Athletics

'I very much compete in athletics to race for Ireland; that's been my driving force the whole time I've been involved, and that opportunity isn't going to happen this year. That's quite hard…'

With Tokyo 2020 now Tokyo 2021, Ciara Mageean talks to Neil Loughran about hopes, fears, guitar lessons, lockdown life, podcasts, Portaferry and camogie dreams

Ciara Mageean reached the 1,500m final at the World Championships last October, running a personal best time of 4:00:15 to finish in 10th. Picture by PA

WHATEVER you didn’t know, or didn’t think you needed to know, it’s there. The sad songs of country music penned by Bobby ‘The King of Tears’ Braddock? Chapter and verse. The impact of grammar in the interpretation of law? You bet. If it’s a statistical analysis of lyrical lapses in Elvis Presley’s performances you’re after, including what they tell us about his state of mind at that point in time, look no further.

Malcolm Gladwell and his Revisionist History podcast series have helped wile away many an hour when Ciara Mageean hasn’t been pounding the pavements and paths around the greater Manchester village of Marple.

“Sometimes I like to veer off sport because my whole life focuses on that. It’s weird… I get intimidated by how much other sportspeople know. I’m not a big sports buff, either about my own sport or other sports.

“My housemate Jip [Vastenburg] could tell you anything about cycling, where I’d be pointing out a sparrowhawk or a buzzard when we’re out on a run. I suppose everybody has their own interests in life.”

And for Ciara Mageean, so many of those interests and so much of her identity is bound in the blue and gold of Portaferry. At school she even refused to use a HB pencil because it was coated in the black and yellow stripes of neighbours Ballycran.

Family, friends, hurling, camogie, they are all ties that bind, and never more than when so far from reach. Any connection to home, therefore, is lapped up. A recent piece in these pages with Down and Portaferry legend Noel Sands raised a smile when it was needed.

Mageean’s father Chris featured prominently as one anecdote rolled into another – with the tale of an aborted bus journey home from a game in Roscommon, resulting in a break for freedom and a night on the tiles in Monaghan town, sending the family WhatsApp aflutter.

“We ended up hiding in a graveyard, there was snow everywhere,” recalled Sands.

“The bus pulled up at the churchyard and we were hiding behind the chapel. Bo Dynes and Paddy Mason was along with him – that was Lawrence’s father. So Paddy shouts up at us: ‘Come down, lads. Be sensible about this. It’ll be alright.’

“Paddy was trying to talk us down. It was dark. It was cold. There was bramble over the wire fence that led to the outskirts of the town. And I remember Lawrence shouting back at his father: ‘f**k off da, we’re away!’

“So we jumped the fence, over the bramble and down into the town and we got liquored up.”

“The fella that told his dad to f-off, that was my uncle Lawrence, shouting to my granda,” laughs Mageean.

“I’ve heard about that story too so any time my daddy tells any of us off for misbehaving, I remind him about the time they missed the bus home. I’d say Lawrence got a clip on the ear from my granny Kathleen when he got back after that.

“I never get tired of hearing all the stories from back then, and the family were having a right laugh at some of the stories Noel was telling.”

She has only faint memories of her dad, who went by the menacing moniker ‘Hunter’, with a hurl in hand (“I vaguely remember him having scars all over his face”). Instead, Chris’s cousin Paul Braniff and, in particular, her aunt Edel were sporting idols when she was finding her way.

There is no doubt that the determination and fearlessness Chris Mageean brought onto the field has filtered down to his daughter, but 2020 has thrown up a set of challenges as extreme as she has ever faced.

Olympic postponement, cancelled training camps, homesickness, frustration, uncertainty; the snowball effect has taken a toll at times. Yet now she can see the bigger picture, and just how much distance there is left to run.

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THERE was a while there when she didn’t need ear plugs in to get a good night’s sleep. Since moving to Manchester in 2018, Ciara Mageean has occupied the bedroom at the front of the house she shares with fellow athletes Jip Vastenburg and Adam Craig.

