Athletics

ONE AND DONE

Carrick AC's Gerard O'Donnell won his fourth National 110m Hurdles title in a row in what was his only outdoor race of the season, he talks to John Connolly about the challenges in overcoming injury, the lockdown and a lack of races in an extended interview

John Connolly

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John Connolly

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sport@leitrimobserver.ie

ONE AND DONE

Carrick AC's Gerard O'Donnell leaves the field behind as he storms to his fourth Irish Life Health National Senior 110m Hurdles title in a row last Sunday in Morton Stadium Dublin

One race, one national title and that's the season done and dusted! If Gerard O'Donnell wanted to perform the athletics equivalent of the mike drop, he succeeded on Sunday August 30, as the Carrick AC hurdler won his fourth National 110m hurdles title in a row in stunning style in Morton Stadium, Dublin.

Running his fourth fastest time ever in his only race of the outdoor season, Gerard covered 10 three-foot-six barriers in what most of us mere mortals consider a blink of an eye, 13.96 seconds that combined all out sprinting with incredible coordination, flexibility and amazing timing to confirm his place as the dominant hurdler in the country.

But Gerard's latest triumph almost didn't happen as during his two hour warm-up last Sunday, disaster appeared to strike, prompting the Carrick athlete to remember how he won his first national title!

“I started warming up about two hours beforehand, very low key to start with and then it ramps up,” Gerard told the Observer on Monday, “But about 20 minutes in, I was doing lunges and something popped in the top of my quad and I got a sharp pain. I was like “Ah f***, I’m after tearing my quad here', I’ve pulled my hip flexor. 

“I was  thinking back to  2014: I popped up out of nowhere to win when Ben Reynolds injured himself in the warm-up. I’m after doing that for somebody else now, I’m going to have to bail out now and somebody else is going to win their first national title.”

But help was at hand as Gerard, a qualified neuromuscular therapist in addition to his day job as a Regional Development Officer with Athletics Ireland, literally went to work on himself! 

“I just gave it a bit of a dig out with my thumb for a few minutes and  ignored it for the rest of the day but it is sore today. I definitely tore something small but thankfully I strained something very minor and it seems to be in a position where it didn’t affect me racing. I can feel it walking around today but I’m very, very lucky. I didn’t feel it during the race, it didn’t impact me at all other than the worry that something might happen as I came out of the blocks.”

Gerard clears the final hurdle on the way to victory

Sunday's race was the culmination of a four day Senior Championships where Covid-19 regulations meant events took place in a surreal vacuum with no coaches, no family and no  spectators there to cheer on the competitors, an aspect that worried Gerard in the build-up to Sunday but once he settled in his blocks, everything fell right into place!

“It was more so the setup of the championship with no crowds and whatever and I was like I really hope I can get nervous here because I want to perform as I should. I always up my game for the Nationals but I spent most of the morning dreaming up worst case disaster scenarios to get myself into ‘freaked out’ mode, to get myself into a position where I was saying I have to  really concentrate or else I am going to lose.

“I might have overdid it a bit and I had to calm down and restart the process when I got to the track. But I distinctly remember on the start line when I put my hands down, dipped by head and looked at the while line, I just thought this is the same nationals as it is always is - that silence  before the gun hit me again, it was familiar, it was nationals and it was 'let's go'.”

The race itself was pretty straightforward: “I think the race went way better than it should have gone. I’ve been doing the sessions I need to do to get to the race in one piece and for a long time, that was the only goal there was, finishing the season in one piece. If I didn’t have a disaster, the lads would have to have a big pb to beat me.”

But even Gerard was surprised to see the clock reading 13.96 after the race: “I obviously wanted to perform well, I wanted to win like you do in any national championships and cross the line first but I was very surprised with my time.

“It was my fourth fastest time ever and I never thought I’d produce something like that on the day. Conditions were great on the day, things just kind of went well and I suppose whatever preparations I had done, I must have done them well even if it had to be very different from a normal year.”

