Marathon star Fionnuala McCormack sizzles in Rio sun

Ireland's Lizzie Lee, Fionnuala McCormack, and Breege Connolly.

When the going got tough, she was just getting going. Fionnuala McCormack turned in a typically battling performance to finish 20th in a lifetime best of 2:31:22 in the Olympic marathon yesterday, held in brutally hot conditions around the streets of Rio.

When the gun fired at 9.30am, the sun was already high in the sky and the mid-20s temperature ensured the race would turn into a struggle for survival.

McCormack, for one, was relishing the challenge.

“It’s not something that would frighten me,” she said afterwards.

“The tougher, the better. With any course or conditions, I like it when they’re tough. I was certain the heat wouldn’t affect me, but obviously, you can’t just tear off.”

The 31-year-old made a conservative start but sliced through the field over the latter half. 

She was in 60th when she passed 10km in 35:41 but had picked her way through to 40th when she reached the half marathon in 1:15:23.

Her plan was working perfectly, the overly ambitious athletes ahead beginning to pay for their exertions.

“When the conditions are like that, there should be carnage at some point,” she said. “At the end, I was racing quite well, which feels better than when you’re slowly dying. I had a plan and it paid off.”

Indeed McCormack passed such a flurry of athletes that when she reached the finish, she couldn’t help wonder if she had started too cautiously.

“It’s nice to be top 20 but I’m not really sure what to think,” said McCormack.

“If you run a personal best, you have to say it’s good.”

Next across the line for the Irish was Cork’s Lizzie Lee, who finished 57th in 2:39:57, a performance that left her beaming, though the conditions made the experience a brutal one.

“It was horrendous,” she said. “There’s not one ounce of me left out there. Half of me just wanted to finish, but to be top-60 and sub-2:40 in those conditions, I cannot argue.

“I’m so proud, a 36-year-old full-time working mother and now I’m an Olympian. No one can ever take that away from me.”

The third Irish athlete was Breege Connolly, who came home 76th of the 156 entrants in 2:44:41.

The race was won by Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong in 2:24:04, ahead of Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa (2:24:13).

On Saturday night, Mark English bowed out of the men’s 800m after finishing fifth in his semi-final in 1:45.93 in the early hours of Sunday morning.

“I ran exactly the way I wanted,” he said. “I felt good, but the legs just turned to sludge in that last 200m. Walking off the track I think it was acceptance more than disappointment that this is where it’s at. I gave it everything and have no regrets.”

English missed almost three months of training this year with a metatarsal stress fracture, an injury which made qualifying for an Olympic final seem an almost impossible task earlier this year.

“I missed a good bit of endurance work and that probably told,” he said. “I’ve got the speed, just the endurance needed to be at a higher end. It’s something to work on over the winter, hopefully, I can come back and give these guys a good fight next year.”

Meanwhile, Sara Treacy will have a date with destiny in the final of the women’s 3000m steeplechase at 3:15pm Irish time today. 

The 27-year- old endured a major stroke of misfortune during Saturday’s qualifying heat after she was obstructed and fell en route to a 12th-place finish in 9:46.24. 

Her luck soon turned when. along with two other athletes. she successfully appealed and was reinstated to the final. At 3:35pm today, Thomas Barr will make his Olympic debut in the heats of the men’s 400m hurdles.

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