Twenty-five years on from her first World Championship silver medal, PAUL FITZPATRICK caught up with Catherina McKiernan and found that while helping others is rewarding, she misses the buzz of being among the best in the world.
A warm-down in a stadium thousands of miles away, cheers hanging in the icy air. A thought enters the athlete's mind.
Catherina McKiernan, a 22-year-old office worker from Cavan, Ireland, has just won a silver medal at the World Cross Country Championships here in Franklin Park, Boston and is already thinking of the future.
Twenty-five years on, she considers the innocence of it all, and smiles.
“I remember my brother Peadar was there and I did a little warm-down after the race and I said to him ‘things mightn’t be the same as they used to be’ and he said 'ah, people will forget about it in no time'!” she recalls fondly.
Just four years running seriously back then, she stayed with her friend, the Olympic medallist John Treacy, for a few days and ran the race without her coach, Joe Doonan, after a family illness had forced him to jet home.
His parting comment to her was that she was “in the shape to win a medal”. And off she went and did it - just like that.
“I think when you’re fearless and naive like I was, you just go for it. The girl who was third [Albertina Dias of Portugal], I had beaten her in a lot of races around Europe in the Grand Prix series all that winter and I thought to myself ‘if she’s up there, I’m able to be up there’ because I had beaten her.”
Twenty-five years and 10 days on and she can still hear the crunch of the east coast snow under her feet,still feel the warmth of the welcome home. It was a different time. In some ways, you sense, better, too.
Because the days move on. The glory may last forever but the feeling of winning is fleeting and not even the greatest athletes can carry it with them.
Memories alone will not sustain those who are so driven. How could they? All that you treasure, to misquote the song, is all that you can't leave behind.
“Oh I miss it terribly,” Catherina says of her days at the elite end of world sport.
“There's no point in saying I don't, I do.
“It's the buzz, you miss that buzz. Running down the Mall in London and thousands of people shouting at you – what replaces that buzz? Nothing does. And you never get over it. It's something I have to live with.”
So the fire still burns. She is, she says, “terribly competitive”. She still runs the odd race, just for fun, really. But when the flag is raised, well, old habits die hard...
“I do kill myself. I run faster than I'm fit to run,” she says, half smiling and half grimacing.
A week ago, she took part in a four-mile race in Dunboyne. Gave it everything. Second.
“Was I raging? No, I wasn't raging because I know that any time I line up for a race, I give it 110pc, even now. I can take a beating, I'll say that.
“But you never lose that competitive edge. I keep saying it, it's something you have to live with. People think you're great and you've done all these things and you've achieved all these things but there's an addiction there.
“It is an addiction. You can say it's a healthy addiction but any addiction isn't a healthy addiction. An addiction is an addiction.
“It's like an alcoholic to be honest. They have to live with that. You get over it to a certain extent but they're always on the edge aren't they?”
You shake your head. Does she really liken it to that?
“I would compare it to that, yeah,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I've gone to see Professor Moira O'Brien, she's in Trinity College, she would have helped me a lot during my career. She has dealt with rugby players, soccer players, all of these sort of people after retirement. And they all say the same thing, that's it's hard to cope. It is hard to cope after the competitive years.”
She still runs every day. If she missed a day, fine – if she missed two, she would “begin to shake”, she jokes. Withdrawal kicks in.
“The fact that I know that I can run, that settles me. I'm not saying I run much but four or five miles settles me, it makes me feel good in myself. I have to get my fix, yeah, I admit it.”
When The Celt caught up with her, Catherina was in Crover House, helping launch the Sheelin Challenge. She was genuinely surprised to be presented with a beautiful slate memento of her 1992 success and by the stirring introduction from the organisers.
For someone who was naturally shy, her sporting achievements meant she had to get used to meeting and greeting strangers, accepting the plaudits that came her way. That wasn’t easy but her warm and humble personality, as much as her successes on tarmac, track and grass, meant she was taken into the hearts of the sporting public.
“It is [nice to be recognised], moreso now than when I was in the limelight – I'm better at sharing my thoughts and my feelings about it now than when I was supposed to be, I'm better at talking to people.”
“I miss it a lot and I'd love to be back 25 years ago. You'd miss running really fast, you'd miss feeling really good in yourself, hopping off the ground... There's no doubt about it, I miss all that.
“It's something you have to accept to a certain extent but I will admit it's something I have to live with as well every day, that I can't do that any more.
“People don't fully understand, you have the memories but it's not... They're only memories. They're more important for other people than the individual themselves. Because that drive is still there, you never lose that. You never lose that madness!”
Some top sportspeople go into coaching but that doesn't appeal. McKiernan would grow frustrated, she says, if a young athlete under her supervision didn't match her desire. So, she focuses on older people, on helping 40-somethings and the like to get fit and feel better. There's a reward in that, too.
“I don't coach young children. I do a lot of coaching with joggers, people who want to get fit, people my age, people a little bit younger.
