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A Marathon of a Year

Published 1 month ago 24th December 2022 by Ronan Quirke

With 2022 drawing to a close your mind tends to look back on the sporting year. RTE has its annual sports awards bash and with so many worthy contenders for the main award it would have been hard to quibble had any of the nominees won the accolade.

As it was, Katie Taylor was as worthy a winner as ever, her continued world domination underlined by her headlining at Madison Square Garden last April against Amanda Serrano. Here in Tipperary our sporting year was as good as ever but you have to look in the less obvious places for sporting glory in 2022. Take hurling, well nothing to see there for our senior intercounty team. A new hand at the tiller in 2023 brings new hope. But our minor hurlers under James Woodlock, and with a generous amount of South Tipp hurlers to boot, smashed and grabbed themselves an All-Ireland. Penalties in a Munster Final. A thrilling final 90 seconds in the semi-final against Galway and then the heroics of Paddy McCormack to break Offaly hearts in the final.

This All Ireland script would have been rejected by Hollywood producers as having too corny a storyline. And then of course the tragic death of Dillon Quirke to remind us all of how unimportant sport is, followed by the emotional outpouring which remind us of how important sport can be.

Our footballers gained promotion from Division 4, playing some terrific football along the way. A league final defeat in Croke Park didn’t lessen that achievement. But underwhelming championship performances both in Munster and the Tailteann Cup marked the year down as average at best.

To really see Tipperary sporting excellence you have to look away from the limelight, towards more individual pursuits. For me, the top Tipperary accolade of the year can be shared between Courtney McGuire and Sean Tobin both of whom ran their first marathons in 2022. It can be hard to explain marathon running to someone who has never ran one. And up until this year both McGuire and Tobin had never ran one. Granted they were noted athletes and elite runners and would have ran with, and had been coached by, mentors for whom marathon running was second nature. But there is a big difference between being told what to expect and then enduring the expected.

In 1952, Czech runner Emil Zatopek made a late decision to run the Olympic marathon in Helsinki. He had just made history by becoming the first man to win gold at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. That would have emptied most mortal athletes. But the army Lieutenant made a late decision to give the marathon distance a shot. He won his third gold medal of the 1952 games, all within a seven day period. He was perhaps in the lucky position of not quite knowing what to expect as he had never attempted the 26.2 mile distance before. Imagine winning an Olympic gold medal at your first attempt at a distance. Later he would remark, ‘if you want to run, run a mile: if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon’.

Not knowing what lay ahead worked to his advantage. He made up his race tactics as he went along, finishing in an Olympic record of 2 hours 23 minutes. Fast forward seventy years and Courtney McGuire from Clonmel Athletic Club is persuaded by coaches Sean Tobin and David Mansfield to give the marathon distance a go. Not knowing what lay ahead worked to her advantage as she too formulated her race tactics as she went along. She finished the Dublin marathon course in a time of 2 hours and 32 minutes, finishing third in the race behind two Ethiopian runners. More importantly, perhaps. she was crowned women’s national marathon champion and her debut attempt at the distance saw her clock the seventh fastest time ever by an Irish woman.

Speaking afterwards on Extra Time she explained that she didn’t really have a time in her head beforehand and how she just wanted to go out and enjoy herself and ‘what would be would be’. It seems scarcely believable that women were forbidden from running the marathon distance at the Olympic Games until 1984. John Treacy had never ran the marathon distance before he laced up his running shoes at those games in Los Angeles. He finished with a silver medal.

So there is something in the fact that, very often, your first marathon is your best. Subsequent attempts appear beset by the challenges of the mind. The tendency to overthink it a little. The mind plays tricks on you as you run the marathon distance. Everything can be going so smoothly before the legs can start to wobble, as Jerry Kiernan discovered when he ran his first marathon in Dublin in 1982. He stopped three times in the latter stages because of cramp before finishing first in 2 hours and 13 minutes. Two years later he ran faster in finishing ninth at the LA games, his achievement eclipsed by Treacy’s silver medal that day.

Sean Tobin too had never ran a marathon before this month. A noted runner of international class, Tobin is well known in athletic circles. But quite what possessed him to choose Antarctica as the location for his first attempt at the 26 mile course is beyond me. Firstly it is noteworthy that running the Antarctic Ice Marathon is ran at altitude, around 7,000ft above sea level. This is roughly the same altitude as Mexico City which hosted the Olympic Games in 1968, the games that saw the emergence of the East African nations, Ethiopia and Kenya, as gold medal winners at distance running events, thanks in no small part to the altitude.

Then, add the cold air to the Antarctic Ice Marathon. It was roughly minus 14 Celsius when Sean ran his marathon last week but factor in the wind chill and you would be experiencing minus 22. Lastly add in the underfoot conditions which Tobin described as being akin to a really soft mucky cross country course, The underfoot conditions were so challenging that he came a cropper on one occasion landing face down into the snow and ice. And this was his first attempt at the distance. And then he went and won it. To put this achievement in perspective it might be worth pointing out that the competitor who finished second was over half an hour behind Tobin.

Sean’s time of 2 hours 53 was a new course record. And that would have been a pretty impressive time had it been run on tarmac with the sun at his back. Not an elite time, but an impressive debut at the distance. He was an emotional man afterwards, visibly upset at the finishing line. Not for any reason other than pure exhaustion. Evidence once again of the mental turmoil that the marathon distance inflicts. At the start line of the 1956 Olympic marathon, Emil Zatopek addressed his fellow competitors, ‘men, today we die a little’. One can only wonder what degree of mental fortitude Sean Tobin needed to get around the Ice Marathon course.

So there you have my highlights from 2022, two Clonmel athletes doing something that they had never done before, and excelling at it. McGuire is only 23 which is young for a marathon runner. Sonia O’Sullivan ran her first marathon aged 31, (she won her debut attempt too by the way). Given the experience she has gained and the words of encouragement that she is receiving from coaches in Clonmel AC, 2023 holds so much opportunity for her. But marathon running is not an exact science. Race preparation takes hours and hours of gruelling training, sometimes in solitude but best achieved as part of a group. The potential for injury is always there.

Sean Tobin has been excelling on an International stage for some time now, running sub four minute miles, winning national championships at 1,500 meters and 10,000 meters. But perhaps his future might be at the longer distance. He is comparatively young too for a marathon runner at 28. He has been in great demand around Europe at elite events such as the Diamond League meetings for his extraordinary pacesetting abilities. Perhaps such a bridesmaid role is no longer for him. His true calling might well be at the 26 mile distance.

Whatever happens, 2023 is a big year for both. And as 2022 draws to a close it is right that we acknowledge the achievements of McGuire and Tobin. Two local athletes, wearing Clonmel AC singlets, and announcing themselves in quite an extraordinary manner.
The town of Clonmel should be so, so proud of them. It’s enough to make you consider taking up running yourself!

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