A Pound of Perseverance is worth a Ton of Talent

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This is only peripherally about cycling, but what the heck? I've the flu, I'm stuck indoors and I've got to do something!

Sonia O'Sullivan, the great Irish runner was from Cobh which is on Great Island in Cork Harbour. Sonia was a sensation from the age of 17. She was undoubtedly the greatest woman runner in the world but her success was blighted by drug-cheats. In one Olympic Final she was beaten by three Chinese girls who appeared from no-where and again disappeared afterwards and were banned by the Chinese. In another, she was beaten by Szabo of Rumania who subsequently admitted to taking drugs. She did, however, have some great success, winning the world Championships at 5000m and most extra-ordinarily, winning both the short-course and the long-course world cross country championships on the same day. Sonia had unbelieveable talent but she did not have a great racing "head". To have a good racing head, I reckon you have to have a mathematical brain and be able to make sensible judgements in a second. Her best distances were middle-distances. 3000m to 10000m. A great middle-distance runner usually has great aerobic capacity, often at the expense of out-and-out speed. The ones who have the speed are usually better at the 800m and 1500m. The speed comes from "fast" fibres and the endurance from "slow" fibres. The person who has more fast fibres is easily found by getting him to jump from a standing position. He will jump a lot higher than others. His talent will be in sprinting, strength events etc., and will get big muscles much more readily from training.

My youngest daughter Lizzie who is now 30, was very very active as a child.

Here she is flying a kite. She never stopped running that day.

She always ran everywhere and could beat most of the boys in the neighbourhood in a race, to which she would challenge them, if they were annoying her. I always suggested running to her, but she played soccer, tag rugby and so on in university, all at a casual level, ignoring running. She qualified as an electrical engineer, veering towards the computer side of things and then after more study became a project manager in IT. While working in Dublin with a company called Accenture, she was encouraged to go to Chicago for the Chicago Triathlon as Accenture were entering a 40 strong team there for charity. She's a very good swimmer, so she got a bike and started training at cycling and running. To her astonishment she did well and was the fastest Irish woman in it. Eamon Coughlan, the former great miler and also a World Champion at 5000m, was involved in managing the team and when he saw her running and cycling, he said "Lizzie, you're no cyclist, but you're a born runner". But she had the Triathlon Bug and began to compete regularly and gradually improved. She ran her first fun 10k on the road in Dublin and did it in 42 mins. That's not very fast, but it was a first effort and on little training.
She kept at the triathlon and then went working for a year in Sydney Australia, as one does, and spent a year training with the BRAT club (Bondi Running and Triathlon Club) and came under the tutelage of John Hill who's the world's best over-50 triathlete. John's an Englishman and a very famous coach. He is totally meticulous in his approach to everything and he had the right girl, as she's exactly the same.
After a year she came back and got a job in Cork. (Her field, IT, is the one area where there is no problem getting jobs). She then entered the National Triathlon Championship in Athlone and felt that she had a reasonable chance in it, but came about sixth. She didn't feel great on the day and had just done the ghastly journey from Oz.
So she began to seriously compete in triathlons left and right and would come 2nd, 3rd, or occasionally first in smaller ones. Her weakness was the cycling. She was about the fourth best triathlon swimmer in the country, was the best runner by a margin and about the 20th or 30th best cyclist. To do well in cycling in triathlon, you need to do at least 200 miles a week. You can't do that if you're working. She had three times come second to another girl in the Bray Aquathon (swimming and running) while in Dublin and last year I drove her up to it. This time she won. She won because due to training her swim had improved and she was only 200m behind the other girl starting the run.

Here she is with 1000yd stare chasing down her opponent.

