On Athletics: Carpe diem and other truths behind sporting longevity

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton and champion 5,000m runner athlete Íde Nic Dhómhnaill prove age is just a number

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything only happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.

Unlike me Paul Bowles probably didn’t have running in mind, or indeed goalkeeping, when he narrates that short monologue in The Sheltering Sky, at the close of Bernardo Bertolucci’s luscious film version from 1990. Like the sun that rises and sets and hurries around to rise again, it’s the backdrop to all our lives and there’s a reminder too whenever somebody defies the sporting odds and particularly their sporting age.

“How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?” Bowles asks. “Perhaps 20, and yet it all seems limitless ... ”

That certainly came to mind on Tuesday, when that incessant low pressure made sure no one in the country got to watch the August full moon rise. Consider though two sporting feats achieved in quick succession and in close proximity on Sunday evening: Stephen Cluxton winning his ninth All-Ireland medal with Dublin in Croke Park, a month shy of his 42nd birthday, before Íde Nic Dhómhnaill won the national 5,000m title at the Morton Stadium, a first for the 38-year-old schoolteacher and mother of two.


Íde Nic Dhómhnaill’s win, after a bold bid for victory just before the bell, came in 15:44.81, some 18 seconds faster than her previous lifetime best

Cluxton’s story has been told many times, Sunday’s win also marking his 119th championship game for Dublin, defying perhaps not just his near 42 years but the fact he didn’t make any appearances in the two years before, his intercounty goalkeeping career widely presumed to be over. Or certainly with nothing left to prove.

For Nic Dhómhnaill, her career in running is still only getting going, the Limerick native first taking to the sport for purely fun purposes when moving to Dublin about 10 years ago. A teacher at Gaelscoil Naomh Pádraig in Lucan, the birth of her two young children — Rossa now three, Darach still one — may have stalled or indeed stopped the careers of others of her age. Instead, it’s given her a new lease of running life.

Originally drawn into the training group of Jerry Kiernan, after his sad and sudden death in 2021 she was forced to look elsewhere, coming under the guidance of Kiernan’s close friend Murt Coleman, who makes no secret of his belief her true potential lies in the marathon.

Their success over the weekend also neatly combines into the question of what exactly is it that impresses us about the likes of Cluxton and Nic Dhómhnaill. Defying their sporting age is only a part of it, as much as they are still pursuing their sporting dreams and aspirations at that elite level at an age when most other people would have given up on them.

Given the hardest decision any athlete will face is when to retire, the important thing is to know when everything has happened that certain number of times, and you’re certain about it too. This is why Cluxton’s comeback this year was in part motivated by something different; the enjoyment part.

When Gianluigi Buffon confirmed his retirement on Wednesday, at age 45, after his record 176 goalkeeping appearances for Italy, and 28 years after making his Serie A debut for Parma in November 1995 — winning 10 Serie A titles with Juventus and a Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain — some of the tributes also noted he set a record for his standards of enjoyment also.

Age it seems was always just a number for Buffon too. He was just 17 in 1995 when he made that Parma debut against AC Milan, keeping a clean sheet against the soon-to-be crowned Serie A champions (that was also the first of remarkable 296 clean sheets in his record 657 games in Italy’s top flight.)

Somewhere among these tributes, there was a short letter of life lessons Buffon once penned to his younger self: “On one hand, it’s true that a keeper needs confidence. He needs to be fearless. If you give a manager the choice between the greatest technical keeper in the world, and the most fearless keeper in the world, I guarantee you that he will choose the fearless b*****d every single time.

“On the other hand, a person who is fearless can easily forget that they have a mind. If you live your life in a nihilistic way, thinking only about football, your soul will start to wither. Eventually, you will become so depressed that you won’t even want to leave your bed ...”

It’s quite a startling admission before Buffon continues: “You can laugh if you want, but this will happen to you. It will happen at the height of your career, when you have everything a man could ever want in life. You will be 26 years old. The keeper of Juventus and the Italian national team. You will have money and respect. People will even call you Superman.

“But you’re no superhero. You’re just a man like anyone else.”

There are plenty of life lessons such as this in Henry David Thoreau’s beautifully transcendental tale, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which always makes for perfect summer reading.

It’s now 178 years since Thoreau left his parents’ home in Massachusetts in July 1845 and built himself a small cabin beside Walden Pond, where he immediately declared and celebrated his own independence, then spent the next two years and two months learning to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, and not, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”.

Thoreau may be more familiar to some for being oft-quoted in Dead Poets Society, particularly in relation to the film’s catchphrase — carpe diem — which is certainly in line with Thoreau’s thinking, often quoted in sporting realms too.

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys ... Make your lives extraordinary,” says Robin Williams in that perfectly guised role of English teacher John Keating. Although what Horace meant by “seize the day” in his poem Odes is more literally translated as “enjoy the day”, the same life lesson Thoreau trumpeted.

Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric, author of Carpe Diem Regained, said the “hijacking [of carpe diem] is an existential crime of the century, and one we have barely noticed”.

The day is there to be seized not because there is no future, but for the enjoyment part of it, maybe one lesson in sporting longevity to take right now from Stephen Cluxton and Íde Nic Dhómhnaill.