Shortly after last year’s world 1500m final, Ciara Mageean walked out of Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, met her coach, Steve Vernon, and asked him a question: “What do I have to do to close the gap?”
After producing the best run of her career, the Irishwoman finished nine places and nine seconds behind gold medallist Sifan Hassan from the Netherlands, clocking a personal best of 4:00.15.
So near to an illustrious barrier, yet still so far off the best in the world.
“I realised I had a lot of work to do, and that it was going to take time,” says Mageean. “You can’t rush these things.”
Mageean was 27 when she lined up for that final which for most 1500m runners would be considered their physical prime. But the trajectory of her career meant she was, in training years, a much younger athlete.
She had been an outstanding junior, winning 800m silver at the World U18 Championships in 2009 and 1500m silver at the World U20 Championships in 2010.
In 2011, though, her career hit its first big roadblock. A calcaneal bone spur that she initially ignored eventually mushroomed into a major issue.
“I was very foolish,” she admitted. “I ran for a good while in pain. Looking back, you wonder how could I be that stupid, but you get blindsided by the prospect of championships. You never want to stop running.”
She eventually underwent surgery but the journey back was as arduous as it was lengthy. In 2015 she returned to a decent level under the guidance of Olympic marathoner Jerry Kiernan, and the following year she won her first major medal, taking 1500m bronze at the 2016 European Championships in Amsterdam.
Disappointment followed at the 2017 World Championships, Mageean bowing out in the 1500m heats. This was when she decided to relocate to a professional training group in England, training under Steve Vernon at Team New Balance Manchester.
Vernon built her training volume slowly over the past three years, block after block of the aerobic foundation she would need to compete with the best in the world. In 2018 she saw it pay dividends as she roared back to form, finishing fourth in the European 1500m final in Berlin.
A bronze medal followed at the 2019 European Athletics Indoor Championships over 1500m, and then that world final – her first at global level – in Doha.
That performance convinced Mageean she could reach the Olympic final in Tokyo but she wanted to do far more than just make up the numbers. Last winter she raised her training volume, running 70-75 miles (112-120km) a week, and the year began in fine style with an Irish indoor 1500m record of 4:06.42 in Boston and a 3000m PB of 8:48.27 in Athlone.
As the pandemic put paid to all racing plans, Mageean went back to the drawing board.
She had expected the worst when it came to the postponement of the Olympics, but the cancellation of the European Championships in Paris hit her hard. “I felt it a little bit more because it was the last (track) championship of the year and I hoped we still had a chance to don the Irish vest at some point.”
As the world went into lockdown in March and April, life wasn’t all that different for Mageean.
“As an athlete, I'm well used to that. It’s quite lonely, in some ways a selfish life where I don't actually do too much besides eat, sleep and train.”
Apart from training, she only ventured out once a week from the house she shares in Manchester with teammates. The backyard became their gym.
“We got some really good training and just tried to make the most of a bad situation,” she says. “I'm the type of person that doesn't actually like to travel an awful lot. I love being at home. So I absolutely relished the opportunity to stay put for a while and really focus on training.”
She went back to base work, aiming to build a much bigger foundation ahead of the postponed Olympic campaign. If there was a late track season in which to test that fitness, all the better.
“It gave me the perfect opportunity to work on my weaknesses – getting stronger and faster and really closing the gap on the leaders.”
Her pre-Olympic training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland had been booked months in advance for July, and Mageean decided to go there as planned, ensuring to comply with all travel restrictions. She brought her boyfriend along too.
“Before Doha he was on the camp and it helped me get into a really good mental place. I was really happy and Steve's a huge believer that a happier athlete is a faster athlete,” she said.
Mageean put in some of the best sessions of her life on that camp and in late July she travelled to Berne for her first race of the summer, becoming the first Irishwoman in history to break two minutes for 800m, winning in 1:59.69.
Three weeks later, it was on to Monaco where she finished third over 1000m in 2:31.06, less than two seconds behind Olympic 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon and only a quarter of a second behind European 1500m champion Laura Muir. That gap to the world’s best had never been smaller.
Her time that night took three seconds off Sonia O’Sullivan’s national record, and the Irish great was among the first to offer her congratulations on Twitter. For Mageean, O’Sullivan is not just an idol, but someone to whom she was so often compared as she rose through the ranks.
“I’ve been very used to that but I would never draw that comparison myself. I always look up to her and see her as inspirational, to know an Irishwoman was up there competing with the best in the world. I want to be in that position as well. She forged the path and I’m trying to follow,” she said.
Mageean knows the value of role models, and ever since her medal-winning feats she’s been revered by a generation of young sportspeople in Ireland.
“I want to leave a legacy in this sport,” she says. “If I can inspire one or two young ones to follow their dreams then I haven’t done too bad.”
She hasn’t been back to her beloved Portaferry for six months, but once the track season is complete it’s her first port of call. The weeks ahead will be a busy time as she laces up her spikes for a trilogy of races that could give this strange season a fitting climax.
Mageean disappointed in her last outing at the Stockholm Diamond League, the physical and emotional fatigue from her national record run in Monaco clear for all to see, but since then she’s gone back training with a view to more big performances.
Next Tuesday she will race in Ostrava and then it’s on to Berlin on Sunday for the ISTAF meeting where she will face Muir. She will round out her season at the Rome Diamond League on 17 September.
“Those previous performances have stamped my place in world class athletics and it helps me get into more top-class 800m races that in the past people would think I was too slow for. That was one life ambition ticked, now I just want to go faster,” she said.
With each passing year, she and her coach Steve Vernon are figuring out what the optimal approach is. “We look at the templates we have. I learn about myself and he learns about me. There are so many factors that come into it and we’re constantly taking notes – for example my recovery after these last two races,” she said.
Although nothing is certain in 2020, the SPAR European Cross Country Championships remain scheduled for 13 December in Dublin, the city Mageean called home for four years while studying physiotherapy at University College Dublin. If they go ahead, she’ll do everything she can to be there.
“I always like racing cross country even though it’s not my forte. It’s a fantastic addition to my season. Hopefully it goes ahead and if so, my aim is to be on that (senior women’s) 8K team. I always wonder why I do it when it comes to it, it’s a bit of a torture for me, but I’m very much looking forward to stepping out in the Irish vest,” she said.
First up, though, is the final flourish to her track season.
Mageean will be hoping for fast times but not obsessing over them. “Every time I step on the track I want to just race. I find looking at the clock can weigh me down. I like to be competitive and I know if I’m in a race and competitive, the times will come,” she said.
The main goal, as it has been since Doha, will be to close that gap even more and go back into winter training knowing she can take on anyone in 2021.
“I always believed I could compete with the best in the world. Often you might have that sense inside, but you can only really justify it from the performances you’ve done. My performances up to (this summer) didn’t show I could be top five in the world, but those races showed me the physical proof is there. They realise Ciara is a threat; we can’t take her for granted anymore.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics