Irish Olympian Kerry O’Flaherty discusses her running story; how she started, what the sport has given her, as well as the high and low points of her career.
My first running experience was a 5k road race held in my hometown of Newcastle, County Down in Northern Ireland. I was 13 years old, and I asked my Dad if could take part.
I beat most of the boys that evening, all except two. The local club told my Dad that I could come along to training. It was all seniors at the time, but I was able to do shortened sessions.
I then started cross-country with the school and moved onto my real love – the track – shortly after that.
Why I love running. I love that you can run anywhere, as long as you have a pair of running shoes.
I have met (and continue to meet) so many lovely people with the same passion as I have. It’s great to share the experiences and stories that running has allowed us to enjoy.
I am fortunate to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty that has so many different routes and terrains to run on. We have forest parks, nature reserves, good safe road routes, the beach and the mountains. It is a paradise for runners.
Running has taken me all over the world, both to train and compete. I’ve discovered a lot of new places, including Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees. Training there at altitude has become almost my second home.
However, my home in the corner of County Down provides me with so many training options, and it’s hard to beat – apart from the weather of course.
When running became a sport. In my first year running in the County Down Schools XC, I think I must have finished in around 60th place or thereabouts.
By the following year with a couple of training sessions a week with my club, I won the County Down Schools and finished high up in the Ulsters Schools, as well as the Irish Schools, and earned my first Irish vest competing in the International Schools XC.
After that, it was my introduction to the track, and in particular, the 800m and 1500m, which I loved, and the structured training started there.
I moved to Lisburn AC where I was able to train with other junior athletes. I was there for two or three years until I went to University where competitive running took a backseat.
However, I still competed for the University of Ulster in XC, on the track and also in mountain running. I went on to compete for Ireland in two World Mountain Running Championships in Italy 2004 and New Zealand 2005.
From that international experience, I realised that the hunger was still there. That motivated me to get back into competitive track racing and I started training once again for that with my home club Newcastle & District AC.
Dreaming of the Olympics. I loved watching athletics on the television with my Papa and dreamed of course, but as a child, it didn’t seem realistic that competing at the Olympics was possible for a local girl from County Down.
The Olympic dream kicked in as a realistic option when I discovered the steeplechase. Before then the targets were to make the Irish team at European Team Championships and European Cross Country Championships.
Earning a vest by making the national team was a real challenge and target for me. I still remember the phone call in 2009 (my fourth season on the track as a senior athlete) from the then Irish Team Manager, Patsy McGonagle.
Just as I arrived in the Pyrenees for training, he asked me if I would run the 3000m in the Euro Team Champs in Slovakia a few days later? Of course, I jumped at the chance and finished in a photo finish place in 2nd in 9:09.50 – I guess it was an indication that I could do so much more.
From there the hunger grew, and as I met more people in the running world who had been to major championships, the more I was inspired and dreamed of doing the same.
My background was 1500m, but I wasn’t super fast like Ciara Mageean, so I had a go at the 5000m, but my endurance wasn’t as good as Fionnuala Britton (McCormack), so I realised I sat somewhere in the middle (3000m).
The following year (2010) I was called up again for the European Team Champs, this time in Budapest, and after a long chat with my coach, Richard Rodgers and Chris Jones (Ireland Team Manager at the time), we started to look at the steeplechase.
In 2011, just before my 30th birthday, I ran my first ever steeplechase in May at the Loughborough International, winning in 10:24.
I knew I had finally found my best event and I went on to run 10:08.8 in Germany on my 30th birthday. After that, I felt I could have a go at trying to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012.
My transition to the steeplechase. The change came naturally to me. Maybe it was from the jumping over boulders on the descent in mountain races as I hadn’t taken part in any hurdle races as a junior.
It wasn’t without injuries though, which were mainly Achilles related and this stopped me in my stride while trying to make the Olympics in 2012.
Since then I have learned so much about my running technique, developing strength and power, working on my hurdles, while also working on my endurance.
My coach Richard Rodgers (with excellent support and insight from Chris Jones) have been fantastic on the endurance and running side of my development, while Tom Reynolds (and in the early days Stephen Maguire) helped me with my hurdling technique.
Physio support also played a big part in the transition, with Phil Glasgow helping me in my early running career, to the physiotherapists now in the Sports Institute Northern Ireland, Chris McNicol and Kerry Kirk.
