Aoife Cooke hopes she has the ingredients to realise Olympic dream

Aoife Cooke hopes she has the ingredients to realise Olympic dream

Aoife Cooke (Youghal AC) carved 14 minutes off her best to take the national title in 2:32:34 at the 2019 Dublin marathon.

“What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.”

– John L. Parker Jr, Once a Runner

IT wears you down — physically, mentally, emotionally. No one day in a marathoner’s preparation is too daunting in itself. Humans, after all, were built to run, and just about anyone could shuffle their way through 20 miles if their life depended on it.

The real challenge lies in consistency: The willingness to haul yourself out the door for five miles in the morning, eight in the evening, with a day’s work in between — and those are the recovery days. On harder days, Aoife Cooke will typically log 20-plus miles, many of them at her goal marathon pace of 5:40 per mile or 3:30 per kilometre.

A friend of mine who follows her on Strava, the social media app where athletes log their training, describes her routine as “depressing”, an underhanded compliment from a distance runner who couldn’t contemplate Cooke’s ability to repeat, week after week, year after year, the same looping runs around Cork, churning through the monotonous grind of 110-mile weeks until the soles are worn from her shoes and the engine she has built is truly fit for a 26.2-mile purpose.

That purpose is now very simple: At next Sunday’s Cheshire Elite Marathon in England, Cooke needs to run 2:29:30 to qualify for the Olympics. If things go awry, she might get one more shot at the Copenhagen Marathon in May, but that’s firmly to the back of her mind right now, her only goal being to hold 5:40 miles as long as she can — hopefully all the way to finish.

Her personal best is 2:32:34, which she ran to win the Irish marathon title in Dublin in 2019. “I’m definitely in better fitness than I was then,” she says. “The long runs are faster, and everything is that little bit better. Progress has been made.”

Which is all she can do, really — throw her talent and toughness at one of sport’s hardest disciplines and hope it’s enough to make her an Olympian. If it isn’t, it won’t be for want of trying.

Her journey to the cusp of qualification has been anything but linear. For most of her 20s, Cooke wasn’t even a competitive athlete. She’d been a decent, if unexceptional, junior, clawing her way on to Irish cross-country teams but never racking up a horde of national titles.

In her final year of secondary school in Ballincollig, she received a scholarship offer from Arkansas Tech University and while the US hadn’t been in her plans, she reckoned if she wanted to be a good athlete it was the best option.

Four thousand miles from home, Cooke found life hard to handle at the start, doing very little athletically in her first year stateside. But in her second year she won conference and regional cross-country titles, then finished ninth at the division 2 nationals.

But a pelvic stress fracture the following year sparked a nightmare run of injuries, and when more stress fractures followed Cooke soon realised she had low bone density, which took years to correct.

During her time in Arkansas, Cooke also came out as gay, and while the more progressive world of a US college campus meant her sexuality was largely irrelevant — in a way it wasn’t in other parts of Arkansas — there were still “a few little digs from classmates,” she says, “not people I would have called friends.”

As her running career sputtered to a halt, Cooke decided to move home towards the end of her third year, enrolling at UCC in 2008. For the next seven years she only ran sporadically, finding that every time she upped the intensity, her bone density issues came back to haunt her. Things had improved in that department by 2015 and, to motivate herself with a new challenge, she signed up for the Cork City Marathon with the aim of breaking three hours.

“I ran 3:15,” she says. “I hit the wall very hard.” Afterwards she told herself she’d never do another — the old lie — but after a couple of years running 10Ks and half marathons she couldn’t resist another try. She signed up for the
Amsterdam Marathon in 2017, ran 70 miles a week on the build-up, and clocked 2:46:37.

In 2018, her running again got side-tracked, Cooke forced to take time out from her job with Apple to deal with mental health issues. In the end, she decided she needed a new career path and she became a personal trainer.

Competing in a sport that invites obsessive behaviour, the last few years have forced her to find balance.

“Pushing your body to these limits, you get more emotional tipping that line and it’s very easy to go over,” she says. “I try to make sure everything doesn’t revolve around running (because if) you get an injury it’s all gone. I have hobbies, friends I can talk to, I do drama and other things. Running is really important and I take it seriously, but it’s not everything.”

On a typical week she’ll do 25-30 hours of work as a personal trainer and log somewhere between 100 and 120 miles under the guidance of coach John Starrett. “He pushed me out of my
comfort zone to get where I am now,” she says.

RISE IN STANDARDS

AT the 2019 Dublin Marathon, she carved 14 minutes off her best to take the national title in 2:32:34, which propelled her into contention for Olympic qualification via the world rankings system. However, the age of carbon-plated super-shoes created such a rise in standards that all places in the women’s Olympic marathon will now be filled by automatic time qualifiers, which means Cooke must run 2:29:30 or faster to book her spot.

For athletes of her ability, access to high-level marathons this spring has been near-impossible, and she’s hugely grateful to Michael Harrington, the race director in Cheshire, for giving her and others a chance. “In this climate, we’re seeing the smaller people who really care about athletics get things going,” she says.

The course is a flat, fast one which Cooke will circle seven and a half times, and while she knows that a number of stars need to align for her to join Fionnuala McCormack on the Irish Olympic marathon team, she feels ready. Early last year, she spent several weeks training in Kenya and the lessons she has taken from the world’s top distance-running nation have stayed with her.

“One thing is not to overthink things, it’s very simple,” she says. “They don’t have any amazing facilities, they train on dirt roads, dirt tracks, but (it’s) their work ethic, how dedicated they are. They literally commit their lives to it.” No matter what happens in the coming months, Cooke is in this game for the long haul. She’s 34 now, and in recent years she’s drawn inspiration from Mayo native Sinéad Diver, who in 2019 clocked a 2:24:11 marathon at the age of 42 to qualify for the Olympics, where she will represent Australia.

“Sinéad shows you can push the boundaries and keep going a long time, it’s about being smart and not beating the body down too much. I think I have another eight, maybe 10 years to keep going at the marathon at this level.”

In 2020, Cooke had precious few opportunities to showcase her work, though a 10-mile PB of 54:23 was one big indicator of her potential. She had planned to race the Valencia Marathon last December but a rolled ankle in training left her out of sorts on the build-up and forced her to withdraw. This time around, there’s been no such interruptions.

“It’s gone as well as I could have hoped for, I’ve been hitting the long runs as I’d want and I haven’t had any niggles,” she says. “Hopefully it’ll be a good run to the finish line.”

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