Alistair Cragg: 'I'm not complete with my own career but I am complete, it's done'

It's 10 years to the day since Alistair Cragg walked off the track with more than four laps still to run in the final of the 5,000m at the European Championships
Alistair Cragg: 'I'm not complete with my own career but I am complete, it's done'

GOLDEN MOMENT: Alistair Cragg with his gold medal from the 2005 European Indoor Championship in Madrid. Picture: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile

It's 10 years to the day since Alistair Cragg walked off the track with more than four laps still to run in the final of the 5,000m at the European Championships in Barcelona. It made for a convenient hook when planning an article though hardly the most attractive of pitches when contacting him out of the blue in Portland, Oregon.

Now 40 and long retired, Cragg is still heavily involved in athletics as an agent, manager, coach and via his wife Amy who was bronze medallist in the marathon at the 2017 Worlds in London.

As for his own career? Most days pass by now without him even thinking about the fact that he was once an athlete himself and he is A-okay with that.

That said, he was happy to talk.

The disappointment a decade ago only speaks for one side of a career that waxed and waned between plenty of highs and punishing lows. It was in Spain as well, five years earlier, where he experienced his best day in an Irish singlet when producing a dominant performance and claiming gold in the European Indoors in Madrid.

South African-born and tutored at the University of Arkansas by legendary coach John McDonnell of Crossmolina, Cragg was an Irish passport holder since childhood.

His decision to wear a different hue of green came at a time when this country was holding out for a new hero over distances at which so many greats had once excelled.

Madrid suggested he was it.

Though only 24, he had beaten Kenenisa Bekelele in a 3,000m at the Boston Indoor Games a few months before after an error by the Ethiopian and he had the two fastest times in the world at the distance that year when he pitched up in the Spanish capital and smoked the home favourite Reyes Estevez.

What still sticks out now is the air of confidence he exuded before, during and after it.

Cragg remarked at the time that he had raced “bigger dogs” than the Spaniard and McDonnell spoke publicly about that air of certainty before the race. He won it with a time of 7:46.32, Estevez finishing third and John Mayock taking silver. There was a gap of over five seconds between the winner and the Briton.

“I felt unbreakable back then,” he says now.

“I had a task and I achieved it. I had to do X, Y and Z and I did it and I did it to perfection. Reyes Estevez was the guy to beat and I basically buried it. It was probably one of my best [races].

The only thing from there is that I thought I could go one step further.

By the time he retired, there was still just that one medal in his pocket. Behind him were a slew of disappointments and injuries and tantalising glimpses of that earlier promise, but if a career should be judged on its entirety then there remain plenty of performances that speak for races well run.

Cragg is still the holder of multiple Irish records. Among the legends whose times he bettered were Frank O'Mara and Mark Carroll. He is a holder of seven NCAA titles for Arkansas and a three-time Olympian. He competed in the 1,500m and the marathon and most distances in between, not just on the track but in cross country too. Few stones were left unturned.

So, how does he look back on it all?

31 July 2010; Ireland's Alistair Cragg walks off the track during the Men's 5000m Final. 20th European Athletics Championships Montjuïc Olympic Stadium, Barcelona, Spain. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
31 July 2010; Ireland's Alistair Cragg walks off the track during the Men's 5000m Final. 20th European Athletics Championships Montjuïc Olympic Stadium, Barcelona, Spain. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

“I felt I fell short of a lot of things. The sport was moving pretty fast when I came out of university. My time at university was underneath John McDonnell who watched me pretty closely and essentially became my father in the US and we had great structure. All I had to do was plug myself in as an athlete, be almost a racehorse.

“I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed being able to go out there and achieve and dream. As a whole, I felt like I didn't really grow after that. I didn't really build and I didn't see how I could build and grow beyond that.

I would say I have fond memories but I'm not proud of the athlete I ended up being.

Those are brutally honest words but he always was his own biggest critic.

Go back through the clippings and you'll discover a man unafraid to call himself out. He was the top European in the final of the 5,000m at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and yet his own take at the time was that he had run “like a schoolkid”. His effort at the Belfast International Cross Country in '06 was “embarrassing”. The Boston Games in '07? “Disgusting.” The same for Beijing a year later.

“Embarrassing.” “Crumbled.” These were all his own words.

Maturity had a part in it. So too his unease with that lack of structure that came with life as a professional athlete on the global circuit. Too often the result was that he did his best work in private: he would tell others what he was posting at training and they would wonder why he wasn't medalling.

“I was in someone else's playground and I couldn't showcase what I had done.”

Injuries played a part. Turned out he'd had a hernia issue in Athens in '04; there was a lower back problem that kept him out of the World Cross Country a year later; a mild stomach complaint that time in Barcelona... The list is a long one but he admits now that he could give an excuse for every championship where something went wrong and that the lack of a framework afflicted him more.

Though not at the Europeans in Gothenburg in 2006.

His fourth in the 3,000m at the World Indoors in Moscow earlier that year came in a ridiculously competitive division won by Bekele.

Qatar's Saif Saaeed Shaheen and Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge filled out the podium. No Irish male had ever won gold at the Euros though. He was favourite and admitted beforehand that this 5,000m could be the biggest race of his career.

McDonnell had made a rare transatlantic flight to watch his protégé while aware that Cragg's Achilles had been causing problems for over a month. It snapped with three laps to go. The winning time, as if taunting him, was the slowest since 1969 but he was in tears by the time Jesus Espaňa crossed the line and says now that he 'left a piece' of himself on the track that day.

It kind of just haunted me for a couple of years.

The list of setbacks lengthened but there were reminders of what could be. He took seven seconds off Mark Carroll's Irish 10,000m record in 2007. Two years later and he was running one of the best 5,000m of his career in Carson City. Skip forward to 2011 and he was running another world-class race at the same distance in Brussels and setting an Irish half-marathon record in New York.

If anything, that all added to the frustrations but there was a sense of closure when he finally retired having spent eight months back under the watchful eye of McDonnell and Cragg has spent much of his time since trying to distill his own experiences for the benefits of a new generation of athletes in Oregon.

An agent with Kimbia Athletics, his days pacing for Amy have been replaced by three or four gentle jogs every week but he is coaching and doing his bit with the meets put on locally for their own group of elite athletes in an attempt to recreate that collegiate atmosphere and avoid the fish-out-of-water experience that he felt held him back.

“When you are in college you do it for the love of the sport. You leave and you need to make a living, you need to market yourself and you need to go and run with your heart on your sleeve for your country. There's no red carpet. I wanted to go try and recreate that.

"Let's go after performance, let's go after medals, because I believe it can be done. I feel like I fell away from what I could have done had I the same structure as I'd had at Arkansas.

“My wife moved out to a [training] group in Portland. She has been training out here and she had a lot of success. I got really involved with them on the coaching side and the agent side, just trying to really let these athletes turn their heads off and run.

"Basically, five or six years down the line now, I guess I'm just plugging in day by day trying to help these guys get the best of themselves.

I'm basically chasing my own ghosts in each one of them.

If that seems like a man haunted by his past then he sounds perfectly happy with life. Fulfilled. Cragg was always vocal about his pride in representing Ireland. He stresses that point again down the phone while voicing a desire to give something back to the sport here further down the line, when his own time on track has all but faded into the ether.

“I'm not complete with my own career but I am complete,” he explains. “It's done. I speak to Frank O'Mara quite often and he assures me that no-one feels complete with their careers and Frank is an extremely smart man and a sounding board for me with a lot of those things now.” Not to mention a man who won two World Indoor titles.

Who among us has ever ticked every box?

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