Very different is an understatement as apart from the whole Covid-19, lockdown and no spectators, there was an added ‘different’ element to the experience for Gerard was actually commentating on the Athletics Ireland online stream of the championship just the day before!

Not too many athletes would combine National glory with long draining days behind the microphone but that is exactly what Gerard did, although he admits he may have a rethink in the future on doubling up!

“The first weekend, we were doing a seriously long task, we were doing 14 hours one day and on the Saturday, I did the session over the hurdles and two sessions on the commentary. “That was good because I wasn’t thinking about my race but I was absolutely wiped out afterwards. I was nearly over-tired, I didn’t get to sleep till 5am after doing the two days' commentary on the first weekend.

“It impacted my training early in the week so I did a small bit last Saturday (the day before his race) and it did distract me for a couple of hours. But it's funny when I’m warming up and athletes were all saying ‘ah, we’ll miss you on the commentary’ and I was like I’d rather be up there right now than down here!”

Despite the challenges, it is something Gerard relishes: “I love the commentating, especially the Juniors, U23s and the Schools, they are all brilliant days. The lads are great to work with but it is something I’ve got to think about for the future when it left me so tired.”

Yet there is no denying that working behind the microphone is something Gerard relishes and his love for the sport comes shining through: “The Seniors is a brilliant weekend because you know everybody. You have to do a fair bit of research for some of the events to figure out who is doing what and you’re looking out at the starting list as the races are going on but the National Seniors, you know 90% of the athletes.

“You can just sit back and actually just talk about them, give them what they deserve, especially over the last two weekends, because anyone who showed up deserved to get their name mentioned and to get a bit of praise.”

With all that going on and a gruelling 11 hurdle session that same weekend, Gerard would have put long odds on running so fast at the Nationals: “I did a session over 11 hurdles in Lucan, the track is very soft and it absolutely lashed rain for both runs and the runs were shocking, very bad.”

But that ability to take something positive from a session again came to the form “At the same time, it was still a load of endurance in my legs, I’ve never done 11 hurdles in a session before. Even on Wednesday before, we did eight hurdles and my start was poor but I was really good over the last five hurdles so I was “right, my start is poor from working all last weekend and doing a heavy endurance session’. I know that my start would be good because I would be fresh for the weekend and my endurance is good.”

Gerard did get an inkling he was in good form during his warm-up: “I did a rep over three hurdles in the warm-up and it was like ‘oh’, I haven’t been moving like that all Summer. Whatever we did during the week, it all just clicked at the right time and thankfully, I didn’t touch a hurdle the whole way done. 

“Running the indoors gave me a huge boost for this race. Like the Nationals, I hadn’t raced at all before that and once I got clear after hurdles three or four, that’s what I’m good at, keeping composure whether I am behind or ahead.”

Gerard pictured with silver medalist Nelvin Appiah (Longford AC) and Shane Aston (Trim AC)

The absence of long time rival Matthew Behan made his task easier but Gerard was full of praise for the challenge put up to him: “Once I knew Matthew Behan was out, I knew that if I just ran a clean race, I should win. The lads' personal bests are a bit behind mine and, not to be cocky about it, the aim was to win another national title, I could worry about running fast next year.

“The lads ran really well behind me and if you take me out of it, it is a brilliant race. They’ve all been competing off severely limited resources as well and just getting to the line is huge.

 They were all pushing me at the first hurdle, I could see Nelvin (Appiah) in the corner of my eye up to hurdle three or four. 

“I just said to myself that he was beside me and I had to push it on, whether he was beside me or not, there is somebody there, you need to keep working and working and I got in that rhythm the whole way.”

Asked why he dipped for the line when he was so far ahead, Gerard’s competitive instinct shines through: “Somebody said to me ‘it's mad you dipped for the line when you are so far clear’ but if I hadn’t dipped for the line, I wouldn’t have run 13.96, I would have run 14 seconds and I’d have been pissed off.  It is a big difference in your head and in the statistics - it is my fourth fastest time ever”

It is obvious Gerard believes that the mental side of the sport is key and after recounting how some hurdling sessions hadn't gone to plan, Gerard stressed an athlete should always take something from a session!

