic structure in the USA has also helped in the form of the age-grading system and related prizes which have help to fund Kennedy’s travel to national events in the USA.
“(The age-graded prizes) have allowed me in the last 4 or 5 years to go the national (USATF) races and I really bank on winning the age-graded category to fund my flights,” said Kennedy who does not have a major sponsor.
Basically, USATF awards prizes based on age grading of times. For example, a 17:45 5k by a 55-year-old woman would trump a 17:35 5K time by a 45-year-old woman.
Kennedy is a five-time Boston Marathon finisher, winning the 55-59 division three times. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Kennedy has posted the best age-graded score in every marathon she’s run since age-grading was introduced.
Kennedy, who turns 60 in December, will look to have a banner year in 2015 and plans a trip to Ireland where she still keeps in regular contact with her original running hero Emily Dowling. The plan may include races in Ireland and also a sojourn to the World Masters Outdoors (Lyon, France).
“One thing that is a motivator is that right now my competition is [1984 Olympic Marathon Champion] Joan Benoit Samuelson. She is three years younger than I am,” Kennedy said. “Rumor has it that when (Samuelson) turns 60, she wants to be the one to break three hours. … My goal is to run a 2:55.”
With Samuelson now in her sights, Kennedy is arguably the most consistent female masters runner in the world.
That might be just enough motivation for Kennedy as her running career continues to soar more than 30 years since that inspirational Dublin City Marathon.
CHRISTINE KENNEDY FACT FILE
Personal bests since age 50 (Source: Runners World):