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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz