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Keeping it country

For all her modest and often understated reflection, Fionnuala McCormack can’t completely shy away from her own successes of 2019 – most recently, her spectacular win at the National Cross Country Championships. If anything, the evidence of her enduring brilliance became increasingly compelling as the year passed – all wrapped with qualification for her fourth Olympics in Tokyo next summer, writes Ian O’Riordan

Fionnuala McCormack of Kilcoole AC, Co. Wicklow, on her way to winning the Women’s 5,000m at the National Senior Track & Field Championships earlier this year.

A return to the world cross-country stage, where just six months after giving birth to daughter Isla, she took on a tough course in Aarhus, Denmark, at least partly designed to test the East African challenge, and proved one of the few Europeans to properly rise to it.

In the end, her 18th place left McCormack second best European, and secured her own second best placing after Bydgoszcz in Poland in 2013, where she finished 14th and top European overall. She also won her 37th Irish senior international cap, to extend her record in athletics for an Irish woman.

Just two weeks later, she ran her first marathon since the Rio Olympics in 2016, lining up in Hopkinton for the famed Boston Marathon, producing another stellar run to finish 11th best woman overall, running a new lifetime best of 2:30.38 – and falling just short of an automatic qualifying spot for Tokyo.

It improved on her previous marathon best of 2:31.22 she ran to finish 20th in the Rio: she finished just six seconds behind 10th-place finisher, Kenyan Betsy Saina, and a top-10 finish would have ensured qualification for Tokyo. The official Olympic qualifying time, set at 2:29.30, was clearly within her reach.

Fionnuala with her sister Una Britton (left), both of Kilcoole AC, Co. Wicklow, after winning gold and bronze medals in the Senior Women event during the National Cross Country Championships.

Thoughts of Tokyo

After quietly going about her running business over the summer, not forgetting another National track title, when she took the 5,000m in late July in 15:51.92, winning by over a minute, she next targeted another Marathon Major in Chicago in September – again with Tokyo in mind.

A month after her 35th birthday, she produced one of the runs of her life, finishing a superb fifth in 2:26:47 to carve almost four minutes off her personal best. That secured her automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympic marathon, in a race marked by Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei world record of 2:14:04, obliterating the previous record of 2:15:25, which was set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003.

 “Having just missed the top 10 by a few seconds, in Boston in April, it was very satisfying to improve on that and get a top five finish in Chicago,” she says. It also moved her closer to Catherina McKiernan’s Irish record of 2:22:23 set in 1998, Mayo-born Sinead Diver the only other Irish woman to have run faster with her 2:24:11. 

“And I think I recovered pretty well. The plan is to race again on the roads in the spring, a half marathon or two, and if needs be, another marathon, in the build-up to Tokyo.”

Qualifying for a fourth Olympics is no easy feat, especially in distance running, yet 12 years after competing in the 3,000m steeplechase in Beijing in 2008, her motivation for that ultimate stage hasn’t in any way dwindled: “In 2007 when I first ran an Olympic qualifying time in the steeplechase, I would never have considered that 12 years later, I would be back preparing for my fourth shot at an Olympics. 

“I wasn’t someone who grew up dreaming of being an Olympian but I always wanted to be better and, in our sport, the stage to be your best is the Olympics, so I’m still very much motivated to be better on that stage.”


What she’s not so sure about is the recent decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the 2020 Tokyo marathon and race walks some 800km north to Sapporo, in Hokkaido, in the hope the conditions will be cooler – only denying the chance to finish in the Olympic Stadium in the process.

“It annoys me that the athletes have been used as pawns in what can only be a political decision to take the marathons and race walks away from Tokyo. It appears to have been a decision forced on the Tokyo Local Organising Committee and Tokyo residents, who will be most impacted by the decision.

“For the athletes I don’t think conditions will be much different in Sapporo than in Tokyo. This year for example, on the August 2, the weather was the same in both places. It will be tough conditions for racing either venue, so I would still look forward to it.”

First love

Returning to cross country in 2019 was also special, rounded off nicely with a gold at the National Cross Country Championships recently, where she and her sister, Una Britton, made history by becoming the first sisters to share a podium at national, senior level. And with the European Cross Country returning to Dublin in 2020 – a race Fionnuala won twice before, in 2011 and 2012 – there’s plenty more incentive there too.

“I have always loved cross country, so I would say I am still motivated by what was my first love in the sport. It’s exciting to be able to go out and compete on an undulating, mucky, tough, ‘level playing field’ where times and shoe technology don’t have an impact and it comes down to the purest element of our sport, racing!”

Now coached by her husband Alan, motherhood hasn’t changed her love or approach to running either, only enhanced it.

“The family support that I’ve always been so lucky to have has meant that there has been very little negative impact on my training over the last year. I suppose like any mother, I think my daughter is just perfect, so having her around can only enhance all aspects of my life including training.”


For all her modesty, she also plans on runner faster again in 2020: her advice for any runner looking to improve on speed is to slowly introduce some interval sessions, only when base fitness allows.

“It can also depend on who you are and what you are able for and aiming for. If you are building up fitness it might make more sense to run more often than jump into interval sessions. People as well ask about the role of breathing but I’m not sure, I think we just do it.” Understated, to the end.

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