Before he left this mortal world my dad loved to tell the story about ringing up Catherina McKiernan at home back in her early running days. Her mother, Kathleen, would answer the phone, as she invariably did, immediately recognising the voice of this politely inquisitive athletics correspondent.
“And so is Catherina there?”
The kitchen was the sort of command centre of the McKiernan home, set on a hill overlooking their 90-acre farm in Cornafean, about 10 miles outside Cavan town.
The phone was in the kitchen, and given Kathleen ran house and home, her job was to answer it. This suited everyone fine, particularly Catherina, the youngest of the seven children.
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She didn’t mind who was ringing; as long as it wasn’t a journalist.
Only later did my dad discover whenever he rang the McKiernan home, asking for Catherina, she would be madly mouthing to her mother in the background – “don’t you dare put any journalist on to me” – after which Kathleen would say: “Hold on, Tom, sure she’s right here beside me.”
This had absolutely nothing to do with aloofness and not necessarily shyness either; throughout her magnificent running career, the last thing Catherina ever bothered with or craved was publicity or even recognition for that matter. She was perfectly content to run and win races for the sheer pleasure and personal satisfaction of it all, which she did, with increasingly impressive dominance.
That her career ran parallel to, and in some instances in the shadow of, Sonia O’Sullivan suited her just fine too, though both, born two days apart, always shared that rare acknowledgment of first name recognition; Catherina and Sonia.
It won’t bother her in the slightest either that only now, somewhat belatedly, she’s been inducted into the Athletics Ireland Hall of Fame, Catherina given a rousing reception at Wednesday’s awards luncheon in Dublin, following the likes of Ronnie Delany in 2007, Eamonn Coghlan, John Treacy, and Sonia, in 2019.
Indeed Catherina made the point in her acceptance speech she doesn’t envy the elite athlete of today, given all the extra attention and pressure and distraction of social media, and warned the younger generation to limit their engagement as much as possible.
With that I was thinking it’s 30 years now since we first met in person, Catherina sitting on the marble steps outside the side lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston. That was March 1992, and she was over for the weekend to run the World Cross Country at Franklin Park, and even at age 22 some people reckoned she might do something special.
I was two years younger and a college sophomore, and just off the Bonanza Bus from Providence with a 20 dollar bill and a folded up copy of The Dharma Bums in my pocket. The only way of getting to Franklin Park was to sneak on to another bus with the proper runners.
What unfolded later that freezing, snowy day remains one of the finest displays of Irish distance running anywhere. Coming into the last stretch of the final lap, Catherina stunned the entire field, East Africans and all, briefly breaking clear, only to be passed in the sprint to the finish line by Lynn Jennings, the two-time defending champion, who grew up not far away in west Massachusetts.
In was a hard and fast race and she beat Catherina to the line by just two seconds.
Still, in finishing second, Catherina won the first senior global athletics medal by any Irish woman, ahead of Sonia (who still finished a very impressive seventh-place that day)
That second place in Boston was also the first of four successive silver medals won at the World Cross Country, from 1992-95, only narrowly denied gold in each of them, and also winning the outright IAAF Challenge each year, and she also won team bronze in Turin 1997, finishing seventh, (Sonia two places behind in ninth).
With that Catherina continued with a series of firsts in Irish women’s athletics: the first Irish woman to win the European Cross Country in 1994; the first Irish woman to win the Berlin Marathon in 1997; the first Irish woman to win the London Marathon in 1998; and still the fastest Irish women’s marathon runner of all time, her Irish record of 2:22:23 still standing from her victory in the Amsterdam Marathon in 1998. Imagine she was wearing Vaporflys.
She also won 16 Irish senior titles, set eight national records, including a record 10 in cross-country, and when she moved to the roads in 1997 she was mostly unbeatable; in 1997 she ran 13 races and won nine; in 1998 she also ran 13 races and won them all except for one. Brilliant running by truly global standards.
In receiving the Hall of Fame she acknowledged her daughter Deirbhile and son Patrick, and of course Catherina is still running, not for prizes or indeed recognition, just the sheer pleasure and personal satisfaction of it all. Same as it always was.
ATHLETICS IRELAND AWARDS 2022
Hall of Fame: Catherina McKiernan
Athlete of the Year: Ciara Mageean
Endurance Athlete of the Year: Efrem Gidey
Under-20 Athlete of the Year: Reece Ademola
Under-23 Athlete of the Year: Rhasidat Adeleke
Track and Field Athlete of the Year: Ciara Mageean
Team of the Year: 4x400m Mixed Relay World Champs
Inspirational Performance on Irish Soil: Nick Griggs
Special recognition awards: Michele Carroll and Carey May
Performance Club of the Year: Leevale AC
Lifetime Services to Athletics: Pat Kelly
Services to Coaching: Paddy Fay
Official of the Year: Alistair Wilson
Development Club of the Year: Killarney Valley AC
Mountain Runner of the Year: Zak Hanna
Masters Athlete of the Year: Anne Gilshinan
Ultra Runner of the Year: Caitriona Jennings
Schools’ Athlete of the Year: Lucy-May Sleeman
University Athlete of the Year: Robert McDonnell