Did I ever tell you about the time I beat Sonia O’Sullivan in a race?
Some people need introductions. Sonia O’Sullivan doesn’t. One of Ireland’s greatest long-distance runners, Sonia O’Sullivan the pride of Cobh.
Sonia was perhaps our first truly international female track athlete. She was our girl from Cobh, County Cork who, after eating up the fields of home, had turned her attention internationally and started to win there as well. She was everyone’s daughter, sister and cousin. She was “Our Sonia”, who had a blistering final kick that lit up our summers and our sporting consciousness.
The nation would hold its breath for the first 1,300 metres, 2,800 metres or 4,800 metres of the race she would run and then with 200 metres to go she would kick away. The field would fall apart as her long legs would take her victory and send the nation ecstatic.
Unfortunately, we will also remember the losses when it looked like she was destined to win only for some force of nature to prevent her. If it wasn’t the dodgy Russians in Barcelona, it was the dodgy Chinese in Stuttgart, if it wasn’t the plucky Romanian girl in Sydney it was the yucky diarrhoea in Atlanta; obstacles that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Despite the setbacks “our Sonia” never gave up and would still win a World Championships, three Europeans and medal silver in the Olympics, kicking away each and every time. Throw in a World Cross Country and countless prestigious meets she became the true poster girl for Irish athletics opening the doors and ideas of many young boys and girls after her.
Four years after she retired from competitive running she lined out in her home county marathon, Cork which she had promoted across the country. I had spotted her the day before at the Expo and had felt too awkward to say hello so it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself standing right beside her at the start line the following morning! You see the Cork City Marathon, in 2011 anyway, was not the biggest of affairs. It had good numbers but was no Dublin and as a result, a man chasing a sub 3-hour time like myself could find himself not far from the front of the race, which is where I came to be standing beside Sonia.
Noticing photographers about and afraid I’d trip her up or something I decided to slip a few feet back from her as they snapped away. And a few minutes later we were off.
I’d say it was no more than a kilometre or two that Sonia’s calf gave up. I presumed it was her calf as that’s what I remembered her holding as I passed her by not 5 minutes or more into the race. However, her story didn’t end there. That’s not our Sonia. Running in her home marathon and in aid of the Children’s Leukaemia Association, she was not going to give up or allow the small matter of a leg injury from preventing her completing the remaining 40 odd kilometres!!! Nope, she kept going and in a time of 5 hours 5 minutes and 48 seconds she finally crossed the line.
I had ran quicker, but there wasn’t any doubt as to who had ran tougher.
Our Sonia. What a star!
15 minute warm-up, 25 minute race pace, 10 minute warm-down. At the very, very end I could feel the calf tighten ever so slightly. Fingers crossed it’s just the getting back into it.