Track & Field

The race is on: Irish 800m runners and the two-minute barrier

The race is on: Irish 800m runners and the two-minute barrier

There is only one time that matters in the women’s 800m, and that is 1:59.99. More challenging than the 4 minute mile for men, the two-minute barrier is what every female half miler worth her salt aims to break.
And, as if to underline just how difficult a barrier it is, no Irish women has ever ran that fast.


For 20 years, the Irish record stood at 2:00.69, to none other than Sonia O’Sullivan. Yes, even Sonia, who holds the national 1500m record at a still world class 3:58.85, never broke two minutes!

Passing on the mantle: Sonia O'Sullivan presenting Rose-Anne Galligan with national 800m gold

Passing on the mantle: Sonia O’Sullivan presenting Rose-Anne Galligan with national 800m gold

In 2013 Rose-Anne Galligan finally set a new mark at 2.00.58. Fellow Irish sub-2 hopeful Laura Crowe, who paced that race, went on to run 2:00.93 later in the season. Ciara Everard had made the final of the European Indoors early that year, and there were two Irish girls in the 800m final at the European Junior Championships. The floodgates for the sub-2 club appeared to be opening. The question on every Irish athletics fan’s mind was not ‘if?’ or ‘when?’ but ‘who?’
And then, just as quickly, before anybody managed to squeeze through, the floodgates closed, and we were back to asking ourselves the ‘if’ and ‘when’ questions.

After the summer of promise, Galligan and Crowe ‘only’ managed 2:02 last season, Everard missed most of the outdoor campaign with injury, Katie Kirk had yet to declare for Ireland, and nobody else broke 2:05. The National Seniors was won just outside 2:09 (an improvement on the previous year’s race, which all the big hitters avoided), and it was in the 1500m, rather than the 800m, that the fireworks were happening.

Irish athletics supporters would have to wait a little longer!

The talent is there. That’s for sure. Galligan, Crowe and Everard fill half the top 6 spots on the Irish All-time rankings. Kirk’s personal best (2:02.63, set in last year’s Commonwealth Games semi-finals) would also be good enough to place her well within the all-time top 10. Irish 800m running has never been so strong! And 2015 has started well. Everard is back to her best, and a number of teenagers are set to come of age.

Maybe it’s time to move back to the ‘who’ question.

The contenders

Rose-Anne Galligan is the woman in pole position. As the current national record holder, she has come closest to breaking the magic two minute barrier. She is also the most experienced on the international stage, having represented Ireland at the European Championships in 2010, the European Indoors and World Championships in 2013, and the World Indoors in 2014. We hope that the 27 year old’s best is not behind her and that she can return to the dizzy heights of 2013. She has raced sparingly so far this season and ran 2:05.42 in her only serious attempt at the distance in 2015.

PB: 2:00.58; SB: 2:05.42

Ciara Everard is, however, the woman in form this season. The national indoor record holder has put the injury troubles of last season behind her, and after another solid indoor season, which saw her make her third successive major indoor championship, is having the outdoor season of her life. The James Nolan coached UCD athlete started her outdoor campaign with a 2:01.21 personal best and will head to next month’s World University Games looking to improve on her semi-final exit of 2013.

PB: 2:01.21; SB: 2:01.21

Laura Crowe, one of only 4 Irish athletes ever to break 2:01, is another strong contender. The 27 year old Kerry woman has a strong 400m background, and her 4:11.49 1500m personal bests suggests that she may have a future in the longer event. She represented Ireland at the European Cross Country last December, but her abilities over 800m should not be underestimated. Having come so close, she is unlikely to give up on breaking the magical barrier.

PB: 2:00.93; SB: 2:03.97

Kirk in the Commonwealth Games. Image via Belfast Telegraph

Kirk in the Commonwealth Games. Image via Belfast Telegraph

After much speculation, talented Co. Down native Katie Kirk has finally declared for Ireland. The 21-year-old athlete not only boasts a fast 800m personal best, but has an impressive 400m best of 53.69. Kirk was just 16 when she ran for Northern Ireland in 4 x 400m relay at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and last summer she reached the semi-finals of the 800m. The Queen’s University student, who has previously represented Great Britain at European Junior level, will now look to make an impact in the green of Ireland.

PB: 2:02.63 SB: 2:06.23i

Mageean another with sub 2 potential

Mageean another with sub 2 potential

Ciara Mageean’s talents probably fit best with the longer distances, but who knows what the 23-year-old could achieve with an injury-free block of training. Mageean’s best is 2:02.31 from way back in 2011, and she has not raced over the distance since 2012. After a long-awaited return from injury to win the Irish 1500m title last July, Mageean started the season well with a fast 5k on the roads and an impressive 3000m indoors, before picking up yet another injury. She has not raced since February.

PB: 2:02.31; SB: N/A

Cléirigh-Buttner flying in the 800m leg at Penn Relays

Cléirigh-Buttner flying in the 800m leg at Penn Relays

Teenagers Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, Aislinn Crossey, Alanna Lally, Louise Shanahan, Nadia Power and Carla Sweeney are among those to look out for in future years.

In that golden summer of 2013, both Crossey and Cleirigh-Buttner reached the 800m final at the European Junior Championships. Crossey finished fourth in a lifetime best of 2:03.93, while Cléirigh-Buttner, who ran her personal best of 2:03.81 in winning an All-Ireland schools earlier that summer, finished eighth.