“I had a couple of howlers of hurdle sessions during the last month but I don’t really take that to heart, I knew there was always something good in all of them. I took confidence from some part of every session, even if the session as a whole would have looked like a disaster from the outside.  You can have a bad day in training but once you get around in the race and win, happy days.”

But even Gerard found himself doubting during lockdown as Covid-19 ravaged sporting events all over the country. Relocating to Carrick for two months meant an absence of training facilities but his ability to see the positive in a negative situation was a God-send: 

“I wasn’t even sure the Nationals were going to go ahead. I was more on the negative side of the fence, especially with all the injuries I’ve had and wondering about putting my body through turmoil for something that may not go ahead.

“Once I got back to Dublin, I was the opposite to other people coming back, they were getting injured from the hard track, I was finding the track soft. The track was soft compared to training on the roads at home.”

Managing the calf-strain was an exercise in patience and knowing just how much to push oneself: “I still had that calf strain I picked up during lockdown and I was managing that for the first three weeks I was back. 

“Every day was doing just what I could get away with and pushing it a little bit more, taking a few risks but not going the whole hog in anything. I actually got a good bit of hurdling done compared to last year. 

“I started to be a bit more sensible with what I was doing, limited the stuff that is high risk and really do high quality training and get  really locked in on the gym and prevent injuries before they  crops up,” said Gerard as he talked about a renewed commitment to quality strength training as key to his victory last Sunday.

“I did extra gym work during the year, not pure strength stuff but more explosive like acceleration and stuff. Those sessions where I was in the harness pulling the car back in Carrick, they count pretty much as a strength session, they’re building stability muscles and getting used to being strong in the positions you need to be in your race. Lifting heavy benefited me during the indoors and  I’ve been lifting more than ever.

“I bought a lot weights so I could train at home during the lockdown but in the last couple of weeks, I needed more weights, like the ad ‘there are no more weights’,” joked Gerard, “But a friend had a few more weights and literally a few days before the race, I lifted 30 kg more than I ever had. 

“I knew that if I could get some very heavy work in at low volume, it would keep me switched on for the weekend. We had dropped the harness sessions I was doing at home for a few weeks when I came back up to Dublin because I needed to do fast work in spikes again.

“But myself and Jeremy decided we needed to put back in the sleds again and once we did, my starts got good again. Definitely the strength that I’ve gained is something that is going to stand to me next year.”

Gerard pictured after the race with Dublin Sprint Club coach Jeremy Lyons

But lockdown also meant Gerard found renewed joy in his sport and a greater appreciation for his training partners and friends in the Dublin Sprint Club, led by coach Jeremy Lyons. In fact, Gerard also could claim a part in a future four national gold medals and two silvers as he is the Strength & Conditioning guru for national champions Sophie Becker (400m), Michelle Finn (5,000m) and Iseult O'Donnell (800m) as part of his coaching work with Dublin Sprint Club.

“Our group in Dublin works like a team sport or as close as you can get, in terms of everybody plays a part. That was a big miss during lockdown, doing it over Zoom wasn’t quite the same when you are in total isolation for all your sessions, you’re missing out on that support and friendship and the different bits and pieces that everybody brings to each session.

“It was great when we could finally get back to meeting up with everyone in the club (Carrick AC), training with Eanna (Madden) and Cathal (McElgunn). It was a big boost and nice little reward for keeping yourself in shape over the first month or two of lockdown."

The two month spell in Carrick-on-Shannon also allowed him enjoy helping out future stars in his home town club: "I really enjoyed getting back to see the group sessions in the club and watching the juvenile athletes, giving them a bit of encouragement and advice and seeing the enjoyment they had for it and how they were enjoying being back out training as a group with their friends.

"It was a nice reintroduction to athletics and why we all do it as the end of the day because, apart from success and medals and everything else, athletics is part of our lives and the enjoyment of why we do it.”