People see the performance, but not the path walked to get there. They see the result, but not the pain involved in the process.
On Sunday evening at the Irish Athletics Championships in Santry, they watched as Michelle Finn blitzed her rivals in the 3000m steeplechase, her time of 9:46.19 hitting the qualification standard for next week’s European Championships just hours before the deadline.
And while it looked straightforward, few could have imagined how much of a race against time it was for the 28-year-old from Kanturk.
Four days earlier, Finn took her penultimate shot at European qualification at a meeting in Karlstad, Sweden, trying to hit the B-standard of 9:55.00 for the second time this season as required by the selection criteria.
The 3000m steeplechase is a gruelling, seven-and-a-half lap slog that tests strength, speed and stamina in equal measure. Of the 35 barriers involved, seven are water jumps, and when Finn plunged into the first of those last Wednesday she felt a shuddering thud in her ankle, a sharp pain that made her swiftly pull to the side, preparing to drop out.
But when I took a few steps,” she said, “I realised it was okay.
She ran on, losing ground at most barriers behind an inexperienced pacemaker before eventually ploughing on alone. She won by a wide margin in 9:56.03, a single agonising second outside the required time, but Finn had one last chance at last Sunday’s senior championships. In the meantime, though, her ankle ballooned.
The day after the race she could barely walk, so Finn cancelled her sightseeing plans with fellow steeplechaser Sara Treacy.
Instead, she ventured into coffee shops in Oslo throughout the day, buying a drink in each of them to justify asking them for a big bag of ice which she used to take down the inflammation in her ankle.
She checked in with a couple of physios when back in Dublin on Saturday, who told her it wasn’t, as feared, medial ligament damage but just a badly-sprained ankle. Both told her she wouldn’t risk further damage by racing, but told her it was unlikely she’d even make it through the warm-up.
Given what she’d come back from already this year, it felt like a risk worth taking.
In February Finn’s weekly mileage of 70-80 was swiftly reduced to zero when she discovered a stress reaction in the cuboid bone in her foot. She didn’t run a step for the next 10 weeks, instead going to the pool every day, mimicking her training programme by aqua-jogging — as much as two hours at a time, round and round that claustrophobic cage.
“I put a good bit of time into that pool,” she said.
In May she took her first tentative steps back running and by the end of June, she got back racing, her fitness swiftly returning after all that grafting underwater. She ran her first European qualifying time in France on July 18, clocking 9:51.43, but after falling so short in that Swedish race, Santry on Sunday was her last chance saloon.
Before the race, Finn asked her friend and rival Sara Treacy if she planned to run fast. “Do you want to?” Treacy responded.
“Yeah,” said Finn.
With that Treacy took the pace out hard, though it was one the Olympic finalist couldn’t sustain as she continues her own return from injury, so two laps into the race Finn powered on by. Lap after painful lap she galloped like a metronome, the pain in her foot slowly subsiding and being replaced by a familiar feeling: Fatigue.
When she hit the finish, her time was nine seconds under the standard and she was soon handed a phone to relay the news to coach Donie Walsh back in Cork. “Donie knew I could run it,” said Finn. “He just didn’t know I would run it.”
And with that, Finn was one of 42 Irish athletes to wake up to an email from Athletics Ireland yesterday morning confirming her place on the European team for Berlin, where she will hope to improve on her seventh-place finish two years ago in Amsterdam.
It’s only a week away now, so close when it had once seemed so far.