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Winning miles

The 2019 KBC Dublin Marathon returned two new Irish national champions. Ian O’Riordan chatted to Stephen Scullion and Aoife Cooke following their super successes

Stephen Scullion can’t specify the exact number of times he told himself he was done with competitive running after finishing the World Championship marathon in Doha at the start of October. Neither his position (43rd) nor his time (2:21:31) offered him any great reason to continue.

 What matters is that he didn’t stick by that decision. After returning to his US training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, he was immediately coaxed out of it by his coach, Stephen Haas, who told him he had ‘the best job in the world’ and that running the Dublin Marathon could offer some swift consolation.

Exactly three weeks after Doha, Scullion proved Haas correct, taking second place in a personal best of 2:12:01 the fastest time by any Irish man in 17 years, and also putting the Belfast runner well on course to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

Aoife Cooke from Co Cork, the top Irish woman in the 2019 KBC Dublin Marathon. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

Stephen Scullion from Clonliffe Harriers AC, the first Irish male winner of the men’s category in the 2019 KBC Dublin Marathon. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

Determination

It also underlined his steely determination as a distance runner. It wasn’t the first time the 31-year-old had questioned his future in the sport, and probably not the last, and there’s a message in there for anyone chasing such lofty ambitions or goals.

“I swear to God, after the race in Doha, I wanted to quit, wanted to retire, and cried, I was so disappointed,” he admitted, in part because he believed he’d given himself every chance of running well even in the searing heat of Qatar.

“Everything over the three weeks after that was about turning it from sadness to anger to putting it all out here, and thankfully it all worked out so well.”

Everyone had the same 26.2 miles to run and promises to keep, only on a day sent straight from distance-running heaven Scullion’s run was the highlight of the race. He might well have won outright had the organisers realised that winner, Othmane El Gourmi from Morocco, was lining up just nine months after returning to the sport following a two-year doping ban.

Had they known when they received his race entry via his agent, they insist they would not have invited him. On the day, El Gourmi clocked the fastest marathon ever run in this country, his 2:08:06 almost half a minute quicker than the Dublin course record, set in 2011.

Fighting spirit

Never shy to speak his mind, Scullion still declared himself a ‘winner’, which on several levels, he was: as first Irish finisher he also earned his first National Marathon title, his 2:12:01 also improving his previous best of 2:14:34, set in Houston in January.

“Arguably I might have won the thing if he wasn’t here,” he said. “But look, I feel like a winner inside, that’s a victory for me. I’ve always taken a stance that drug cheats can do whatever they want, I can’t control it. What else can I do. Not stand on the medal podium? Not buy into it?

“I want to enjoy my moment, and in six- or nine-months’ time if he gets done for another doping violation, then I’m the champ. If the crowd want to believe I’m the champ, let them say. And when the room goes dark at night, I go to bed content knowing I’m clean.”

Four Irish men all made the top 10: Mick Clohisey, defending Irish champion, sixth in a best of 2:13:19; Hugh Armstrong, eighth in his best 2:14:22; and Sean Hehir, 10th in 2:16:01.

For Scullion, his win was rewarding in other ways too, especially given just under three years ago he was still smoking, well over his natural running weight, and by his own frank admission getting drunk almost every weekend, either on the couch, or ending up there. He trained himself in web development to help fund his comeback, works about 15 hours a week, and is now intent on fulfilling his Olympic ambitions.

“I was so fit, knew I was ready to go well. I’ll get a lot of points as well, towards Tokyo, so that’s good. And I just love racing and finishing as well. The hardest part was not getting involved until mile 16. On my left arm I wrote ‘ego’, which means don’t race people too early, then ‘hills’, for obvious reasons, then ‘patience’.

“That was for the first 20 miles, then I wrote ‘animal’ on the right arm, for the last six miles. I got into around fourth place, at mile 22, saw Mick just ahead of me, and I just kept pounding, pounding. At 24 miles I said ‘f***’ the heart rate, just race. And I loved it. Irish people have something the rest of the world doesn’t, this warrior spirit.” With Patrick Monahan also securing another wheelchair title in 1:39:50, Dublin Marathon number 40 gave us plenty to cheer about.