Lockdown temporarily put an end to the steady stream of traffic passing by her window as soon as the sun came up but, in the past few weeks, the hum of rubber on road has grown louder, bit by bit.

“In England it seems a bit ‘anything goes, work away’ whereas the rest are more ‘hang on a minute lads’.

“So many people are out exercising now, you can sense it getting a bit busier. It feels like peoples’ tolerance for it all is slowly starting to wane, which is a wee bit worrying.”

Since restrictions on the daily amount of exercise were lifted a few weeks back, life has gradually returned to something approaching normality for Mageean and her housemates.

“To be honest, this is pretty much what our lives are always like. You’re restricted in that you can’t see people, can’t see family, but we’re quite used to managing time.

“At the start we did a few TikToks for the craic. Right now, Jip and Adam are on the Xbox playing. I’m not much into gaming, and they sit there all day. I tend to go to my room and chat to my family, read… oh, and I’m trying to learn the guitar,” she adds excitedly before breaking into nervous laughter.

“I’m actually embarrassed I told you that now. It was a moving to Manchester present from my boyfriend Thomas. I’m here two-and-a-bit years - I think I know three chords.

“I’m trying to practise every couple of days. I’m so disciplined in athletics, I’ll never skip a session or miss anything, but sometimes I think all my discipline’s been used up there.

“Thomas has been telling me I have to play him a song for a long time now. I think he’s given up hope, but maybe I can surprise him some day.”

Such distractions have proven invaluable at a trying time. In the first few weeks after the postponement of the Olympic Games was confirmed, there were days when she didn’t want to run at all.

Even now, it’s hard not to think about where she would have been and what she would have been doing had the Covid-19 pandemic not struck, with Mageean’s preparation for Tokyo 2020 having been planned to the nth degree by coach Steve Vernon.

“I wasn’t surprised when the Olympic Games were postponed, I’d prepared myself for that. The discussions about whether or not it will happen next year are probably a little bit more disturbing… I find that a bit more upsetting, to think ‘will I actually miss an Olympics?’ That’s something I don’t want to even entertain.

“Because I had pretty much accepted the Olympics would be delayed, it was nearly easier for me than when the European Championships were cancelled. Again, I knew it wasn’t going to go ahead, but when it was confirmed I was surprised by how much that upset me.

“Steve had tried to keep us all upbeat, looking towards the Europeans - that was the last little glimmer of a championship, so it was a blow. I very much compete in athletics to race for Ireland; that’s been my driving force the whole time I’ve been involved, and that opportunity isn’t going to happen this year. That’s quite hard… to know you don’t have a championship to get ready for.

“I seem to be able to lift myself up on those big days and perform better at a championship than at other races. I run PBs in championships, which other people just don’t do.

“As well as that, myself and the team had already invested in training camps [for the year ahead]. Steve’s quite organised and he would book those far in advance. I had already booked flights that I need to try to cancel but airlines are wanting to give you credit, even if you might not be flying with them.

“There was a financial investment, but more important for me was the investment made in my head because the whole year was planned out.”

'I very much compete in athletics to race for Ireland; that’s been my driving force the whole time I’ve been involved'. Picture by PA

If that was a significant mental hurdle to overcome, the Olympic postponement came at a personal cost too.

Mageean’s boyfriend Thomas Moran, also a runner who was represented Ireland in the past, lives in Dublin. It’s over two months now since the couple last saw each other, a situation that appears unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

They had big plans for this year but those, like Tokyo 2020, they have had to be put on the backburner.

“I look forward to seeing him at least once a month, now I don’t know when I’ll get to see him. That gets you a little bit down.

“He was going to travel with me this summer, help me train, then possibly move to Manchester and maybe look into getting a house after the Olympics. That was going to be a really big step in my life.

“Now that’s on hold, I can’t do that. I’m very honest with Thomas and I’ve told him I’m not ready to move in until after the Olympic cycle because I need to be fully focused on that, so that postpones that aspect of our lives for another year.

“That’s the selfish athlete’s life, but I’m lucky I have someone who’s so understanding and supportive.”

