Athletics: A country girl takes to the roads

Simon Turnbull says women's marathon running is entering the McKiernan era

The actual Heartbreak Hill can be found on the road from Hopkinton to Copley Square, on the route of the annual Boston Marathon. Catherina McKiernan knows of another one. Her heart must have broken as she ascended it, the final climb of the Maiden Castle cross-country course in old Durham town.

"Come on, come on," Deratu Tulu shouted as she eased alongside her and proceeded to show a muddy pair of heels to the country girl from Cornafean, County Cavan. For the fourth time in four years, McKiernan was consigned to the runner's-up spot in the world cross-country championships.

She laughed at the time when someone suggested she might swap the green vest of Ireland for a bridesmaid's vest. But no-one imagined that, behind the smiles and the good grace, missing out once again could not have hurt deeply. Two years and 10 months later, McKiernan laughs at the suggestion that the experience might have been a pivotal point in her running career, the disappointment that hardened her resolve to emerge, as she has in the last six months, as an invincible force.

"I wouldn't mind being the bridesmaid in the world cross-country again," she said, the insistence clear in her lilting Irish voice. "Sure, everyone likes finishing first. But not everyone can. It's a big world out there, with a lot of good runners in it. Finishing second is something to be proud of."

It would be no disgrace, indeed, if McKiernan were to finish second when she returns to Durham this Saturday. The County Durham Cross-Country International takes place not at the 1995 world championships site but across the city at Aykley Heads. The field for the 5.2km women's race, however, is assuredly world class.

In addition to McKiernan, whose gold medal from the inaugural European cross-country championships three years ago glitters alongside her four world championship silvers, the organisers have attracted Sally Barsosio, the 10,000m world champion from Kenya, and Paula Radcliffe, the great Briton who was bridesmaid behind the victorious Tulu at this year's world cross-country championships in Turin in March. "It'll be tough all right," McKiernan acknowledged. "I haven't run a cross-country race since Turin. I could hardly have picked a harder one."

McKiernan finished seventh in Turin. But she is a country girl no more. Home since the summer has been Dublin - and, in athletics terms, the roads. At 28, McKiernan is the hottest prospect to have appeared on the women's marathon running scene. Her winning time in Berlin in September, 2hr 23min 44sec, is the fastest ever by a marathon debutante. It is more than a minute quicker than Grete Waitz, the first great queen of the roads, ever ran and more than three minutes faster than Liz McColgan's best. Only seven women have recorded better times and only three of them, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit and Uta Pippig, have run quicker than 2:23:29.

The road to all-time athletic greatness is clearly beckoning McKiernan, who stretched her unbeaten run in road races to eight since April with a convincing victory in a 6km event in Palermo two weeks ago. The organisers of the Flora London Marathon have insured against her collecting pounds 128,000 for breaking Kristiansen's world record, 2:21:06, in April. "Anyone who can run a debut marathon in 2:23:44 is capable of seriously threatening the record," David Bedford, the world record breaker turned London Marathon marketing manager, reasoned. All of which fuss McKiernan has taken in her charmingly unaffected stride.

"How have I coped with all the pressure?" she echoed, laughing again. "Just grand. I still have to get up in the morning to go for a run and then go out again for another run in the afternoon. Sure, I've had a lot of publicity over here. But I've had a lot of support from people because of it, the kind of support that keeps you going when you're feeling tired. I'm not the type to go on with my foot in my mouth, saying I'm unbeatable, in the best form of my life... all this stuff. I would never say that. When reporters ask me how I feel I always say, 'just grand'. You never know from one day to the next how you might be. The time for talking about what you might do is after you've actually done it."

So get ready to hear some more good old Irish sense, only this time of a celebratory nature, when the former cross-country bridesmaid has crossed the finish line on the Mall on 26 April. The bells could well be ringing for Cavan's queen of the roads.

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