By Ed Leahy, RTE, Sunday, 24 May 2020
It’s just after five o’clock in the morning, the sun is beginning its ascent above the baking Black Rock Desert in north Nevada, and London Olympian Ciarán O’Lionaird is setting the pace in the gruelling 50-kilometre Burning Man Ultramarathon.
Not an event that you would expect to find at any worldwide summer festival, yet somehow it makes perfect sense at this week-long, art-inspired, leave-no-trace event, where the highlight of the week is the symbolic burning of a giant, forty-foot effigy.
Night slowly turns to day as O’Lionáird maintains a strong sub-three-hour marathon pace, while fellow runner, an Irish entrant by the name of Bryan Caulfield recognises the renowned Irish athlete pounding the dusty desert track.
“Are you Ciarán O’Lionaird?” he ponders, rhetorically. “What the f*** are you doing here?”
O’Lionaird was over a year retired from athletics by the time Burning Man 2017 came around, having missed out on Rio 2016 due to recurring injuries, and had not come to the desert to run the full fifty.
One lap of the course – around 30 minutes – was all that the Cork runner would offer as pacemaker to his friend, Nils Arend, with many revellers bemused at the surreal sight of an ultramarathon in full swing.
“Most of the big DJ cars and stages were still playing and everyone was looking at us like we were the craziest MF’ers out there,” recalls O’Lionáird.
As it transpired, Arend would finish second, going through marathon distance around 2hr 45mins, while the aforementioned Irishman Caulfield, would end up fourth.
A scholarship athlete at the renowned running programmes of the University of Michigan and Florida State University, O’Lionáird turned professional in 2011 and made an immediate impact at the top level, qualifying for the final of the 1,500m at the World Championships in Daegu.
But it was a case of history repeating itself for the unfortunate Macroom man, whose injury-interrupted college career continued into the paid ranks, as O’Lionáird battled with Achilles issues in the build up to the London Olympics in 2012.
Despite bouncing back to secure a bronze medal in the European Indoors in 2013, competing this time in the 3,000m, the Leevale AC runner’s ailments persisted, and two further surgeries took O’Lionáird out of competition for large chunks throughout 2014 and 2015.
With the Rio Olympics approaching, O’Lionáird lost the battle to return to full fitness and bowed out of the sport at just 28-years old.
There was, however, a shimmer of a silver lining amidst the turmoil of trying to get back to full fitness as O’Lionáird, a Nike sponsored athlete, got involved with the company’s corporate side, taking up an internship as he looked to put his marketing qualifications to good use.
“I interned with Nike after I tore my Achilles the first time,” said O’Lionáird, speaking to RTÉ Sport.
“I said I want to be useful for something other than running, while I am rehabbing. And I was at world headquarters so I had the opportunity to help out and to show that I was interested in extending beyond being an athlete.”
But O’Lionáird would not return to the competitive field and has not raced in four years – that half-hour Burning Man stretch the most he has run since retiring, right up until March 2020 when the world was struck by the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet as the world shut down, the suppressed runner inside O’Lionáird woke up from its four-year slumbering sojourn.
“Quarantine hit and lockdown hit, and honestly I just wanted to get a break and a change of scenery just to lead a bit of a healthier lifestyle,” explained O’Lionáird.
“Stephen Haas is a good friend of mine so I gave him a call on 2 April and said ‘I might come to Flagstaff’ and he said, ‘when do you want to come?’, and I said, ‘I’ll come today’.
“I came up just with the idea of quarantining in the mountains and just to get into a good cycle of healthy living and to get some fresh mountain air.
“And things have just snowballed and I have found myself getting into pretty good shape somehow and I’m quite surprised by it, to be honest, but I’m not complaining about it.”
The city of Flagstaff sits seven thousand feet about sea level, close to Mount Elden and just south of the San Francisco peaks, the highest range in the state of Arizona.
An idyllic place for runners, Flagstaff offers endless tracks throughout the dirt roads adjacent to the Arizona outpost, and O’Lionáird has found himself in the company of athletes upon arrival to the Haas house.