“I know as a parent the stresses in life and it's an escape for people. I teach people good mechanics of running to prevent injuries and make running easier on themselves.
“To be able to help people get out and run for a half an hour, let them feel what that feels like, I get an awful lot of satisfaction in that, moreso than with youngsters. I find youngsters hard work because again you're pushing them whereas I didn't have to be pushed. It wouldn't feel right for me.
“Whereas with the joggers and people that want to do PBs or that sort of thing, or even just running a 5k or a 10k, there's a lot more satisfaction in that. And I know what it takes to reach the heights and I... I haven't come across anybody that would have that commitment. I would find it hard to work with somebody like that.”
There may never be another Irish athlete to match her achievements. Asked about whether female participation in sport has improved since she was in her prime, Catherina uses her 15-year-old daughter as an example.
“There's a big drop-off. There are too many distractions. Deirbhile, my daughter, is a typical example, she has all the facilities, she has my support, she has people to train with, I didn't have any of that, I trained by myself, my mother and father said 'don't be going out, you're killing yourself'... (laughs)
“I think it's an inner drive, if you really want to do it.That's my belief because I did it from sheer drive, commitment, will to do it, the hard work.
“You can't coach it. You can't. It's in you. You can either call it an addiction or a disease or whatever you want but it's in you and you can't pass that on to anyone else.
“People can make excuses. You can encourage people and you can say all these things to them but it only lasts for a certain amount of time and then they drift again. It's built in, you're born with it.”
If she takes after her mother, Deirbhile will certainly have the genes but she will follow her own path.
“I want her to be fit for herself. I suppose, for me, running, even from a very young age, it just gave me a feeling of confidence. She doesn’t need that but I think it’s a great settler, if you get out for a half hour run, it settles the mind and sets you up for the day.
“I’d like her to do it for that but not to be competing, she doesn’t have to do that and she’d probably feel the pressure of my achievements if she had to compete. Naturally, I’d be telling lies, I’d love her to be good at it and want to do it but she doesn’t so I accept that. But at the same time I’d like her to be fit and healthy.”
Having been based in Dublin for many years, she loves returning down the N3 to visit family, where the pace of life is a little slower.
“I’d love to get down more, sure you know yourself, it’s an awful rat race up there. I’d love to get down more and relax. My three brothers and three sisters are married all around Lacken, Ballinagh, Belturbet, Ballyhaise so they’re all close by. It’s different, it settles you. It’s different, friendly, all of that.”
That habit of returning home has never varied. Back in '92, her homecoming spilled across three pages of The Anglo-Celt, with dignitaries and well-wishers mobbing her at every stop on the road.
“She is,” the late Matt Rudden, who had travelled to Boston for the race and spoke to her briefly beforehand, told this paper, “the finest athlete in the world at the minute. Her feet will never run away with her head.”
Prescient words, as were hers to her brother minutes after crossing the finish line. While she returned to her job in Cavan County Council – training at lunchtimes on the local golf course – things had altered radically for a young woman from Cornafean.
“It was life-changing in the sense that any other race that I went to I felt a little bit more pressure – pressure, pressure, pressure. I had already achieved so there was expectation.”
In the next dozen years, she established herself as one of the greatest cross country runners of all time and a magnificent marathon runner. And, pushing her on was the thought of bringing it all back home – and the fear of not.
“For all the races I did, it was more for the supporters, the people in Cavan, to be honest – that was the driving factor.
“I worked hard because, again, these people were facilitating me and I felt if they were doing that, I had to produce the goods.
“The next year it was in Spain, the World Cross Country, and loads of people from Cavan came over to watch the race. I knew that and I felt that I had to give them something to celebrate, I didn’t want them going home after me finishing down the field.
“It was inspirational. When you’re hurting in a race, that was in the back of my mind, ‘these people are here to celebrate my achievement and I have to produce the goods’, so it was something that inspired me, something that drove me.”
She dismisses a suggestions that the pathway for talented kids to follow in her footsteps is a rickety one, if it’s there at all. Her mantra is simple and in many ways, defined her as an athlete - if you want it badly enough – more than anything else – you will find a way.
“I talk to a lot of people alright about up and coming Irish athletes and there's a lot of talent out there – but there’s a lot of talent in Africa.
“People criticise and say that they don’t get supported but… Again, I’m speaking from my experiences. I lived in the arse end of nowhere (laughs) and I wanted to do it. Nobody can build that drive in you. You have to do it.
“Money isn’t going to do it for you. Facilities isn’t going to do it for you. You have to do it yourself, you have to make that breakthrough through sheer hard work and commitment and dedication and just blocking everything else out.
“That’s what I believe, other people would argue that you need some finance, you need to be going away training. But hills are green far off.
“You can do it anywhere. If you really, really want to do it and you have the talent and have the ability, I believe you can do it anywhere.”
And with her place in the pantheon of the greats secured, Catherina is living proof.