We have a look at the “normal” journeys by Irish athletes Lizzie Lee, Claire McCarthy, Laura Graham, Breege Connolly and Gladys Ganiel to reach the international stage.
There is a disregard for everything you have heard about performance funnels, talent ID and the professional sportsperson when you take a closer look at the women’s team selected to represent Ireland at the European Championships later this summer.
Three of the five athletes didn’t even take up the sport until their late 20s, and none of them represented Ireland as a junior.
While they may not be challenging for medals in the German capital in August, with an average age of 38, 11 children between them, and three full-time careers outside of parenthood, this may well be the most interesting bunch of athletes ever to wear the green of Ireland.
Here we find out more about the quintet and their individual stories to reaching the international stage, while juggling work, motherhood and hectic schedules.
Olympian Lee, a full-time project manager and mother of two, finished 57th in the heat of Rio back in 2016, and with a best of 2:32:51, is the fastest in the team. Indeed, despite only taking up athletics in her late twenties, the 38-year-old is one of the most prominent and consistent Irish distance runners of the last decade.
She made her Irish debut in 2010, less than 12 months after linking up with Cork-based coach Donie Walsh, who gradually weaned her off triathlon training. Lee then burst into the public consciousness in 2012 when she was the fourth scorer on the gold medal winning European cross country team.
In 2015, with the Olympic marathon qualifier under her belt, she finished 13th at Euro Cross, captaining the team to bronze.
Most recently, Lee and her Leevale club mate Claire McCarthy ran personal bests at the recent World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia.
McCarthy was Ireland’s sole female marathon representative at last summer’s World Championships in London. The 41-year-old ran a well-controlled race along the banks of the Thames, moving through the field in the final stages to finish 33rd.
Her half marathon PB in Valencia suggests that she’s in as good a shape as ever, and the mother of four is targeting another PB in Berlin.
The Leevale runner says she “didn’t even come close” to making an Irish team as a junior. Indeed, she didn’t earn her first international vest until she was 35 years old at the European Cross Country Championships in Velenje, Slovenia. Inspired by that experience, and Fionnuala McCormack’s win that day, she has been steadily improving ever since.
At 32, Graham is the baby of the team, both in terms of age and running years, but as the mother of four children, she is hardly short on life experience. She caught the eye of keen followers of the sport in 2016 when she followed a 2:48:13 marathon in London with a 2:48:56 performance in Belfast just eight days later.
Graham had just started running seriously the previous year, and her decent back-to-back results suggested there was a lot more to come. She repeated the quick London/Belfast turnaround in 2017, this time running 2:41:46 to become the first Northern Irish woman in almost three decades to win the Belfast City Marathon.
The Mourne runner followed that up with a 2:37:05 PB in Berlin last September, and then retained her Irish marathon title with 2:39:07 in Dublin five weeks later.
The rise to the international stage has been a rapid one for Graham, who works part-time at the local leisure centre in Kilkeel in Northern Ireland. She made her Irish debut in Valencia in March, and looks ahead to Berlin after another strong performance in Belfast this year.
Like Lee and Graham, Connolly was a late arrival to the sport of running. Though an active child, she wasn’t formally involved in any sport, instead spent her time playing the traditional flute.
On a year travelling with her cousin Theresa Doherty in their late twenties, they both took up running. She then found the sport a useful way to integrate herself into a new social network when she subsequently moved to Belfast and joined up North Belfast Harriers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Connolly, a senior software tester, was, for some, a surprise qualifier for the Olympics in 2016, but she says that being selected for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow “was the confidence booster that set her the route to targeting the Olympics”. She adds that her breakthrough run was the cumulation of 10 years of patient chipping away at her marathon times.
Now wearing the vest of City of Derry Spartans, Connolly ran 2:37:26 in her most recent marathon in Valencia five months ago, which was just two seconds short of her 2015 personal best.
A mother to a three year-old boy, Ganiel was born in Maine, USA, and has lived in Ireland since 1999, though her Irish connection goes back even further. In 1995 she was a member of Ray Treacy’s Providence College NCAA Championship-winning cross country team, alongside Marie McMahon and Maria McCambridge.
The North Belfast Harrier competed for Ireland at the European Mountain Running Championships in 2013 and in the half marathon at the last European Championships in Amsterdam in 2016.
She placed 12th in the marathon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland and ran a personal best 2:37:55 for the distance in Berlin last September.
When not a long-distance runner, Ganiel is a research fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queens University in Belfast. There her main research interests include “the Northern Ireland conflict, evangelicalism, Christianity in Ireland, the emerging church, and charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe and South Africa”.
In addition to her teaching and research work, she has authored or co-authored four books, edited two more, and has other publications in the pipeline. And she likes to take her research findings out to a wider audience, with community engagement an important aspect to her career, and somewhat of a hobby.
On working, motherhood and hectic schedules
When asked about fitting work within their lives, the women were quick to reiterate that they wouldn’t have it any other way. Ganiel, who replaces a daily commute to work with twice-a-day runs, says: “when my job is my hobby, it doesn’t feel like work.”
For Connolly “working full-time is only a positive thing” and she finds it helpful that the focus of her day is shifted away from running. Ganiel, too, suggests that being a full-time athlete would not be an attractive proposition.
Connolly gets one run in at lunchtime and completes the second run or session in the evening. For both, it’s the gym work, rather than the miles, that suffer because of their hectic schedule.
Lee admits a certain level of mother’s guilt with working, for now, but enjoys the structure that work and motherhood, bring to her day. “Having to be out the door for that run at 9:00am” brings many benefits, not least of all efficiency, and she says that herself and fellow Leevale runner McCarthy are never late when meeting for their morning runs – even after dropping the six children off.
Having a child has made it more difficult for Ganiel to get club sessions in, but she has some male pacemakers who, also having children, can facilitate sessions at unusual times.
The group sessions are key for Lee, Ireland fifth fastest marathoner, and when speaking to her you can tell that she thrives off the banter and camaraderie within the group. So much so, that when she was 30 weeks into her pregnancy and could no longer keep up with the group, she felt a sense of loss.
However, motherhood has brought a sense of “calmness” and perspective to Lee’s life, and missing a day’s training is no longer the end of the world. Ganiel, too, says that it’s easier now to take a day off if she has a niggle.
Staying happy and healthy for her family is also important for McCarthy, who gave up on the 5:30am morning runs a few years ago, recognising that they caused more fatigue than training stimulus. Instead, she fits her main run of the day after the morning school run.
That’s “followed by a quick healthy breakfast in the car, a strength and conditioning session and a fast shower”. The second, evening run acts as a destresser from “the homework battles”.
In 2012, McCarthy gave up her career in banking to take care of the boys, and particularly the special needs of her seven-year-old who has autism. In addition to the training, school runs, homework supervision, cooking and cleaning, there’s also getting the boys to discos, soccer training, matches and birthday parties, all crammed between “morning cuddles and bedtime stories” and there is little time for running to become a complete obsession.
From speaking to the women, it’s clear that they see the sport for the hobby that is, but that they are no less infatuated by it, or any less determined to do well, than if it was the be-all and end-all of their existence.
In fact, their lives outside of sport seem to give them a focus and balance which only serves to enhance their performance and their longevity in the sport.
On support networks
This group all seem to have found a routine that works for them, and while some would appreciate a few extra hours in the day, you get the feeling that they are not concerned with funding or fame.
Husbands, training partners and in-laws all have a vital role in making things work, and all were keen to credit any support they receive.
Connolly was particularly appreciative of the work that Marathon Mission has done in raising standards. Lee, too, pointed out that this is the best depth of female marathoners Ireland has ever produced, and up and coming athletes can definitely find encouragement from the performances this group of runners is producing.
There is little talk of retirement. Ganiel says that “as long as she still feels that she’s improving”, she’ll keep at it.
Lee is very much taking one event at a time and McCarthy still has big ambitions for the future, and feels “it’s the moment to start running fast times”.
Connolly hopes to continue to “beat herself”. And if the others are anything to go by, Graham has 10 or so golden years ahead of her.
And if tomorrow one of the five wakes up and decides that running no longer fills an important role in her life, she can walk away happy, knowing that her marathon PB is not the thing that defines her, and, appreciative that she has given the sport everything she could.
The point is not that you need to have four kids, hold down a full-time job and be knocking out marathons in 2.38 or less to be a worthy human being. It’s not that the performances of these five women should be judged any differently from those who choose to train full-time. Or that you need to be in your 40s to achieve success in the marathon. This article is not about feminism. And in many ways, it isn’t even about running.
But in a world where we constantly hear about making sacrifices and putting lives, careers, families and sporting dreams on hold, it’s nice, occasionally, to celebrate those that just do. It’s nice to acknowledge those that choose life, and all the wonderful things that it involves!
And while the #wantitmore and #gohardorgohome generation are busy bemoaning the lack of funding and recognition available, it’s nice to be reminded that this sport is a simple one, and that it has so much to offer.
And that maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.