Strength and conditioning is also part of my weekly routine, and Robbie Bremner has been excellent in developing and overseeing my programmes to ensure my body, especially my feet and ankles, are up to the job of clearing 35 barriers in a race and training.
The track, roads and cross country. I love the buzz of the track, the speed and the atmosphere of a crowd being so close to the action. Depending on how many are in a steeplechase race, sometimes it can get very crowded and dangerous – the barriers are very solid and unforgiving.
I love the freedom of the road and the space to race, but the impact can be tough on the muscles and joints.
When it comes to cross country, I love the European cross country courses, as they are usually very flat like the track. The traditional cross country in the winter helps develop the underlying endurance for the summer track season. Of course, it is often cold and muddy in Ireland, but I have learned to love the mud too and not let it phase me.
My career high. The proudest moment in my career has to be competing at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, standing on that start line and realising a lifelong dream was about to be accomplished.
But I wouldn’t have been on that start line if it hadn’t of been for the opportunity myself and two fellow Irish steeplechase athletes, Michelle Finn and Sara Treacy, were given in Letterkenny to race. Daragh McDaid of Letterkenny AC can’t be thanked enough for putting it together, which helped all three of us cross the line inside the Olympic qualifying standard.
We had been chasing the standards during the early part of the 2015 season and been unsuccessful up to that point. So we chatted and decided to run in Letterkenny and just go for it no matter what the weather was going to throw at us.
It wasn’t a calm night by any means, and the rain threatened all evening. The pacemaker did a fantastic job taking us to 2km and over the final laps, we collectively worked hard against the international opposition to finish strongly. I was ecstatic when crossing the line and I could see the clock knowing Michelle and I were very close to going inside both standards (Olympic and World).
We had to wait for the official times to be called out, and when they did, I shed a few happy tears. It is still one of the best races I have run in my career and one of the most memorable.
It still stands as my PB – 9:42.61 – nine seconds inside my previous best. I ran 9:45 three times the next season (2016) and hope to go sub-9:40 this season (2018).
My career low. 2012 was a pretty tough year for me. I had travelled to the USA to train and race in the hope of making the London Olympics. While I was there my Papa passed away after a short battle with cancer – he was my number one fan.
I had kept in regular touch while I was away training in Albuquerque and things had been going well for him. He received the good news that his cancer treatment had been a success and things were going well.
I then ran my first race and finished second with a PB of 9:58, 10 seconds inside my best and breaking the 10-minute barrier for the first time. It felt I was close to the Olympic qualifying standard.
Like always, I contacted home to speak to my Papa about the good news of my race, but he was taken to the hospital, and everything went downhill very quickly. He had been able to watch my race from his bed and had said: “she’s going to make it [to the Olympics]”.
I wasn’t able to get home in time, and I blamed myself for being selfish and leaving home to pursue my dream. I was able to speak to him for the last time via Skype, but he wasn’t able to talk back, and it was the most difficult experience in my life.
Talking about it still is, and will always be, very raw. Knowing that was my last time I was ever going to see him and speak with him was so hard, there was so much I wanted to say, so much I didn’t say, and so much I wish I had of said.
I finally said good night Papa and he was able to say it back. That was the last time I was able to see and speak to him. I received a call from home the next morning telling me that he had passed away.
With the Achilles issues I had, not making the Olympics that year made me feel that I had let him down and that I should never have gone away in the first place. I still carry that feeling to this day, even though he had told my family not to tell me what was going on, as he wanted me to stay in the USA.
Finally making the Olympics in 2016 brought back all those emotions, not having him there was very difficult, but I hope that he was somewhere in that crowd looking down on me from the best seat in the house.
I still have big goals. I am, even at the age of 36, still improving. I produced my best international cross country performance in December, finishing 38th at the European Championships.
I ran 16:10 to win a 5k race in very windy conditions on St Patrick’s Day in Portlaoise, and four days later ran 16:13 to win the Queen’s 5k in Belfast. These are signs we believe that I will soon be ready for a record track season.
This season my goal is to make the European Championships in Berlin in August firstly. I will do my best to make that final again and improve on my 12th place from Amsterdam 2016.
The big goal is to make Tokyo 2020, I definitely believe I have another Olympics in me.
My final piece of advice. You’re never too old to follow your dreams, so keep believing.