Louise Shanahan switches from physics mode to running mode as World Championships beckon

She goes into her 800m event ranked 21st and aiming to reach at least the semi-final

They say this can be the hardest part. Counting down the days to a major championship, waiting around for hours in between the last of the light training, trying to think and not think too much about the task at hand.

Louise Shanahan is loving every second of it. On Saturday she flew out to Samorin, in west Slovakia, the Irish team’s holding camp ahead of the World Athletics Championships, which start in Budapest this coming Saturday.

From here it’s a two-hour drive southeast to the Hungarian capital, her championships not starting until Wednesday week, August 23rd, with the heats of the women’s 800 metres.

Given Shanahan has spent most of her summer days inside a science laboratory at Cambridge University, trying to make some proper ground on her full-time PhD in quantum biophysics, due in December, this is all perfectly welcome physical and mental freedom and space.


“The thesis now has 3,000 words, which is 50-odd thousand short of what it needs,” she says. “But it’s going fine, it’s not due until December, and from Saturday the focus switched from physics mode to running mode.”

At age 26, Shanahan brings her increasing running experience to Budapest, also running at last year’s World Championships in Oregon, in between the Tokyo Olympics and last summer’s European Championships in Munich, where she made the 800m final.

She has had some setbacks – an Achilles injury over the winter, a sprained ankle at the start of July – but she bounced back to win another national title, after running 1:59.53 earlier in the season, the second fastest of her life.

“I think I’m actually quite fresh going into the championships which is a bit weird, so that’ll be nice. And I think I’ve become a lot more robust. I’d had two or three consistent years of training going into Tokyo and Munich last year.

“I feel like the last year has been anything but consistent. I’ve learned a lot about how I can still pull out performances even off non ideal circumstances. I’m really hopeful that going into this winter, I can get another solid year of training. I think I’ve developed a lot, but I’m excited to see those performances actually pay off on the track.”

Her 800m event – as they all are in Budapest – is properly stacked. Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson is the fastest this season with 1:55.77, although it appears evident that Athing Mu from the US, the defending World and Olympic champion, has opted not to compete, and is only ranked 12th this season.

Shanahan goes in ranked 21st, getting through that opening heat being the least of her ambitions: “I think last year I missed the semi-final by one place, which we can’t do again.

“I know that I can race well in championship races, I did it last year in the Europeans. I’d really like to make a semi. To run a nice time would be great but that’d be a bonus. If you can make it through the rounds and not run fast, then that’s also good.”

Last year, she broke Ciara Mageean’s Irish 800m record, running 1:59.42, before Mageean took it back this year.

“Of course I want that record back, the time Ciara has run is pretty much exactly what is required as an automatic standard for the Olympics, so I’d say I’m aiming for that automatic qualification.”

After Budapest she’ll return to physics mode, where (by brief summary) she explains her PhD: “So I take really tiny diamonds, about 50 nanometres in diameter, so essentially they look like little specks of dirt. And I put these inside worms, inside cells, and use them to measure temperature and viscosity ... how the inside of a cell changes its thickness, or its pourability, as you change the temperatures of the cell. And that will be useful in cancer treatment and drug delivery, things like that.”

For some of the other members of that 24-strong Irish team, that short drive down to Budapest will happen in the coming days. It was confirmed last week that Cliodhna Manning was forced to withdraw from the women’s 4x400m relay due to injury, and was replaced by Niamh Murray, after Thomas Barr had also withdrawn from the 400m hurdles due to injury.

After Nick Griggs was called up into the 1,500m on the quota system, Ireland will now have full representation in both the men’s and women’s event. Griggs joins Andrew Coscoran and Luke McCann, while Mageean is joined by Sophie O’Sullivan and Sarah Healy. The opening heats in both events take place on the first day.

Chris O’Donnell was also confirmed for the individual 400m, as well as the mixed 4x400m relay, the heats and final of which take place on Saturday. Not long now.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics