There may be two months to go, but despite a late start to the year, Ciara Mageean is well ahead of time.
She, like most world-class athletes, laid out this season with patience, her racing plan scripted to bring her form bubbling to a peak in early October for the World Championships in Doha.
As such, there was never any need to be flying high in July, yet here she is, faster than ever before.
In Monaco earlier this month, the 27-year-old clocked the second-fastest mile ever by an Irishwoman, 4:19.03, blazing through 1500m en route in a lifetime best of 4:01.21.
It was Mageean’s second race of the season, one in which Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan broke the world record with 4:12.33.
“I knew it’d be fast so I told myself, ‘stay on the train, stay in contact, and you’ll be going pretty fast’,” says Mageean. “I felt good through 800 then I was like, ‘only two laps left, hang on for dear life and try to finish strong’.”
The trackside officials had called out splits in French so Mageean was unaware how fast she was running, but her time surprised her, with lots of sharpening left to do before Doha.
With the one-year-to-go Olympic countdown kicking into gear earlier this week, she knows how pivotal those championships will be. “I need to be getting into a world final if I want to be up there come [the 2020 Olympics in] Tokyo,” she says.
While a world medal will likely prove beyond her this year, Mageean has reached the podium twice at European level: Winning outdoor bronze in 2016 and indoor bronze in March this year.
In the years between, much had changed. For the first medal she was coached by Jerry Kiernan, the Olympian who coaxed her back to health and fitness following years of injury in her early 20s. But two poor championship showings in 2017 meant Mageean had to make a tough call, leaving behind her family, boyfriend, coach, and friends to train with a professional group abroad in Team New Balance Manchester.
She has been based there since December 2018 and her form has slowly climbed back to and beyond her previous peak. Under the guidance of Steve Vernon, she logged over 70 miles a week on the build-up to the summer, and these days she’s stronger than ever — in body and mind.
In the past Mageean has occasionally felt overwhelmed at major championships, burdened by expectation. “To be honest, I’m a bigger problem myself than any external factor — I put an awful lot of pressure on my shoulders,” she admits.
“I’ve always been that nervous person and I’ve had to realise that can be fuel for me, it’s not always a negative thing. But if I let it be negative then it can take hold.”
Before her opening race at last summer’s Europeans, she was a bundle of nerves, admitting that she was in tears as she talked to her coach the night before her 1500m heat.
Since then she has ramped up her work with Kate Kirby, a sport psychologist with the Sport Ireland Institute, and no matter the time of year, they talk every fortnight, ironing out her mental strategy. The effect has been profound, with Mageean now feeling like she belongs on the big days.
“It’s been a big step for me to be happy and confident racing on that stage,” she says. “That might surprise a lot of people because they see you up there and think you naturally belong.”
In March she carried that confidence to the line for the European Indoor 1500m final and walked away with a brilliant bronze medal.
Her summer so far has been a roaring success, but she knows there’s a long way to go. This weekend she will choose between the 800m and 1500m at Irish nationals in Santry and after that she will race the Morton Games in late August before returning to altitude in St Moritz to finalise preparations for the World Championships in Doha.
“I absolutely love racing in my Irish vest and that’s why I do athletics — getting out there and trying to win medals for Ireland.”