A big thrill. She had been training, as a triathlete, with the Leevale AC running club in Cork for the summer and for the fun of it entered the Kinsale Regatta 5k Road race. She won easily. What was amusing about it was that no-one knew who she was. Where did this girl come from? She then went on to win three or four more races and Donie Walsh, a former Olympian and phenomenal coach in Leevale, told her she should concentrate on running for the year. She heeded his advice, and in November 2009 she entered the National Cross Country Championships in Kilbeggan Co.Meath, only three months after her first running race. This race had the best Irish women in it, including foreign-based professionals. She came fourteenth of about 45. This race is the qualifying race for the European Cross Country Championship and the first three qualify automatically for the team and usually the next three will be on it as well. Lizzie says to me after the race. "I'll do better next year. I'll try to get on the team". Serious running training began. She began to run more and more until she was up to about 70 miles a week around Christmas. In early December she ran a big race in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, the Jingle Bells race. Nobody knew who she was, so fairly early on she calculated "if they don't know anything about me, and I attack, they'll think I'll crack and won't come with me". She did and they didn't and she won. She is very good as such calculation. She continued to swim about three times a week, but had stopped cycling. Last Christmas we had a big freeze with ice on the roads for 2 weeks and she did her training on a large football pitch complex nearby. The ground was frozen. Races were cancelled. One day she did 10 miles on the frozen pitch and the next day got me to drive her to Beaufort in Co.Kerry where she ran a 10k, won by more than three minutes from the next lady and did a PB.

This shows a man who killed himself to beat her in Beaufort and told me afterwards that it was unnatural for a woman to be able to run like that.

The next time she ran she got a niggle in her left foot and a week later she broke down while track training. Stress fracture of second metatarsal. She had to wear a kind of modern synthetic brace on this for 6 weeks but could continue to swim. She swam so much that her body shape changed and she began to beat serious swimmers in the pool. (She's like that. Nothing is done by halves). Meanwhile, I've read more than I previously did about running injuries. There is, apparently, depite runners' addiction to more, NO evidence that more than 50m per week benefits a runner's performance. Lizzie decides that when she goes back, she's going to limit herself to 40. She's been using a gadget called a cross trainer and then, gingerly goes back to running. After about 6 weeks runs a race. Wins it. That's good. Gradually she gets her confidence back. The injury niggles, but not while running. I have to continuously persuade her that fractures niggle for about a year, and that as long as it doesn't hurt while running, it's okay. She only recently, almost a year later, stopped going on about it.
Her diligence at training is second to none. Donie Walsh is a superb coach and a great psychologist. His sayings include.. "A race is usually won by one HARD effort. Not two, one. When you decide to make it is what's important, and of course that depends on your opposition". Another is "I often beat men who were better than me, because I ran smarter". Lizzie does exactly what her coach says in training. Not a centimetre more or less. She has total faith in him, as have many runners. He has everything in notebooks, all of their lap times in every race, in training etc. He places no emphasis on PB's. "Win the race", is what he thinks "and if it's fast enough you'll do a good time".

A side-effect of Lizzie's concentration on running is that I, who have been heavily into photography for 30 years, have had to develop my ability to photograph running. It's a funny area, but you have to work out how to do it yourself and there's almost nothing useful on-line. I have good Canons, a 1ds and 1ds2 and recently bought a 1d4, the ultimate Canon sports camera. What I've learnt is this. Photographing on a bend is always more interesting, unless you're using a really powerful telephoto. Another is that using continuous autofocus, you will get much more consistent results with one active autofocus point. You keep it on the runner you're mainly interested in. If you use multiple points, the active point tends to flick around and sometimes focusses on the background.
In May she had a really hard race, the Ballyandreen 5 miler.. A local girl, and very talented runner, Claire McCarthy was her opposition. Lizzie for some reason, is very strong on hills, and I'd walked the course about a week before the course and had noted a sharp 300m hill about a mile from the finish. Before the race I drove it and pointed it out to her. She was terrified of Claire, and Claire of her (she told her afterwards) as they hadn't really raced before against one another. I have to get all this second hand of course as I can't follow the race, but they attacked one another relentlessly from the start. When they reached the fateful hill Lizzy gave it everything and got 15 yards which she held to the end, going flat out. She finished in 28.29 which is 5.42 pace per mile which is some hammering on a hilly route.

400m into the race, Claire has a stalker!

