Sticking to the plan
Strategic planning but, more importantly, sticking to it was key on race day, she explains. That meant allowing the leading group to do the work rather than her.
“On paper, these girls are faster than me, so why would I lead? It wouldn’t make sense. The plan was to run a six-minute pace, to get through the first half safely and see what was left in the legs.” Plenty, as it turned out.
“Donie told me to go through the first half in 1:18 and I went through in just over 1:17. I felt great and I knew he wasn’t going to kill me over that,” she laughs.
But when you are in the midst of one of the biggest races of your career, keeping the mind focused and the mind games at bay can sometimes be tricky.
“There was a point when I did panic for two or three minutes,” says Lee.
“At about mile 20 or 21, Natasha Cockram had come out of nowhere, and suddenly there were five of us [Ethiopians, Motu Gedefa and Mesera Dubiso (who went on to win), Caroline Jepchirchir from Kenya and Cockram from Wales].
“I thought that I was going to go from challenging for a podium spot to come in fifth place and the second Irish woman [Lee had mistaken the Welsh colours of Cockram’s singlet to an Irish club colours]. I thought, I have come too far and I’m too old and I want this title so much and I’m not giving it up.
“The Ethiopians picked it up on Foster’s Avenue and we were averaging 5:57 at this stage; I let them go and Natasha and Caroline went with them. I had to let them go. I thought, if I do 5:15 now, they’ll catch me eventually. When I rounded the corner on Foster’s Avenue, Caroline and Natasha were just in front of me and they were breathing heavily. I knew the last hill was up ahead – they might not have known that that, but I did! So, I just hammered it up the slip way at UCD and over the bridge. When I got to the corner of Nutley Lane, a man just shouted at me that I had 800m to go and I said right, I’m going to run through a wall here. I don’t care. I was going to be on a podium with a national title. I think my last three miles were my fastest of the day.”
With such a strong race run and with such power in the legs over the last three miles, could she have won it outright? Lee is clear in her answer: “I think people might wonder if I could have won the whole thing, but I couldn’t have. Dubiso and Gedefa were going to do 5:15 home and I wasn’t capable of that. The winner put a minute and a half to me in the last mile, that’s 30 seconds per mile, and I was going faster than I have ever closed in a marathon before. I’m proud that I got on the podium. The national title was the primary goal, anything else was secondary.”
Mental and physical endurance
Running a marathon requires buy-in from the mind and the body in equal measure, says Lee. You can’t succeed with one and not the other and that was proven in Dublin.
“I think a marathon is 50 per cent mental and 50 per cent legs. There’s very little talent in a marathon, it’s very much about consistent slog and your head on the day. In Berlin, I let my head go and I was disappointed with myself when I got to the finish line. I just didn’t get the best out of myself and I was really annoyed. For Dublin, I focused a lot on staying positive.” Scooping the national title was the obvious reason for this focus, but there were others too, she says.
“One big reason for Dublin was for race director, Jim Aughney, who has been so supportive of me since way back in 2009, and Dick Hooper too.
“When I was coming down through Ballsbridge, I knew Donie and Jim were going to be at the finish line – I couldn’t wait to see the look on Jim’s face when I got on that podium. As I was passing them, he put his hand up for a high five and I wanted to stop and hug him. I was so happy he was there and sharing this with me. I felt very emotional.” For Donie, too, winning in Dublin was a massive reward, a true cherry on top of the partnership they have had since 2009. “At my wedding, my dad stood up and said to my husband, Paul: ‘Paul there’s only one man in the world that Lizzie listens to, it’s not me and it’s not you either’. Because that’s the way it is with Donie,” she laughs.
At 38 years and with two young children, Lee’s running achievements are immense. And while it certainly wasn’t a case of ‘last chance saloon’, there is no denying the physical demand required to race at this level, and win, particularly when trying to out-run athletes in their early 20s and 30s. She is unfazed and unapologetic about highlighting the post-pregnancy feats of female sportspeople.
“I have seen some negative things online about me mentioning the kids but when you are talking about returning to elite sports, post-pregnancy, it is 150 per cent relevant. It is not a cruciate surgery that you have been through. It’s not like you have injured something and you have a bit of rehab to do. Absolutely not, you are back to minus-10, back to rebuilding your body. You cannot stand on one leg, you will fall over! So, for me, to get back to that, twice, in a short period of time, I’m immensely proud of that. I had a lot of help from strength and conditioning coach, Joe O’Connor, who works with the Limerick hurling team.” And she is quick to praise the support she receives from her family and friends too.
Duty of care
Lee considers highlighting this particular aspect of female sports to be very important and is something she says she will continue to be vocal about: “So other mothers can see that they can do it too. During the pregnancy, all anyone sees is a pregnant woman and the pregnancy is all you are concerned about. Your mind switches straight away and you are protective of the baby; it’s all you think about. Every waking moment is this baby, so to come out the other side and find life after the baby and do the things that you’re passionate about, to find ‘you’ again, without being ‘just’ a mom is important – to talk about it and celebrate it and show other women that it can be done. And I’m not just talking about running. I’m talking about whatever your passion is. You obviously need support from your partner and good communication with your partner is essential but if they love you they’ll want to support you. It is a two-way thing.”
Lee feels that she has a duty of care to the sport she loves so much, to encourage its growth and to be a role model – although it is hard to comprehend that running is a ‘hobby’ for her. “It is my hobby, I don’t know how else to describe it? It’s not my job, I work full-time in Apple and my kids will always come first,” she explains.
“But if there is anything we can do to encourage participation among females in sport, we need to do it because the drop-off rate between primary school and secondary school is so high. When I visit a Cork school, I tell them, ‘guys push yourselves. I went to school two miles from here and I went to the Olympics, anything is possible. Keep it up, play all sports, try everything’. If I can encourage one little girl to do that, then fabulous. If me taking an hour out of my day to visit a school, resonates with even two or three girls in that hall then my work is done.”