Behold the everyday hero, rich in commitment, but struggling to keep pace.
One such is a 32-year-old Corkman, churning his bankrupt legs over a sadistic succession of hills, a literal mile behind the world’s best.
Donal Coakley, in the black-and-gold vest of Leevale AC, was rounding the final turn at last weekend’s World Cross Country Championships, in Aarhus, Denmark, when the sympathy claps rained in from afar.
He was the final finisher in the senior men’s race. The plucky Paddy last.
But this was what he expected. It is, after all, the world’s toughest race, a 10.2km slog that brought together the world’s finest distance-runners, cascading around the cruellest course in the event’s history.
Coakley? He was just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.
“I have no talent for running,” he says. “I’m definitely the worst person ever to run 100 miles a week.” Back home, his Leevale clubmate Donal Coffey often told him: “It’s amazing how bad you are, considering how much training you do.”
But Coakley came not for a result, but an experience. A mere mortal who stood on the line because he was willing, like so few others, to confront his own mediocrity.
This year, in a bid to connect the sport with the masses, the organisers offered spots in the senior races to any men who had broken 33 minutes for 10km and any women who had broken 37 minutes.
Coakley had a 10km best of 33:30, and so, when applying, he figured the best way to blag an entry was by using his half-marathon time of 73:30.
For months, he heard nothing, but with only a handful willing to take up the challenge, an email pinged into his inbox five days before the race: he was in.
He booked flights, dug out his spikes, and prepared to face the world’s best.
The entry fee was €100 — “I’ve spent money on worse” — a small price to tick a major item off his bucket list.
Picture a club cyclist against Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez, or a five-a-side defender getting to mark Lionel Messi. He was a gleeful gate-crasher among the ultra-elite.
The night before the race, Irish team manager, Teresa McDaid, summarised the start-line sentiment you often witness at the World Cross Country: “You can smell the fear.”
Did Coakley sense that?
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “I wasn’t scared, but most athletes looked absolutely terrified.” He had marvelled at the Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Ugandans, as he warmed up among them. They were otherworldly specimens of speed.
“It makes you feel obese,” he says.
For average punters like him, the rules were simple: fall more than four minutes behind the leaders and you’re pulled from the course. Coakley’s mission was to get 8km done before the leaders reached the finish. He didn’t.
At the start of the race, the field ascended up a long, lung-bursting climb, enough to put the fuel gauge immediately in the red.
“It was horrendous,” he says. “There were patches of sand that would make you lose all your momentum and every bit of me was in bits.”
Towards the end of each lap, there was a 150m ascent up the roof of the Moesgaard Museum, which stung like a shot to the solar plexus. “It was impossible. I couldn’t get up it at all,” he says. “I was nearly at a stop.”
Coakley began to battle with some of the backmarkers of the elite race. Guys from China, India, Lebanon and Botswana. Later that night, he looked up their credentials — one had run 3:40 for 1,500m; another was a 2:20 marathoner — and he realised how well he’d done to stay with them.
But shortly before the 7km mark, the game was up. An official stepped out and pointed him off the course. The last thing he wanted was to get in the way of the elites, so Coakley stood watching as they floated by on their final lap.
When all the runners had passed, he rejoined the race, chancing his arm to see if anyone stopped him. They didn’t.
“It was a bit like Cool Runnings,” he says. “That’s all you want to do: to complete the course.” And so, on he soldiered, the last man — by some distance — to reach the finish. “The worst in the world,” as he puts it.
THE following morning, Coakley bumped into the Irish team outside their hotel and jogged four miles with them, sharing stories from the previous day’s slog. Though they were of a different calibre to him, they had common ground in their creaking limbs. “I was in bits,” he says.
When we caught up four days later, his pain still hadn’t abated, though Coakley hopes it soon will, as he’s preparing for his next bucket-lister: the Boston Marathon, on April 15.
His hope is to break his marathon best of 2:38:14, and all those 100-mile weeks should stand him in good stead. In Cork, his training partners tells him he’d run faster if he did less, but Coakley thinks they over-estimate his ability.
“I wouldn’t, and I know, because I’ve tried it,” he says. “I’m just really bad and this is as good as I can get. But I love racing.” The big lesson he took from his Danish pasting? It’s unimaginably tough at the top and far less fun.
“Some of them are so tense about the racing and they’re not talking, not enjoying it, not soaking it up,” he says. “But the experience of running it was amazing and it’s to be enjoyed.”
It’s a memory he’ll treasure, the day this everyday citizen — a technical services specialist at a pharmaceutical company who milks his talent for all it’s worth — got to line up with the world’s best.
“I’d love to be from a country that was small enough that I could run in the World Championships every year, but that’s not going to happen, unless I move to Malta or Lebanon,” he says with a laugh. “It’s great craic.”