KBC Dublin Marathon/National Championships Results:

Men

1. Stephen Scullion (Clonliffe Harriers AC) 2:12:01

2. Mick Clohisey (Raheny Shamrocks) 2:13:19

3. Hugh Armstrong (Ballina AC) 2:14:22

Women

1. Aoife Cooke (Eagle AC) 2:32:34

2. Ann-Marie McGlynn (Letterkenny AC) 2:32:54

3. Gladys Ganiel (North Belfast Harriers) 2:36:42

Cooke’s recipe for success

The story behind Aoife Cooke winning her first Irish Marathon title at age 33 is not too dissimilar to Scullion’s: she also had a promising junior career, gaining a running scholarship to Arkansas, before repeated injuries began to wear her down and she too drifted away from the sport.

Like Scullion, her decision to return and persist also paid dividends, taking some 14 minutes off her previous best when clocking 2:32:34 to finish top Irish woman on the day, eighth best female overall, in what was only her third attempt at the marathon distance.

 At 33, still relatively young by marathon running standards, Cooke may only be getting going. The Cork woman ran down Ann-Marie McGlynn in the closing two miles, finishing 20 seconds clear in the race for the National Marathon title, with Gladys Ganiel also making the most of the perfect conditions to run a personal best of 2:36:42 to finish third best Irish women, aged 42.

“It’s only really the last year that running became the proper priority as well. My whole lifestyle changed, evolved around getting enough sleep, nutrition and recovery in between all the training,” said Cooke, who runs with the Eagle AC in Cork city, where she lives.

Gallery

High five for marathon-man Monahan

It says a lot about both the humility and ambition of Patrick Monahan that he needed to be gently reminded that he’s now won five Dublin Marathon wheelchair race titles. The latest of those five – coming in the 40th anniversary of the event – added to the titles won in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, but truth is Monahan rarely pauses to dwell on his past achievements. He’s already looking forward, if not to his next marathon then something even bigger. For 2020, that will be the Tokyo Paralympics, having already represented Ireland in Rio 2016.

“Is that number five? I don’t even know!” Monahan admitted in the aftermath of his Dublin win - by some nine minutes, his 1:39:50 well clear of Callum Hall of England who placed second in 1:48:44, and Tiann Bosch from South Africa, third in a time of 1:49:58.

“I didn’t win last year, and not 2013, so ‘14, ‘15, ‘16, ‘17, so five, yeah!”

 By the finish of Dublin, he was already looking ahead to the New York Marathon the following Sunday, where Daniel Romanchuk became the first American to win that wheelchair division two years in a row, capturing his fifth major race in 2019. He won with a time of 1:37:24 seconds, Monahan finishing eighth in 1:39:59.

So, he was probably keeping a little back during his Dublin win: “I wouldn’t say keeping much in reserve! I felt pretty good at halfway, and I thought I might get the course record, then out around Crumlin it started to get a little tougher, so I pulled it back a bit. I’m not saying I pulled it back a lot, so it was nice to come back in a little bit fresher.

“So under 1:40 anyway, my second fastest in Dublin. In decent conditions. Great atmosphere again. And Dublin was my first marathon, so if it was just another course, I probably wouldn’t do it. It’s the one I get really excited about.”

Two weeks before Dublin, he also raced in Chicago, finished 12th in 1:33.51 on a cold and windy morning, with just 20 seconds between second and 13th: “There were 12 of us within 15 seconds, so the standard has gone through the roof, which is really good. It’s just to place as high as you can.”

Now aged 33, Monahan then finished his season in Japan at Oita Marathon in Japan, clocking 1:35:39, his standout performance of the season back  in June, where he delivered an exceptionally strong performance in the Grandma’s marathon, Duluth Minnesota. He got away in the first mile with Aaron Pike of the USA and they worked together until around mile 20, with Monahan holding on for second with a massive personal best of1:22:23, previously 1:29:11.
Making a second Paralympics in 2020, after competing in Rio and also being first inspired by the London 2012 Paralympics, is that big ambition, yet chased with enduring humility.

He only started in Paralympics events relatively late, aged 28, after a car accident at age 21, in March 2007, when Monahan was driving to work as an apprentice plumber in Naas. “I was going too fast, simple as that. There was no one to blame, other than me being foolish. I hit a few corners and the car flipped over,” he once recalled. Into 2019, and he continued to drive the wheelchair event to fresh and higher standards. Watch this space.


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