“Waking up and getting some runs in, it is a pretty ideal place, altitude, a ton of sun all year round, it’s a nice part of the country,” said O’Lionáird.
“When I first came up here, I did a six-mile run on the first day, and I didn’t know if I would be able to finish that run.
“This time last year I was doing zero running. In my last couple of years [competing], I was running in a lot of pain and more than that, I was coming back from two pretty big surgeries and things just weren’t moving the right way.
“But it’s just a perfect storm at the moment. My body has just started to feel a bit better, even just walking around, it’s more symmetrical and things feel like they are moving the right way.”
Followers of O’Lionáird’s social media accounts have been treated in recent years to his emerging talents as a House music DJ, as well as other interesting glimpses into his personal life, including his experiences at Burning Man.
But even the most casual observer would certainly have noticed his recent return to running, as O’Lionáird and his agent and friend, Haas, have been posting photos, videos and training plans in recent weeks.
And just as O’Lionáird made a low-key exit from the sport, he has kept his head down over the past seven weeks, knowing that actions speak louder than words in this game.
On 6 April, O’Lionáird posted a letter from Sport Ireland’s Anti-Doping programme to confirm that he was included in their Registered Testing Pool – the comeback certainly appeared to be on the cards.
“I haven’t announced that I am coming back, but people can now decipher that I’m not just doing this for the good of my health.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking now of what coming back would look like.
“I have submitted my anti-doping whereabouts, so I’m back on drug testing, which I would need to do if I am coming back to race.
“So I think that is one stake in the ground to say, ‘yes, I am serious about this’.
“I’ve been very transparent on social media about what I am doing from a running standpoint because if I do make it back and I do what I think I can do, based on how I have improved to this point, I think it is very important for people to understand a little bit about the work and the training that is being done.
“Because I don’t think that anyone has come back from four years off before – especially the four years that I have had, as I have half-treated my body to death,” laughs O’Lionáird.
“I’m sure it would draw a bit of scepticism, especially if I want to achieve what I think I can achieve, which is not just making the Olympics, but doing something there,” said O’Lionáird.
“So I want to be really cognisant of not just showing up and saying ‘hey, I’m here and I’m racing’. I think it is good to show what I am doing; I have put my training up online and a lot of content of what I have been up to.
“So it’s fair to say, I’m trying to see what my body has. So far, I have been very encouraged and pretty surprised with the progress – I literally just started running on April 1st, it’s been a whirlwind.”
The conversation drifts back to London 2012 when a fresh-faced O’Lionáird, just a year out of college, stopped for the RTÉ cameras to talk about the 1,500m qualifier, which he had failed to get out of – his Olympic dream over before it began.
The devastated athlete stood there, trying to make sense of what had just happened, lamenting an injury that hampered his build-up, while questioning whether he was already finished in the sport.
“I’d be lying if I wasn’t saying that a big part of the reason that the Olympics is starting to come into view is that I want to right the wrongs of 2012.
“I want to right them, performance-wise, but I also want to right them in terms of how I approach representing my country and representing myself.
“I think those were the words of someone who was obviously very frustrated but also a little bit immature, I think, not understanding that injuries are something that can happen.
“I think in that part of my career coming out of college and making a world final and having a huge jump in performance in 2011, like I did, I just expected that if I just kept going, I would just keep improving at that rate, but it doesn’t always work out, some things just don’t go your way.”
O’Lionáird reveals that he didn’t enjoy London for a number of reasons and admits that he is “not a big Olympic Village guy”, but the chance to run again next year at the Tokyo Games will allow him to resolve certain scenarios, while ideally, making much more of an impact on the track.
“I’m at the Olympics to race, so the experience of it is not really my thing. But I didn’t feel like I handled myself the best with how I represented myself and represented Ireland in that Olympics and in that moment too, during the race and post-race.
“You only live once, so to be able to go back and do right by Cork, and do right by Ireland and do right by myself is something that feels like a calling.
