James Sullivan has been chatting to Irish 110m hurdles champion, Gerard O’Donnell, about his background in the sport, his experiences in Prague, and on how the many issues in Irish and global athletics can be tackled.
Gerard O’Donnell is a sprint hurdler from County Leitrim, Ireland. Initially a 400m hurdler, he moved down in distance after claiming the 2014 Irish title over the high hurdles. In 2015, he recorded a clocking of 7.73 over 60m hurdles, moving him to third on the Irish all-time list, qualifying him for the European Indoor Championships in Prague. His PB of 14.10 puts him 6th on the Irish all-time list over 110m hurdles. Off the track, he is known for his involvement with Jumping The Gun.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Gerard: My mother was coaching at my club, Carrick on Shannon A.C., so she brought me along once I was old enough. 20 or so years later and she still runs the show.
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Gerard: I was always a fan of Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm. He was one athlete I always looked forward to watching at a meet or major championships. I was also a big fan of Paul Tergat, one of the truly great Kenyans.
James: Up until last year, you were predominantly a 400m hurdler. What made you change focus to the sprint hurdles?
Gerard: After winning the national 110m hurdles title last year, off a handful of high hurdle sessions, my coach and I decided to give the short hurdles a proper go for indoors and take it from there. Indoors went well, so that made the decision easy for us.
James: Since moving down in distance, you have gone from a 53 second quarter hurdler to a European standard high hurdler, running 7.73 for the 60m hurdles, qualifying for the European Indoor Championships in Prague earlier this year. Did you anticipate stepping it up to such a level when you initially made the decision to move down in distance?
Gerard: At the start of winter training I really didn’t have any ambitions of qualifying for Prague. I had hoped to run sub-8 seconds indoors, and managed to get that out of the way in my first race thankfully. I was operating last year off very little hurdle training due to a torn hip muscle, so I really had no idea how fast I would go with a full winter of hurdle work. Being able to put weeks and months back to back, with no interruption, really just made the difference in the end.
James: Can you describe the experience of representing Ireland in Prague? Looking back what positives can you take from it, and what areas can you learn from going forward?
Gerard: Obviously it was a fantastic experience to represent Ireland on the big stage. This was my first senior international and my first time in an Irish vest since 2005. My performance at the championships was disappointing personally, but hopefully I’ll have many more chances to redeem myself. It was a positive experience other than the race. Being involved in athletics at that level is something I never really thought I would achieve. Going forward, my coach Jeremy Lyons and I have decided that I need to get more races in against top-class opposition, which is something I was lacking before Prague.
James: You’ve recently brought your 110m hurdles PB down to 14.10. Are you satisfied with how your outdoor season is going, and what do you hope to achieve by the end of the season? Looking ahead to next year, are the European Championships in Amsterdam in the back of your mind?
Gerard: My outdoor season is slowly coming together. I changed from an 8 stride to 7 stride approach to the first hurdle since indoors, so this is taking a bit of time to get used to. Once I put a decent race together I would hope to be running well below 14 seconds, hopefully that’ll happen in the next couple of weeks. I’d like to be able to retain my national title in August also. The Europeans in Amsterdam will be something I’ll mark on the calendar, but I won’t be basing my season around it. Like this year I’ll just be trying to stay healthy and hopefully still be running PBs.
James: The 110m Hurdles comprises a strong blend of speed and technique. Which of these do you believe to be your greatest strength?
Gerard: Generally it would have been my technique, with my height also being quite beneficial. But over this season and last my speed has also improved quite a bit because I’ve managed to reduce injuries. Hopefully I’ll continue to get quicker and keep my technique nice and tidy.
James: Can you describe an average week of training, specifically in terms of key speed and technique based sessions? How does the mix between the two differ at various times of the year?
Gerard: An average week during the winter would just be about ticking boxes, getting through sessions in one piece without putting the body at any great risk. I would generally just have one speed based session and this would fall in with hurdle technique work on a lot of occasions. Sessions like 10/20/30m from blocks, and starts to the 2nd/3rd/4th hurdle. I would also have a hurdle endurance session which during the build-up to summer would be something like 4×12 hurdles. For sprint hurdles, technique work needs to be done at speed, although corrections can be made with simple, repetitive hurdle drills.
James: With regards strength work in the gym how much emphasis do you put on this? What sort of specific exercises do you incorporate into your training?
Gerard: Strength work for me is supplementary. Its main focus is to keep injuries from occurring. One day a week I will do some heavier lifting, with some combination of deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts, depending on the time of year. But most of the session will be taken up with prehab and conditioning exercises. I also do a power based session of med balls and plyometrics once a week, which also includes lots of prehab work.
James: How important is endurance for a sprint hurdler? What sort of aerobic power/ speed endurance work do you incorporate into your training? Do you run many 200m and 400m races?
Gerard: Since this is my first season as a sprint hurdler I think I’m benefiting from all the endurance work I have done in previous seasons. Most sprint hurdlers would have a good degree of endurance, and in general it allows you to train better and more efficiently. My endurance training this year is simply done over shorter distances than last year, eg. 6x150m off 3 minutes instead of 6x300m. I did a few 400m races last season when I wasn’t able to hurdle, but I was never a fan of the flat race, I need the distraction of hurdles. I do plan on doing a few 200m races this season though as I think it’ll be a good gauge of where my speed is at.
James: While the standard at the top end is very high in the hurdle events in Ireland, there is a noticeable lack of participants at senior level when compared to the flat events. None of the four hurdle events required heats at last year’s National Championships, and hurdle races are rarely on the Dublin Graded Meet programme. Why do you believe numbers are lower in these disciplines, and what can be done to raise participation levels among senior athletes?
