James Sullivan has been having a chat with Ciaran O’Lionaird, one of Ireland’s best performers at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu.

Ciaran O’Lionaird is an elite athlete from County Cork, Ireland, who specialises in the 1500 metres. After suffering a career threatening back injury in 2010 he has made a spectacular comeback this year, running a new PB of 3:34.46, putting him 4th on the Irish all-time list. This performance secured the A-Standard qualifier for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and the 2012 London Olympics. In Daegu he became the first Irishman to reach the final of the 1500m at a major global outdoor championships since Niall Bruton at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. In the final he finished in 10th place.

Ciaran O'Lionaird at the World Championships in Daegu

James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. So to begin, how did you first get involved in athletics?

Ciaran: I began running when I was seven, but it was probably when I joined Leevale AC when I was 12/13 that I began to take things a bit more seriously. There was a strong tradition of Leevale runners going to the States and when they would come back in the summers I would try to kick lumps out of them in sessions. They thought I was a little sh*t I’m sure, but I loved it. I never showed the older lads much respect and there were positives and negatives in that for sure. It took me a while to grow up in Leevale, but I was always tenacious.  

James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?

Ciaran: People ask me this quite a bit, but I don’t really have idols in athletics and never really had growing up. I respected Mark Carroll hugely, he was a tremendous example for young Irish runners and more importantly the lads from Cork. He never seemed detached, always willing to give some advice if he was back training at the Mardyke. He was someone I definitely looked up to, but I didn’t glamorize the sport of athletics to the degree that I had idols in the sport.

James: What were the reasons behind your decision to move to Florida State?

Ciaran: I had a lot of injury problems and negative external factors that contributed to my running at Michigan. I don’t really like going into the personal stuff in detail but my family was having some problems and I would train angry all the time, beating myself to death. I was caught in a vicious circle and the weather too would just batter me. In early 2009 I decided I needed to make a change and I had looked at FSU back in secondary school. Coach Bob Braman seemed extremely professional and the warm climate drew me there.

James: Just over a year ago you were unable to run due to a lower back injury and faced possible surgery that would have ended your running career. How close were you to making the decision to go down the route of surgery? What have you done to get your career back on track?

Ciaran: I was close to getting the surgery. I had pretty much let running go at that point. I just wanted my body to be put back in one piece. I had completed the grad school entry exam and by that point I was hanging around and partying a lot with non-runners. Coach Braman and our medical staff urged me to get a second opinion when our 1st doctor recommended surgery. Coach Braman was the driving force behind my return really. If it wasn’t for his belief in me, I would never have even attempted to make a return to the sport. He and my coach in Leevale, Der O’Donovan both harbored a belief in me that went beyond my own. I was fortunate to have them at that time. 

This was summer 2010 and I decided to try to build up really slowly and introduced a ton of stabilizing core work. Planks and bridges and such, just trying to strengthen the support systems surrounding my back. I would take the house to the elliptical machine. I depreciated the value of that thing exponentially I would say. It took a serious beating. And it made me stronger gradually. The rest is history but it was all a process, starting very slowly.
James: At the start of 2011, how much were the World Championships in the back of your mind? Did you see it as a realistic target?
Ciaran: I didn’t have the Worlds in my mind really. I was determined to just enjoy my last year and lay some groundwork and base training so that if an opportunity to run after college came up, I would have some base laid for 2012 after having missed so much time in previous years. It was why I spent the majority of the year doing long tempos and long 10k-pace intervals. It was the first time in a long time I took a calculated, long term approach and it paid off.  

First Irishman in World 1500m final since 1995

James: In Daegu, at your first major championships you performed brilliantly to qualify from both the heats and semi finals of the 1500m, becoming the first Irishman to qualify for the World Championship final over the metric mile since Niall Bruton back in 1995. Can you describe the experience? Did you expect to perform so well?

Ciaran: I say this a lot but my attitude this year has been ‘no expectations, no limitations’. I don’t take outside pressure into account. I believe in myself and take every race on its merits and believe anything can happen. I just tried to make sure in Daegu that I was in the right position to utilize my strengths. I built a strong kick in the last 2-3 weeks before Daegu and tried to be calculated in the way I went about using it in the 1st round. The semi I knew I couldn’t play around as much so I got up front and took a ride and got in the mix. Everybody who makes worlds is fit. It’s about having the composure to determine exactly what’s required to progess and then doing just that. 

James: In the final you finished in a very creditable 10th place. With the benefit of hindsight, would you have ran the race any differently?

