A total of 27 athletes have been selected for the Irish team for the European Cross Country Championships to be held in Samorin, Slovakia this weekend. Ireland has entries in senior men’s and women’s as well as in the U20 category. Fionnuala McCormack (Kilcoole) will make a record-breaking 15th appearance on Sunday.
Q: How much running did you do during your pregnancy?
A: I ran up to 38 weeks and Alison arrived on her due date so I had two weeks before the birth when I didn’t run.
I said when I got to the point when I couldn’t run five miles I’d stop.
I ran a total of 1,650 miles during pregnancy, then swam 3K every day for the last two weeks before giving birth and for six weeks after.
Q: Did you have much weight to lose when you started back?
A: No, it took me a week to get back to normal weight and I think for most running moms, that’s not a problem. But while you’re at your normal weight, it’s not the normal figure because things have moved.
At the Olympics, I remember looking around the call room and you could tell who was a mom and who wasn’t because there’s still small little jiggly belly you get when you’re a mom and no amount of sit-ups can make it go back. But I’m proud that I have that.
Q: Did you target the European Cross Country once you started running again?
A: I had it as a target the day after I found out I was pregnant last year. I was out of the sport for so long and I had to motivate myself.
If you’re a female athlete who has a baby, you’re parking your career for a year and that is mental torture, it really is.
You’re so slow, so big, and you can’t do your favourite thing in the whole world. But I’m not moaning. It’s 110% worth it, but it’s challenging.
Q: Do you believe running helps with pregnancy?
A: Definitely. I had a very healthy, straightforward pregnancy and that’s not just
because my body was in a good place, but my mind.
A five-mile run sets you up for the day, it gives you endorphins, fresh air and you don’t feel sluggish. I’m also a big advocate for breastfeeding, and fed Alison before hopping in the car to go to Dublin to race nationals.
I thought to myself on the start line: how many other women on this line breastfed their babies this morning?
Q: What are the keys to returning to sport successfully after giving birth?
A: You’re very prone to injury in those first few weeks so you have to be so careful. The hormone relaxin is produced when you’re pregnant and hangs around for a good while after and it’s the reason you can’t do deep stretches or strenuous yoga because you could very easily tear a calf for hamstring.
You have to listen to every niggle. Three weeks after giving birth I started a strength and conditioning programme that Joe O’Connor wrote for me — just 20 minutes a day with no weights that I could do it in my pyjamas — but I couldn’t stand on one leg for two seconds.
That’s how back to square one you are. Your body is all over the shop. But after a few weeks, we did proper gym work with weights and I’m much stronger as a result.
Q: Many female athletes say pregnancy gave them a performance boost. Have you experienced that?
A: Yeah, there are a few reasons for it. You have increased cardiac output while
Your heart is working so much harder and it’s the same effect as going to altitude, then add on two extra stone and when you train on top of that it has a powerful effect.
There’s also what having a baby does for your mentality: you don’t sweat the small things. If you’ve a niggle you take a day off and get to spend the day with your baby instead.
Then there’s the motivation: you cannot describe the motivation when you’ve been away for a year then stand on a start line. Wild horses wouldn’t stop you.
Q: Deep down, did you expect to make to finish as high as fourth and make the European team?
A: A big part of me wanted to win but I had to be realistic. It was my first cross country race in 23 months.
I knew I trained well so I would have been disappointed not to be in the top 10, but I ran for that green vest. I wanted that to be me again, and to define me is running internationally.
Q: The last time you did that, of course, was in Rio [Lee finished 57th in the women’s marathon]. How do you reflect on that experience?
A: It was amazing from start to finish and exceeded all of my expectations. Every single day was so much fun.
I cannot describe standing on the start line in your country’s vest ready to run the Olympic marathon, standing beside Breege Connolly and the two of us just bricking it. It’s such a feeling of pride and emotion to have your friends and family on the course roaring at you.
After I came home I got a ring made with the Olympic rings and at least once a day I notice it and think to myself: ‘I can’t believe I got there.’
Q: Given that you’re as fast as ever, will Tokyo 2020 now be on the agenda?
A: Oh God, I really don’t know. I’m hoping to run a good half marathon in the spring then see what’s on the cards for [the European Championships in] Berlin. I’m 37, so I’ll take it year by year.
Q: What are your hopes for the European Cross Country? Could a team medal be on the cards again?
A: It’s a very good team, one of the strongest we’ve sent. I think what we need is to pack well to push others back.
We haven’t seen what Fionnuala [McCormack] is capable of this year, but even when we don’t think she’s in fantastic form she bangs out a fourth or fifth. She’s just incredible.
I’m getting fitter every week and the race last week blew the cobwebs off, so anything is possible. A medal is realistic but we need to run as a group.
We’re strong enough and not scared of anything.
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