Bláithín Sheil spoke to Irish Marathoner Aoife Cook about just how well training has been going and what the Olympics target means at the moment. 

“In the best shape of my goddamn life” is the Strava caption the fifth fastest Irish marathoner chose for her Sunday Long Run, the last marathon run of this training segment.

Except there was no marathon at the end of the build up, and there will be no Olympics. Her 20 mile run lasted exactly two hours with an average pace of 6’02/mile. The 15 miles she ran at marathon pace were a smoking 5’32-5’43. This author can probably run one mile at that pace.

On the last hurrah, she commented that “At that point I knew there wasn’t any racing going ahead so me and the lads said this is our race so lets just give it all we have.” The Olympic hopeful was due to run Vienna in a bid to run the automatic qualifying standard, but Vienna was the first running event to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her best remains, for now, at 2:32:34.

“Given everything that’s happened since, it’s understandable that these races have been cancelled so I can’t be hanging up on it too much.”

Is Cooke less upset now that everyone is affected by the cancellations?

“Yes and I know that sounds a bit selfish, but yes,” she laughs “Vienna was the first one to cancel, I was a bit upset then, but then they all started coming out; Hamburg, Rotterdam, London. There are going to be no races until who knows when, so there is no point. I had back ups, I was entered into Hamburg and Manchester as well and obviously they’re all gone, so I tried.”

What does an athlete do when she is in the shape of her life and cannot race?

Close but no cigar. But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t get the benefit of the 100+ mile weeks and a stint at altitude in Iten, the Home of Champions.

“It is frustrating I am not going to lie, I would have loved to have gone out and see what I can do. I feel I was in 2’28 or 2’29 shape if I was able to do Vienna. I said look I can just give up now or maybe make this an opportunity and build on this fitness that I do have.”

A rock of sense, the Irish athlete reasons that “In my head I know I am in 2’28 or 2’29 shape and if I had run a marathon it is possible that I could have ran that. The natural progression of any athlete is to improve. Ok I didn’t have the marathon at the end but I am in that shape and I can work on that. It’s not gone to waste, it could work out in my favour.”

Processing the reality of the situation took a while, naturally.

“I did grasp at straws for a little bit. When Vienna went, it was the first one but I had my backups. And then we were looking at Manchester and the UK are not really taking the virus seriously.

“That did get cancelled which I think is fair enough. I think last Thursday when [An Taoiseach] Leo Varadkar came out with the school’s closure, it really hit home, the seriousness of everything. And I was like even if Manchester was to go ahead, would it be a responsible thing to do? I was debating it in my head for a while and they ended up cancelling it anyway.”

That probably made a morally difficult decision a bit easier, despite the consequences.

“To be honest, I am ok with it. There are a lot bigger things going on. My athletic career goes well beyond this year. This wasn’t it. I hope it goes on for another few years. It’s a blip, a setback, but all athletes have to expect that in their career anyway. I just didn’t expect it to be this. An injury or an illness would have been a lot more frustrating actually.”

The Cork woman puts things into clear perspective. “Loads of people are having this predicament, not just athletes and not just me. People have weddings booked, it’s huge. People’s lives are being turned upside down.”

Photo: David Fitzgerald sportsfile

Sonia O’Sullivan called for the Olympics to be cancelled, so athletes can have clarity.

“I know for me it’s gone because there are no qualifying races between now and the deadline. I’ve scratched it off, it’s not a possibility [even] if it does go ahead. I am not marathon training anymore. But for any athlete who has qualified, or is still trying to qualify, they do need that clarity on whether they are training for something.

“Here [in Ireland] it’s not too bad, we can still go out and train, but in places like Italy, France and Spain they can’t. So is that fair that they can’t train to the best of their ability?”

“People spend years training for it and now it’s interrupted, and that’s not just athletics that’s every sport. Team sports can’t train together. I do think they need to put athletes’ minds at ease. I know they’re talking about the supporters and the media, but really it’s the athletes who should be the ones taken into account the most.”

Closed Games?

Speaking of a compromise whereby the Games would be held in a closed stadium, like some sports are doing at the moment to keep leagues running, would that be feasible in her opinion?

“Would I even want to go to an Olympics where there are no supporters? I don’t think you can even perform to your best without supporters and the atmosphere.

The supporters around the course in Dublin [2019] drove me around, I don’t know if I would have done what I did without so much support. It does drive you on especially in those last miles, you need that uplift to get you through it. It would be a bleak Olympics if there were empty stadiums.”

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