Laura Crowe on top of the podium with Nadia Power and Louise Shanahan along with Sonia O'Sullivan

Laura Crowe on top of the podium with Nadia Power and Louise Shanahan along with Sonia O’Sullivan

Lally and Shanahan are particularly speedy, with 400m personal bests of 55.15 and 55.86 respectively. They will look to put that speed to good use as they continue to grow into the 800m. The pair, with personal bests of 2:08.03 and 2:08.29, were joined on the podium at the All Ireland schools by Sweeney, who has a personal best of 2:09.91. The rivalry among this trio, and the addition of Nadia Power (2:10.04), is likely to drive them on to faster times in the near future.

At the other end of the age scale, it is interesting to note that Kelly Neely, who retired from international athletics in 2012, is back running, for the sheer fun of it, after the birth of her daughter last year. Her season’s best of 2:10.35 has smashed the previous Irish masters’ record.

Aoife Byrne holds the national U23 record at 2:01.89, while the Irish Junior and Youth records belong to Mageean, curtesy of her 2009 2:03.07 clocking.

Apart from Everard’s World University Games selection, no Irish athlete has yet qualified for any of this summer’s other major championships.

Qualifying times for 2015 Major Championships

World Championships: 2:01.00

European U23 Championships: 2:04.80

European Junior Championships: 2:07.00/2:09.50

World Youths: 2:06.00
European Youth Olympic Festival: 2:11.50

Irish All-time Top 10
2:00.58 Rose-Anne Galligan, 26 Jul 2013
2:00.69 Sonia O’Sullivan, 28 Jul 1994
2:00.70 Caroline O’Shea, 3 Jul 1984
2:00.93 Laura Crowe, 8 Sep 2013
2:01.14 Aisling Molloy, 27 Aug 1990
2:01.21 Ciara Everard, 23 May 2015
2:01.89 Aoife Byrne, 17 Aug 2001
2:02.28 Adrienne McIvor, 16 Mar 2002
2:02.8h Mary Purcell, 2 Sep 1974
2:03.07 Ciara Mageean 12 Jul 2009

Irish 2015 Rankings
2:01.21 Ciara Everard, 23 May 2015
2:03.97 Laura Crowe, 11 May 2015
2:05.14 Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner, 29 May 2015
2:05.42 Rose-Anne Galligan, 8 Jun 2015
2:06.23i Katie Kirk, 23 May 2015
2:06.40 Claire Tarplee, 6 Jun 2015
2:08.23 Deirdre Doyle, 6 Jun 2015
2:08.82 Aislinn Crossey, 11 Jun 2015
2:08.82 Amy O’Donoghue, 6 Jun 2015
2:09.01 Louise Shanahan, 23 May 2015

On a world level

World number 1: Eunice Sum is on top of the world rankings. Image: PhotoRun

World number 1: Eunice Sum is on top of the world rankings. Image: PhotoRun

The 2015 rankings are dominated by the USA, with 5 Americans inside the top 10 in the world as things stands. The rankings are topped by the 2013 World Champion Eunice Japkoech Sum (Kenya; 1:57.82). Sum’s compatriot, the 2007 world champion, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, is also inside the top 10, a list which is almost devoid of a Russian presence.

World 2015 Rankings
1:57.82 Eunice Jepkoech Sum (KEN), 30 May 2015
1:57.87 Ajee Wilson (USA), 30 May 2015
1:58.75 Anastasiya Bazdyreva (RUS), 29 May 2015
1:59.06 Brenda Martinez (USA), 30 May 2015
1:59.35 Rose Mary Almanza (CUB), 23 May 2015
1:59.37 Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei (KEN), 13 Jun 2015
1:59.39 Renelle Lamote (FRA), 25 MAY 2015
1:59.47 Chanelle Price (USA), 13 Jun 2015
1:59.71 Raevyn Rogers (USA), 13 Jun 2015
1:59.81 Molly Beckwith-Ludlow (USA), 06 Jun 2015

The rankings will, no doubt, change considerably between now and the World Championships in August where, if recent past results are anything to go by, something in the realms of 1:55 may be needed for the win. A number of athletes have yet to put in a really big performance, and many of the top athletes will ease their way into the season, but expect the Kenyans, Americans and Russians (should there be any of them still eligible to compete) to be battling it out for the medals in Beijing.

Recent Major Championship winners
2014 European Championships – Maryna Arzamasava (BUL) 1:58.15

2014 Commonwealth Games – Eunice Jepkoech Sum (KEN) 2:00.31

2013 World Championships – Eunice Jepkoech Sum (KEN) 1:57.38

2012 Olympic Games – Mariya Savinova (RUS) 1:56.19

2011 World Championships – Mariya Savinova (RUS) 1:55.87

2010 European Championships – Mariya Savinova (RUS) 1:58.22

2010 Commonwealth Games – Nancy Langat (KEN) 2:00.01

2009 World Championships – Caster Semenya (RSA) 1:55.45

2008 Olympic Games – Pamela Jelimo (KEN) 1:54.82

2007 World Championships – Janeth Jepkosgei (KEN) 1:56.04

2006 European Championships – Olga Katlyarova (RUS) 1:57.38

2006 Commonwealth Games – Janeth Jepkosgei (KEN) 1:57.88

2005 World Championships – Zulia Calatayund (CUB) 1:58.82

2004 Olympic Games – Kelly Holmes (GBR) 1:56.38

Candace Hill
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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