BY HARRY WALSH
CAITRIONA Jennings smashed her personal best in Rotterdam last month and, more importantly, achieved the Olympic qualifying standard for the marathon in the process.
The Letterkenny athlete ran 2.36.14 in only her second ever race over the 26.2 mile distance and yet she is still not guaranteed a place on the starting line for next August’s race in London.
Caitriona (31) is one of four of Ireland’s elite female marathon runners – all who have achieved the qualifying standard – who are vying for the three places in the Irish team for the London marathon. Linda Byrne (2.36.23), Ava Hutchinson (2.35.33) and Letterkenny ACs Maria McCambridge (2.36.37) had already attained the required mark.
But four into three will not go and on Monday week, May 21, one of the quartet will learn that their Olympic dream is over.
Speaking to the Donegal News this week Caitriona admitted missing out on the Olympics would be “devastating”.
The youngest daughter of Teresa and Mick Jennings, Hawthorn Heights, Caitriona’s oldest sister Sinéad was only denied a place in London as a cyclist by a burst tyre last November.
“It’s just so unfortunate that Sinéad’s Olympic dream is over and I don’t want to contemplate the thought that I could also be denied the opportunity to compete at the highest possible level,” she said.
Sinéad is a former world champion rower and Caitriona has always looked to her for advice and inspiration.
“Seeing Sinéad perform at a high standard, made me realise that maybe I could do it as well. She is a huge inspiration to me because she’s always so positive,” she said.
While middle sister Deirdre, who works as a teacher in Dublin, was into more adventurous sports like surfing and snowboarding Caitriona’s initial sporting interests revolved around cycling and swimming in Letterkenny before the triathlon bug took hold.
She represented Ireland three times at youth level before, by her own admission, losing the necessary discipline required to advance when going to college.
A former pupil of Loreto Convent in Letterkenny, she studied Law and Accountancy at the University of Limerick before taking up a job as a tax advisor with Price Waterhouse Cooper in Dublin in 2001.
After moving to the capital, she joined Rathfarnham AC but it wasn’t until she hooked up with her current coach, Terry McConnon in 2007 that ambition began to take a hold again.
In December 2009, Caitriona got involved with the Marathon Mission squad and began participating in mini-marathons, winning Dublin last year.
At that stage, the Olympics had become a real goal and a very clear programme was put in place.
Ironically, fellow Letterkenny woman Teresa McDaid has provided a vital support network within the Marathon Mission group alongside Jim Aughney, Dick Hooper, Jim Davis and Eugene Coppinger.
“Terry was coaching a few athletes in the Phoenix Park and, as I lived closed by, I asked could I join in. I finished second in the National 10k in 2008 – my first major achievement on the national stage – and I soon realised that I was better on the road than on grass. Finn Valley hosted the National Half Marathon in 2009 and I won that. As a result, I was selected to the go to the World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham.
“I really enjoyed that experience. It was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before although I must admit that I was intimidated by the Africans,” she said.
Reflecting back on last year’s Dublin marathon – her first – Caitriona explained that she had been injured for the eight weeks leading up to the race and only got back out doing some running in the two weeks before the race.
“I learned a lot from Dublin, like pacing myself and when to take water on board. Rotterdam was listed as the Marathon Mission’s Spring marathon and I set myself a target of getting in under the qualifying 2:37:00. It was brilliant to run it in 2:36:14 but I feel I can run much quicker,” she said.
Caitriona, who has taken four months off work to train full-time for London, travels to Portugal today on a 17 day training camp as she cranks up her preparations for London.
“We’ve all been told to continue training as if we’re going to the Olympics. It’s now up to the selectors and, hopefully, I will make it. Everyone says that it’s between Maria and myself for the final spot but I honestly don’t know. Linda (Byrne) is the National marathon champion which probably gives her an edge but I honestly don’t know. All will become much clearer in the coming weeks,” she said.
Sinéad never got to fulfil her Olympic dream, but come Sunday, August 5, at 11am Caitriona Jennings will be hoping that she’s wearing the green Irish singlet on the start line in London.