Glorious summer for old-school ‘Mad Len’ – “Irish Times” feature on Ciarán Ó Lionáird

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Times, Saturday, August 6, 2011, and online.

ATHLETICS: Ciarán O’Lionaird has improved his best from 3:48.36, moved to fourth on the Irish all-time list, and qualified for the World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics, writes IAN O’RIORDAN

IT WAS close to midnight last Saturday when they got back to Leuven, and Ciarán O’Lionaird reckoned there was time for a beer. “Just the one,” he said to the small enclave of runners, knowing full well that would turn into the two or three.

They ordered a round of Belgium’s finest – Leffe Blond – and as O’Lionaird took the first sip he felt pretty satisfied: earlier, in Ghent, he clocked 3:41.34, in horrible conditions. Just shy of his 1,500-metre best, run a few weeks previous. Since basing himself in Leuven for the summer – sharing the “spare room” in the house of US athletics agent Chris Layne – he’d also run personal bests for the mile (3:57.99), for 3,000m (7:50.71), and for 5,000m (13:33.64).

Indeed his season started off with a PB, in March, in his last term on scholarship at Florida State University, he ran 28:32.30 for 10,000m. After that O’Lionaird knew he was on the right track again, or more importantly, had made the right choice. Just 12 months earlier he was practically crippled with two herniated discs in his back.

Doctors argued for surgery, the only side-effect being an end to his competitive running; O’Lionaird argued otherwise, and submitted himself to painfully slow rehab. All last summer, in the sweltering heat of Tallahassee, in the heart of the Florida Panhandle, he stuck to this regime, morning and evening, inside the college stadium, until he could at least walk without pain. “Whatever happens after this is a bonus,” he said to himself.

So now, having just turned 23, and five personal bests later, he had every reason to feel satisfied, and promptly ordered another round. A group of Canadian runners in the bar mentioned Tuesday’s meeting, in Oordegem. Nate Brennan and Taylor Milne were still chasing the 1,500m A-standard for the World Championships in Daegu, over three weeks away; so too was Belgium’s Jereon D’Hoedt. Their target was 3:35.00 – which would also give them the A-standard for the London Olympics.

Two other Canadians, Matt Lincoln and Kyle Smith, agreed to pace: “Who else is in?” O’Lionaird wasn’t so sure: he’d never heard of Oordegem, had planned to finish his season on Sunday, at the Irish championships, in Santry. He finished his second beer.

“Alright. We’re after coming out here to Europe for the summer, and we end up in races with crazy splits. That’s okay if you’re a Kenyan, running 3:30, but we need an even pace, where everyone gets in a line and just chases a fast time. If that’s the case count me in.”

They ordered another beer for the road, underestimating the strength of Leffe Blond, because by the time O’Lionaird walked the short distance back to his house he felt a little drunk. He ate three bowls of Crunchy Nut cornflakes, then fell fast asleep.

Less than 48 hours until a red-hot 1,500m – yet this didn’t worry him in the slightest. O’Lionaird has always modelled himself on being something of a throwback to the old days of distance running, where they trained hard, raced hard, and occasionally partied hard. He wears the retro gear and even cultivates the old-school look, complete with small facial tash and carefully-trimmed mullet. Put him in a picture alongside Dave Bedford, Neil Cusack, Brendan Foster, Steve Prefontaine and he’d look in perfect company.

“Why can’t it still be like that?” he often thinks, but then they don’t call him “Mad Len” for nothing. He’d also promised himself during those long, lonely rehab sessions in Tallahassee that once he got back running he’d always enjoy it. He’d been sucked into the obsessive approach in the past, when he’d finished secondary school in Cork, determined to make a name for himself as a distance runner.

Growing up in the countryside of Toonsbridge, outside Macroom, running was the only outlet for his energy, so aged seven, his mother took him to West Muskerry Athletic Club, hoping that energy could be put to some use. Later he moved to Leevale, in the city, coming under the nurturing influence of Der O’Donovan – and gradually his potential began to shine. He ran 3:50.10 at age 16, and in 2005 won 1,500m bronze at the European Youth Olympics, in Lignano.

Inevitably that drew the interest of the US colleges, and O’Lionaird was recruited by Bob Braman, coach at Florida State University, and also Ron Warhurst, coach at Michigan. In the end he went for Michigan, who already had an excellent roster of milers, including Nick Willis from New Zealand, plus the Canadian, Nate Brennan.

Typical of O’Lionaird he threw himself into the heavy workload: for the first six months of 2008 he did every training session with Willis, before breaking down with injury. Later that summer he watched Willis win the 1,500m silver at the Beijing Olympics, and thought, “I’m not far off that guy.”

An injured athlete is invariably a depressed one – although that’s not the only reason O’Lionaird was having a hard time settling into college life in Michigan: back home, his parents were separating, and his three younger brothers weren’t taking it well. His positive approach to running had become unbearably negative, and eventually he needed out of Michigan. Warhurst had done his best, but in the end he went back to Braman, who offered him a half-scholarship at Florida, and the promise of a better climate.

So he transferred in 2009, and without room and board, found the cheapest apartment in Tallahassee – sleeping on a mattress, three doors up from a crack house, with hookers on every street corner. He couldn’t have cared less, he may have been broke, yet he felt liberated. “I have a pair of running shoes, and a pair of shorts,” he reckoned. “And I don’t even need a T-shirt to run in Florida.”

Braman kept the faith, kept at him to work on his rehab, and lose “the double chin”. Last autumn O’Lionaird repaid the faith, finishing 18th in the NCAA cross country, and leading Florida to its best ever second place. That earned O’Lionaird a slot on the Irish Under-23 team for the European Cross Country, in Portugal, yet his lack of proper base work caught up with him. He went out hard but faded dramatically to 75th. Winning the team gold was little consolation; he didn’t run again until New Year’s Day, determined to make 2011 the year that finally counted.

At lunchtime on Tuesday, he paid €5 for a train from Leuven to Oordegem, where a small bus was waiting to transfer the runners to the stadium. They assumed they’d gone the wrong way until they pulled up at a small field, in the middle of which lay an immaculate, Mondo track. “Very old school,” thought O’Lionaird. “Perfect for me.”

Everything was legit: Marc Corstjens, who runs the Heusdan meeting, had brought in the electronic timing, and the 11 runners lined up, with instructions to stretch out based on personal bests. O’Lionaird was the slowest of them, so ran the first lap at the back – 59.0 seconds. With 600m to go he made one bold move, darting into second place, chasing the Ethiopian, Dawit Wolde. They passed the bell in 2:37: “I can definitely close in 60.” Instead he closed in 57 – and finished on Wolde’s heels in 3:34.46 – or in old money, a 3:51.5 mile.

In one glorious summer he’d improved his best from 3:48.36, moved to fourth on the Irish all-time list, and qualified for the World Athletics Championships and the 2012 London Olympics.

“Oh . . . my . . . God!” he thought, realising how fast he’d run, and how effortless it had actually felt. Funny thing is many of the old-school distance runners would have a similar story to tell.