Kerry O’Flaherty is one of three Irish women competing in the 3000m Steeplechase at the World Championships in Beijing on Monday morning. James Sullivan caught up with her recently to chat about her background in the sport, her hopes in Beijing, and her specific training for the event.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Kerry: I was a very active child. My Papa (grandfather) always took my brother and I out walking in Bangor (County Down); we collected conkers in the autumn and enjoyed walks to the beach in the summer. Unless it was lashing down with rain we would always play with friends outside at home which would involve chasing and running games.
When I was 13, there was a 5k fun run at home in Newcastle (County Down) and I asked my Dad if I could run. I ended up beating most of the boys and that’s where my home club Newcastle AC scooped me up; I suppose the rest is history!
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Kerry: Mary Peters has always been a great support to me especially with her inspirational chats. She always knows what to say and is one of the most knowledgeable people that I know. Mary helped teach me how to be mentally strong and I carry her autobiography with me on training camps and to big races. It’s a fantastic read and is very inspiring. There really is ‘something about Mary!’
More recently I’ve taken great inspiration from Jo Pavey who at the age of 41 is becoming stronger and breaking some of the constraints that society tries to put on us.
James: What do you believe to be your strongest attribute with regards athletics, and what area do you feel you could improve on the most?
Kerry: I’m very competitive not only with others but with myself. I also have a great belief in my ongoing ability to improve and if I want something I go out and get it.
I can also get very nervous at times, especially when trying not only to race well, but also chasing qualifying standards. At one point last year I got so nervous I guess I was hindering my performances and wasting too much nervous energy. I’ve managed to work on that and this year I have started to run with more confidence and I’ve learned to go out and race and let the times come.
James: What brought you to the steeplechase? How long did it take you to adapt to the event?
Kerry: The Steeplechase is becoming my strongest event. In laboratory tests I have reached lactic levels of 20mmol/l/kg before exhaustion, indicating that my potential is more at middle-distance (natural long distance runners often struggle to tolerate 10). The 3000m seems to be a sweet spot for me – with the steeplechase combining the middle distance power and the endurance of a 5000m runner – that’s where my focus is.
I have come from 1500m running as a junior and love that distance but I don’t have fast enough 400/800m speed that is needed for a low 4-minute 1500. I only started hurdling since taking to the steeplechase 4 years ago, so I believe there’s a lot more technical time to save during my race. I also have a background in mountain running so I guess I’m used to jumping fences, rocks and the odd mountain goat that gets in the way. My endurance is something that I will continue to work on and of course the technique of hurdling.
James: At the recent meet in Letterkenny you achieved both the World Championship standard for Beijing month, along with the Olympic qualifying standard for Rio de Janeiro next year, with a clocking of 9:42.61. Can you put that experience into words?
Kerry: The meeting director, Daragh McDaid of Letterkenny A.C, can’t be thanked enough for putting this race together. For me it was a toss up whether to race there or race at the IAAF Challenge event in Madrid the same weekend. I get on very well with my steeplechase competitors and we have all been chasing the standards this season. We talked about it – the top Irish, the British number 1, 5 top Americans and the top Ugandan were all due to race plus a good Polish pace maker and so it seemed to be the right place to go and just go for it no matter what the weather might throw at us.
It turned out to be the right decision, it wasn’t a flat calm night by any means and the rain threatened all evening (traditional mislay drizzle) but the pace maker did a fantastic job taking us to 2k in 6:30 and then we all competed really hard against each other over the last three laps to achieve the times. I was ecstatic crossing the line, I could see the clock and knew Michelle (Finn) and I were very close to going inside both standards. We had to wait for the official times to be called out and when they did I had a few happy tears to shed. It was a massive relief to finally run within both global standards and not have to worry about where I was having to fly off to next to try and chase another time or how much it was going to cost me.
James: Looking ahead to the World Championships, what are your goals for Beijing?
Kerry: I would like to go out in Beijing and race to the best of my ability, it is going to be tough in the heats competing against the World’s best and so the race for me will be run like a final. There will be girls with PBs in the low 9-minutes but my last third of the race is starting to become my strongest so I’m going to give it my all out there. It will be a great experience, which I hope will help me build towards more major Championships and higher-level races.
James: What would an average week of training be like at this time of the year, specifically in terms of key sessions and total mileage?
Kerry: At the moment I am training hard and preparing for the Worlds. My average week in the winter is around 70 miles running plus some cross training on top of that which includes running on an underwater treadmill. During the season it is in the 50-60 miles range. Many of the tracks are now Mondo and are very hard on the body especially when training for the Chase and so I try and only use it for sessions only once a week (two at the most). I tempo in the forest parks at home and also use those and Murlough Nature Reserve (beside the beach) for my longer runs too. I work on my hurdle technique once or twice a week with Athletics NI Coach Tom Reynolds and also incorporate hurdling into my track sessions.
James: With regards speed work what do you consider the most important sessions?
Kerry: This season I haven’t included any pure speed work or lactic tolerance sessions into my training. It’s all been endurance and speed endurance focused. I ran a 1500m PB earlier in the season of 4:12 (for the first time in 6 years) off no specific speed work and was delighted – it reflects the significant improvement in my underlying conditioning – it’s taken 10 years of hard work!
One of my key speed endurance sessions is 10x500m off 60 seconds recovery. I also throw the odd hurdle into that session too. I also enjoy 10x300m off 60sec when I’m closer to a big race coming up and will put a hurdle in the home straight. However, I’ve finally got used to doing longer reps as well on the track such as 4x1200m or 1600m, 5x400m, 1600m.
James: What kind of technical work do you do to prepare yourself for the steeplechase barriers and the water jump?
Kerry: I work with Athletics NI Coach Tom Reynolds each week for my hurdling and I really don’t do much work for the water jump as it’s hard to get someone to fill the pit. I do, however, use a sand pit to replicate this and I’m currently digging a hole in the garden so that I can practice this without having to get into the car and travel.
James: Compared to flat running, what type of unique challenges does the steeplechase present for an athlete?
Kerry: The Chase is very demanding on the body, with 35 barriers to clear in a 3000m race there is a lot of impact on the legs, so staying injury free in this event can be challenging. That is why I have been incorporating the underwater treadmill into my training. it’s great to do a long run in it the day after a steeple race to help the body actively recover.
In races that have large fields it can be hard to spot the barriers, so every race is different and sometimes you will have to move out into lane 3 or 4, even sometimes to 5 (not good!) to get a clear view to hurdle. So you can be running much more than 3000m if this goes on for a few laps. It can be also dangerous at the water jump and as if someone takes the water jump badly you could go straight into the back of them, so at times the other competitors can be creating obstacles for you too.
James: How important is core strength work for a steeplechaser and how much emphasis do you put on it? What specific core strength exercises do you incorporate into your training?
Kerry: This season I have concentrated more on my hip and glute strength and I think the core strength has developed around that. So glute circuits and hurdles drills have been the main focus.
James: Some believe that the lower height of the steeplechase barriers for women, relative to men, makes it more difficult to clear the water jump effectively for women than for men. Would you agree with this way of thought? Do you think the height of the barriers should be increased?
Kerry: Yes, mathematically the higher men’s barrier for the water jump does give them an advantage, however, on average women are not as tall as men so the barrier height for women is ok where it is! I’m happy to take in a bit more water over 7 barriers rather than hurdle higher over the other 28…
James: The number of participants in the steeplechase in Ireland is significantly lower than for flat events. Why do you believe this to be the case? What could be done to increase participation in this discipline at all levels?
Kerry: I think it’s only a matter of time before more girls move to the Chase in Ireland. I think if more athletes had the chance to hurdle at school level then there wouldn’t be that fear of the barriers. I was not taught how to hurdle in school but have taken to it well. It would be great to maybe set up a few taster sessions for females, as women’s endurance running is clearly very strong in Ireland and there are definitely a few up and coming girls that would be able to hold their own in the event. Hopefully the three of us now having made the Rio Standard can be some sort of inspiration to the younger girls to give it a go.
James: What advice would you give to a club athlete interested in having a go at the steeplechase?
Kerry: Definitely have a practice over hurdles first and into a sand pit for the water jump. Don’t see the barriers as an obstacle but simply as a bigger hurdle that doesn’t move. There probably should be more opportunities to run 2k Steeplechases to maybe ease athletes into the event. Also I do believe that you have to train like a 5000m runner – you need very good endurance for the event.
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?
Kerry: I think many people shy away from the track as they haven’t had the opportunities at school age to have a go at it. Their only ever experience of track is maybe seeing it on the TV and maybe it’s a ‘bit elite’ or there is a fear that they’re ’not good enough’. There have been one or two ‘come and try it Mile events’ and probably more of that type of event would boost numbers.
James: You are the president of the IAAF for one day. What drastic changes do you make?
Kerry: That everyone should be given the chance to compete regardless of age (everyone develops at different speeds, so you don’t need to be a superstar at 21 to be a success in your 30s!).
James: That’s great Kerry. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in Beijing.
Kerry: It’s been a pleasure.