And perspective, as she has found, is never too far away.

“I know I’m very lucky I can still train, I live with nice people. I found a little hill in the estate behind me so I go there and do my hill strides - the neighbours probably think I’m a headcase. We have a gym set up in the basement and the garden so we pull the wheelie bins around, get our squats done, dead lifts and then just fill the rest of the day.

“In reality, sport is such a small aspect of life; I know it’s my entire life and I’m in a bubble here, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not important. My problems are very small compared to most people.

“My daddy’s a joiner and he’s trying to figure out how to work through this. My little brother graduated from Performing Arts school in September, so he didn’t even have a tax year behind him because he only finished uni.

“My little sister’s in Liverpool, she’s on a six month placement because they called in all the nursing students. It’s an hour away from me, the same drive roughly as Portaferry to Belfast… I wish I could go to her, I’d love to help her through this time, but I can’t.

“I can’t travel to Liverpool, I can’t give her a hug because she’s been working on Covid wards… all of these dynamics are so tricky for all of us.”

Yet light is beginning to creep in under the door where previously there was none. Earlier this month the Diamond League announced provisional dates for the end of summer/autumn. Mageean is in touch with coach Vernon every day, and the morning before we speak they have already been on Zoom plotting a potential course of action.

It feels good to be finally talking about something tangible rather than staring into the abyss. Athletes, more than anybody else, simply cannot afford to stand still.

Mageean came into this year in the form of her life after running a personal best of 4:00:15 in the World Championship 1,500m final in Doha last October. That time would have been enough to win gold in seven of the eight previous tournaments.

Sonia O'Sullivan's long-standing 1,500m record of 3:58.85 remains firmly in her sights but at 28 - 29 by the time Tokyo 2021 rolls around - she knows there is absolutely no time to waste.

“Our lives aren’t on hold. People say to me ‘why don’t you just have time off?’ They probably don’t realise that I get a week off a year.

“Even at that, when me and Steve talk about me having downtime, I have to keep running because my body’s like a car. If I left it without moving, when I started running again you wouldn’t believe the pain I could be in.

“I get very jealous because I see sprinters who can take two months off at a time – I couldn’t do that because I probably wouldn’t get running again. I’d be a crock! The older I’ve got as an athlete, it’s just something I’ve had to come to terms with.

“We don’t have an end goal necessarily this year, but I have complete faith in Steve that he will line up my training, keep me fit, optimise all the areas that need to be trained but also not push me too far.

“You can still hone race tactics by looking at previous races and learning from that. It’s not something I overly enjoy, I won’t lie about that; I don’t like watching my old races. I go through the exact same emotions as I do on race day but I have to force myself to do it sometimes.

“In the past I looked at how someone like Jenny Simpson raced. I found her a fantastic tactician. She’s not necessarily the fastest 1,500m runner in the world but she gets herself into positions where she’s in with the chance of a medal in every single championship.

“That’s the perfect example of an athlete I can model myself on. I’m not going to watch how [world champion] Sifan Hassan runs the 1,500m because, no… that’s not how I’ll ever run it. But there’s loads I can work on to keep my head in the game, and not dwell too much on the negatives because there’s enough of them out there.”

Eyes forward towards a dream that is still alive and kicking. There are many more good days than bad now, and Ciara Mageean knows Portaferry will still be there when all this comes to an end.

The craic, the stories, everything really. She can’t wait be part of it all again.

“I’d love to go back home and play camogie some day. It’s something I’ve always thought I would do. Hopefully I’ll have a long career in athletics, but I’d like to think there’ll be a bit of life left in the old dog when I do go back to it, tearing about a camogie pitch.

“They’ll be like ‘oh no, Ciara’s back and she’s making us run laps’. Growing up, my whole life was down in Portaferry club, it’s where my love for sport started and I’d love to see it come full circle. Now I’m 28, you do start thinking where will I settle down? Where will I have a family?

“I’m a real homebird and when you’re away, you do start to look at the bigger picture. I just want to get back to Ireland and see everybody again, but I know that will come.”

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Athletics