Every cross-country race is a slow journey through the pain barrier, only for Sarah Healy this was something entirely different. A piercing localised pain which came on fast and soon told her not to risk it any further.
Here’s the scene: Piemonte-La Mandria Park, just northwest of Turin, and the lead runners are into the final circuit of the women’s Under-23 race at the European Cross-Country Championships. Healy is still running among them, a little distanced now from Italy’s Nadia Battocletti and Britain’s Megan Keith, though still holding on to third and that potential bronze medal.
It’s a properly testing 5.7km course, which includes a brief run through the 50m indoor carriage pavilion of La Mandria Castle, plus a steep 300m uphill and downhill section near the start and finish of each lap.
Here, just before the downhill section, Healy’s race suddenly ends, that pain in her foot ultimately forcing her to stop running completely. Battocletti takes the win for Italy, while Healy limps back towards the finish.
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In the immediate aftermath it’s suspected she has sustained a metatarsal stress reaction, which account for around 10 per cent of bone stress fractures in athletes. A scan on her return to Dublin confirmed exactly that. Now, 7½ weeks on, she’s eying a slow return to training, possibly next week, although certainly not in time for any indoor races this season.
For Healy, the UCD law student who doesn’t turn 22 until later this month, there is some consolation perhaps in that she’s still eligible for the Under-23 race at the European Cross-Country this December. She’d finished fifth the previous year in Dublin and had gone to Turin in medal winning form.
If the timing of the injury wasn’t good, what is certain is that had she pressed on to the finish she’d likely have made it significantly worse. Part of recovery has included some time on the Alter G, the anti-gravity treadmill which allows for gentle non-weight bearing exercise.
“As suspected at the time, it turned out to be a metatarsal stress reaction,” explained her coach Eoghan Marnell. “Thankfully she stopped when she did, or she could have done far more damage.
“She has been cross-training well, pool, bike, and Alter-G. Hopefully back running next week, but won’t be racing indoors.”
Three weeks before Turin, on the sandy hills of Rosapenna golf course in north Donegal, the 21-year-old Healy became one of the youngest-ever winners of the National senior women’s cross-country title kicking away from Ciara Mageean with a little over 800m of the 8km course to go and winning by 15 seconds.
Sonia O’Sullivan was only 17 when she won it, in Killenaule back in 1987, and later endured a series of stress fractures of her own during her first two years at Villanova.
That win in Donegal was Healy’s fifth senior title in all, having already won two outdoors over 1,500m, in 2019 and 2021, and two indoors over 3,000m.
The first of those was won in 2018, when Healy had just turned 17, and still running in the colours of Blackrock AC. Now running with UCD AC, she won that 3,000m title again this time last year, her runaway victory rewarded with a personal best of 8:53.67.
She carried that form into the outdoor season, in May clocking a world-class time of 4:02.86 for 1,500m at the at the World Athletics Continental Tour gold meeting in Ostrava – with that taking three seconds off O’Sullivan’s Irish under-23 record of 4:05.81 set 31 years previously in Monaco. Ultimately however she was disappointed by her showing at the European Championships in Munich.
The indoor season gathers real pace this Saturday at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, the second stop on the 2023 World Athletics Indoor Gold Tour, with 10 Irish athletes among duly stacked field of entries.
Now in its 28th year, the event is being staged for the first time at the new purpose-built indoor track facility at New Balance’s world headquarters in Brighton, Massachusetts.
Ciara Mageean will open her indoor season over 3,000m, renewing her rivalry with Britain’s Laura Muir, who beat into second at both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships 1,500m, before Mageean got the better of Muir in winning the Brussels Diamond League, and again when finishing second in the Diamond League final.
Mageean raced indoors only once in 2022, winning the 3,000m in Manchester in a best of 8:47.23, only for a calf injury to cut short the rest of that indoor season.
The Irish record of 8:43.74, which has stood to Mary Cullen since 2009, will be on the radar, Roisin Flanagan also in the field after running 8:53.53 in Boston last month.
Mark English (800m), Andrew Coscoran and Luke McCann (mile) and Brian Fay and Darragh McElhinney (3,000m) are also Boston-bound, all gearing towards the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul the first weekend in March.