“There is some business that has been left undone, and I feel like I owe a debt to myself and I feel like I owe a debt to Ireland to do a little better, because I know what I’m capable of when I am healthy.”
The fact that O’Lionáird is not only talking about making it to Tokyo for the rescheduled 2021 event, but actually making an impact and “surprising some people” shows how well his body has reacted to his return to the daily grind in Flagstaff.
Yet this is certainly not a tale of redemption as O’Lionáird acknowledges that life has been very good to him since he first hung up his spikes in 2016 and that “I probably enjoyed myself too much when I was away from running”.
“I have been very fortunate with the transition I made. There are amazing outlets for me to be able to build great friendships and learn from people from all walks of life, whether it is Burning Man, house music, marketing or building shoes, and yet this is still at the back of my mind, and I didn’t even know it was until a month ago.
“I’ve met people from all walks of life, learned from interesting people in the most obscure places, and it’s been a fun ride.”
O’Lionáird also feels very conscious of the fact that while the world is struggling through these Covid days, karma has been kind to him and has presented this opportunity that would never have arrived had the games gone ahead as scheduled this August.
“Running didn’t call me back. I hadn’t wanted to run again, until I did, so there is no way that Tokyo 2020 would have been on the deck for last year.
“I am very surprised saying this as I am 32 years old, but it seems likes some of that ability is still there. Regardless of the outcome, to put myself in a position to give this a shot for myself and Ireland, and then I can walk away saying that I gave my best.
“Can I say today that I gave my best on the track, or put myself into a position to, or that I represented myself the best at the Olympic Games? I don’t like having to go to bed every night thinking about that.
“I see it like the television series True Detective where they don’t solve the crime, and they have to go back 20 years later to solve it.
“It feels like that, some work that’s been left undone. You can lay some things to rest and be at peace, but I’m not fully at peace with this yet?
“But now that I am here and I am doing it again it has come back to the forefront of my consciousness, so it’s a case of if you can do this, and it is not an easy thing to do, then you need to do it.”
By his own admission, people will be surprised by O’Lionáird’s decision to kick-start his athletics career, and attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
“If I make it back to the Olympics, I’m sure people with have their reservations, and I can’t change that and I am not going to try to,” said O’Lionaird who previously trained under Alberto Salazar, who is currently appealing a four-year ban.
“I know the truth, I know I have done things the right way, and at a certain point I’m going to stop saying that, because all I can do is follow anti-doping rules and pass tests, which I’m going to keep doing.”
Despite his positive and encouraging return to running, O’Lionáird is very aware of the fact that the road remains long and arduous to gain the Olympic standard to qualify for and run at the Tokyo Games in the green vest of Ireland.
But again, the suspension of sport is actually aiding his return, knowing that competitive action will not return until the autumn of this year, which allows him to work on the tougher aspects of the comeback, building endurance and strength.
“At the end of the day, I have to run the time, which is 3:35 for the 1,500m and that is the event that I would go for.
“I’ve come from a base of nothing but things are moving the right way, which is really encouraging and right now my body is operating the way it was in 2011, so now I have to build fitness as I have taken four years off.
“And it’s fair to say that nobody has probably ever done that before, so I have to be diligent about putting weeks and weeks together of consistent running, and I have gone back to what works for me, which is very little speed work and almost all endurance.
“I am putting a big emphasis on volume and getting as strong as I can, and then all going well, I will find a place to try to run the time.
“And I will tick the boxes that Ireland need from me, but it seems as if you hit the time, I don’t know if we will have three guys with the time, so that will put me in a pretty good spot.
“I can’t compete again until October, so it is the perfect vacuum as it has forced me to go back to do the things I need to do, which is to build strength because there are no races, which is another advantage for me as I can get back to basics.
“To me it is just trying to have a consistent summer and the last time I had a consistent summer was 2010, and then 2011 was pretty good.
“So we’ll see what happens, and while I’m not the same age as I was, it seems like this old body has a little bit left in it somehow.”