Gerard: I think more athletes need to branch out and give different events a try, especially at senior level. I think athletes get pigeon-holed into events and accept that as their fate until they hang up their spikes. In terms of quality we are right up there with other events in Ireland but the quantity seems to drop off, particularly at Nationals. 17 men ran sub 9 seconds for 60m hurdles indoors this year, and yet only 4 athletes show up for a straight final at nationals. It’s embarrassing for the event and for the sport. Similarly, there are 17 men sub 16 seconds so far this year in the 110m hurdles, but I won’t be holding my breath for heats at the Nationals. The men’s sprint hurdles face the challenge of younger athletes transitioning to higher height hurdles, but in the 400m hurdles and both women’s events it’s not as drastic. Hopefully having the likes of Thomas Barr winning on the world stage will make hurdles more popular for the current crop, and inspire future athletes.
James: In recent times you have joined Jumping The Gun, and have done great work promoting athletics. Banter has been a key ingredient in your podcasts, articles and commentary. How important is it to be light-hearted and have some fun when discussing the sport, and could these attributes be brought more into athletics as a whole in Ireland?
Gerard: With Jumping The Gun we like to keep things fairly light-hearted, while also keeping people up to speed with what’s happening in the world of athletics. There are plenty of news sources out there where you can find results, facts and figures about the sport, but I think we add a bit more of a human element. Like mistakes, nothing more human than mistakes…
But in general I think a lot of people involved in Irish athletics could do with taking themselves a little less seriously. The sport is there to be enjoyed.
James: There’s no denying that, in Ireland, athletics struggles in the popularity stakes when compared to field sports. What needs to be done to attract the average person on the street to Athlone or Santry to spectate?
Gerard: Athletics as a whole in Ireland needs to be shaken up a little. Very little has changed since I was competing as a juvenile, and it tends to be senior athletes who suffer because of it. There’s a lack of crowds/atmosphere at senior meets, because it’s simply not enjoyable to go and watch as a punter when there’s no music, entertainment, booze, gambling etc. I’m not saying we need to turn the sport into a dog-racing type effort, but a little imagination, and altering of policies, is needed to freshen things up. From a participation side of things, events like Ton le Gaoithe in Waterford, which will be a tailwind sprints meet, are exactly what’s needed, events which have the athlete in mind. Back to the spectator, I think street events are something which could be hugely popular and I believe Dermot McDermott has proved this in Sligo in recent years. If the general public won’t come to the track, bring the track to them.
James: There appears to be a real lack of focus and depth in field events in Ireland, with the likes of the Morton Games and IMC putting on the bare minimum required. In addition, despite being one of the strongest nations on the track in the recently held European Team Championships First League, Ireland finished second from the rear in the field events, thus impacting any chance of challenging for promotion. Why do you believe there is such an apparent apathetic attitude to these disciplines here and what can be done to raise the profiles of these events?
Gerard: I think field events suffer a lot from lack of facilities in Ireland, with a lot of athletes having to travel great distances to get to their local hammer cage or even long jump pit. As a younger athlete I never even considered attempting most field events, because up until Sligo IT built their track, Tullamore was the closest, 115km from Carrick on Shannon. Coaching is another area which could be improved upon, but similar to the athlete, how can a volunteer coach be expected to give up so much time and expense for this pursuit. Until we have full-time coaches, and more widespread facilities available I don’t see any great improvement in the near future. We have a lot of talented athletes at our disposal in certain field events. It’s just about how the future talent is handled.
James: In Ireland, could more be done to get the regular Joe Soap, regardless of age or ability, onto the track rather than having a disproportionate number of participants in our sport competing in road races, fun runs and marathons? Should track running be made more accessible to the everyday runner, and if so, how can this be done?
Gerard: Innovation and incentive will be needed to attract people to our sport. Where is the incentive for average Joe to head to his nearest track? It’s much easier and cheaper to plod along the roads for 30 minutes three days a week. We need to stop rewarding the average Joe for simply participating in road races. Running 5km in 50 minutes is not an achievement that is medal worthy. Congratulations for exercising for 50 minutes, but you do not deserve a medal. Tracks and track athletes can be seen as intimidating and elitist, but I think groups like fit4life might help bridge the gap between the two worlds. Not that it is the perfect formula, but it’s an attempt at a step in the right direction.
James: What other changes would you most like to see happen in Irish athletics over the coming years?
Gerard: I would hope to see some full-time coaches employed in Ireland across a number of different events. I would like to see our top athletes being given the recognition they deserve by the general public. There are ‘amateur’ GAA players getting rich off their sport, while most elite Irish athletes can barely survive on the funding that they receive.
James: You are the president of the IAAF for one day. What drastic changes do you make?
Gerard: Life bans for drug cheats. The reward outweighs the risk at the minute for a lot of athletes. There should be an asterisk beside every result by an athlete returning after a drug ban. And like Brian Murphy once suggested, give them all an orange bib to race in so there’s complete visibility. I would like to deny them any future earnings from the sport otherwise, but I might run into some legal issues on that one.
James: Looking ahead to the World Championships in Beijing next month, which particular match-ups are you looking forward to seeing?
Gerard: I’ll be looking forward to seeing how far Tom Barr can progress in the 400m hurdles. I think he’ll need another national record to make the final, but that’s something he’s more than capable of. The men’s triple jump should be a cracker of an event with the world record in danger. The women’s 100m hurdles could be taken by anyone who reaches the final, and it’ll be interesting to see if any of the recent sub-44 men can stop Kirani James in the 400m. All-in-all, lots to look forward to!
James: That’s great Gerard. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck for the remainder of 2015 and beyond.
Gerard: Thanks James, best of luck with the rest of your season too.