Ciaran: I was really disappointed after the final. Since that night I’ve had time to rationalize things and am happy overall with my season and Daegu but I still feel I should have given a better account of myself in the final. Having done 10k training most of the year, I just hadn’t put in the lactic tolerance work and pure speedwork to handle a 50-51 second close. I’ve ran 50secs for 400 in training but it’s different when you try to put it into a race. It takes practice. Taking this into account, I should have been right up front at the bell in the final to give myself a shot. I wasn’t there and I’m disappointed in myself. But one learns and it was a valuable experience for next year. 

James: Away from your event, how did you enjoy the experience of being part of the Irish team?

Ciaran: Being a part of the Irish team is a unique experience. Our team manager Patsy and all the coaches and Kevin our High Performance Director do a brilliant job of keeping things businesslike but we also have some serious craic and all the tension is taken away. It’s a great balance. I was lucky to have the AAI support team behind me and they played a massive part in keeping me mentally and physically ready for each round. 

The Bullet with the Mullet

James: Were you disappointed that there were no Irish broadcasters in Daegu to cover the championships?

Ciaran: Yeah, it was fairly disappointing. At the end of the day it’s what I’ve come to expect. There are some quality journalists on athletics in this country. Ian O’Riordan and Brendan Mooney come to the front of my mind. They do a fantastic job and are always knowledgeable. But I did some interviews over the phone say with RTE and they haven’t really done any research at all. All it takes is a Google search to get some background info. I just don’t understand sometimes how people are in the jobs they are in. Then you have Jerry Kiernan on Newstalk being asked about my race and cracking on about the Munster Schools Cross Country and the fact I’ve no speed, 2 days after I close my prelim with the fastest 200 of anyone. It boggles the mind really. But at the end of the day I don’t do what I do in order to do interviews or be liked by anybody. I do it to beat people and be the best I can be in the sport I’ve grown to love again and that’s all that really matters. 

James: What are your goals for 2012? How much is Ray Flynn’s Irish record of 3:33.5 on the back of your mind?

Ciaran: My main goal for next year is to better my placing in Daegu at the Olympics. The ultimate goal is a medal. In order to do that, I know I need to be in 3:31 or so shape. I may not get the honest race before London to get the Irish record but I know that I will need to be in record shape in order to medal. Next year isn’t about times, it’s about placing high at the Games. I’m sure an opportunity to run really fast will present itself and if it does I’ll be looking to run as fast as I can but the main focus is London. 

James: Over the coming off-season what will an average week of training be like, specifically in terms of key sessions and total mileage?

Ciaran: Right now I’ve just had a 2 week break and am just doing some 30 minute runs here and there. I’ll eventually build up to 80-90 mpw with a good long run of 2 hours and some long tempo work and one day off a week. I’ll be in the gym. Training is training. Most people are doing the same stuff for the most part. It’s about being smart and stringing the weeks together and staying consistent. That’s the main training goal. 

James: What are your favourite training sessions?

Ciaran: My favorite session I did this year was probably 4xmile in 4:20 but going 70-68-62-60 for each 400 metres of the mile. It kept things interesting and prepared me for tactical situations in races. It was during NCAA season and I think I closed the last mile in 54 secs for 400 and 1:53 for the 800. I was pretty fit early on this year. 

James: Nutrition obviously plays an important part in the life of a professional athlete. What would be your typical dieting habits in the lead up to a big race?

Ciaran: I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. I eat when I’m hungry and I try to eat well but I also like going into a race feeling good and will eat what I want if there is something I really want to eat. Prior to my 3:34 I stayed in Leuven for a month and not one evening went by where I wasnt at the ice-cream shop getting a waffle cone with Speculoos ice cream. It’s about balance, like everything else in running and in life. 

James: I couldn’t possibly go through an interview with Ciaran O’Lionaird without bringing up the mullet. It became quite a hit in Daegu. What is the inspiration behind it?

Ciaran: There is no inspiration really. When I was injured with my back I was friends with a salon owner in Tallahassee and I would go to his shop and have some Crown and just kick back. He offered to cut my hair for free so long as he had creative freedom so he came up with some interesting styles. I liked the mullet and stuck with it. My girlfriend absolutely hates it but that’s fine. It’s gotten a lot of positive feedback recently and I’m happy about that. I think runners are sometimes too clean-cut and boring. Being a little edgy and standing out never hurts when you’re looking for support. 

James: Who was it that first coined the phrase “the bullet with the mullet”?

Ciaran: I’ve heard it might have been David Gillick. I’m not positive but if that’s true then that’s serious quality. He’s a guy who has had a really tough year but obviously has been really positive and is willing to still have the craic and support his Irish teammates. It’s an attitude like that which will bring him back to the top in 2012, I have no doubt. 

James: Thanks Ciaran and best of luck in 2012. 

Ciaran: No problem.

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