In July, Lizzie had two great races. In early July, she competed for Ireland in the European Triathlon Championships in Athlone. She had done very little cycling training but was competing at sprint distance and reckoned that she could "run on the bike".
She came third overall but got a gold medal in her age group. She was thrilled.
About 10 days later she ran in the National Track Championships at 5000m and got a silver.
She got two sports personality of the month awards in Cork. Much grinning!

A little later she ran in Tullamore for her club in the National Club Championships and within 15 mins she came second in the 1500m (her first 1500) and second in the 5000m. Had she not run the 1500, I think she'd have won the 5000 but points is what she was going for. Her club came second. More grinning.

Coming second to Teresa McGloin in Tullamore.

Up to this, she had won every race she'd run in Munster, including Munster Novices Cross Country, Cork Novices and Senior Cross Country and so on, but now she was to taste defeat on her home turf.
She was persuaded to run in the Cork Mini-Marathon, even though she had started heavy training for the national cross country championships and a girl called Kerry Harty from County Down came down for it. The Mini-Marathon is about 3.2 miles. She was with Kerry until about half a mile to go, when Kerry took off and Lizzie coudn't match her. She lost by 16 seconds.

Kerry Harty with her blistering finish running to victory.

Devastation. Brief tears, then steely resolve. "I'll beat her the next time". She had not done what Donie told her to do, but had attacked early because she felt like it. Kerry has a blistering finish as she's more a miler than a 5000m runner and Lizzie couldn't match her. The only way a runner like Lizzie could beat Kerry would be to run at her limit of aerobic effort and if that put Kerry into the red, she might run the finish out of her.
Also, she consoled herself that Donie had not allowed her to taper for it. Tapering is when a runner, or other athlete, eases up on his training before a big event. This is when they "peak". Donie's eye was always on the National Cross Country.
Subsequently she ran in a big cross country in Dublin called the Gerry Farnham. This is second in prestige to the Nationals. She came second to Fionnuala Britton. She is in a league of her own at the moment. The other great Irish cross country runner, Mary Cullen, who won the first National XC in which Lizzie ran, had fallen off her bike and fractured her collar-bone so was out for a few weeks.
On foot of that result, she and 5 other women were chosen to represent Ireland in a race in Mol, in Flemish Belgium. I went over with them. This is not the European championship but is used to gauge the runners for the big one, in case they can't run in the championship, or it can't be held and so on.
Lizzie ran well in this, coming eighth and first of the Irish.

Finishing straight in Mol.

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14 comments on “A Pound of Perseverance is worth a Ton of Talent”

  1. Kern wrote:

    Terrific story, Garry, and best of luck to Lizzie and the team. Let us know the result.

    But Garry, surely you left out Newfoundlanders in your list of friendly people? You must have kissed the cod??

  2. Ray Smith wrote:

    Great blog post Garry... amazing insight into the Liz Lee success story. A story of determination and dedication topped of with an abundance of natural talent.

    The celtic tiger is alive and well in Liz

    Best of luck Liz and team in Portugal......

  3. Patrick wrote:

    Yes, a very good story, and interesting to learn how runners think. I hope they do well in Portugal.

    I'm not sure I quite agree with your title though. The qualities that make a winner in sport are very interesting. Athletics commentators talk about 'talented athletes' and your Lizzie obviously has the talent – a natural at running. So I'd say it's the mixture of graft, the right physique, and natural talent that come together to make a success story. Plus, as you say, the coach.

  4. Garry Lee wrote:

    Well Lizzie has undoubted talent. Her mother was a very good middle-distance runner when she took it up at the age of 30 and her maternal grandfather was the schoolboy mile champion of Munster so there's a huge genetic component. She is very mathematical, unusually so for a girl, so very good at quick decision making, and her job as an IT project manager has her making decisions all day. She's also very competitive, but the two other variables she has, singlemindedness and a brilliant coach are often lacking in a person of similar talent!!

  5. Chris wrote:

    Lizzie seems to have the random combination of attributes that a successful athlete needs. Good luck to her for Sunday.

    I've been rummaging about in my Sky+ planner to see if this event is going to crop up on Euro Sport. I thought I had it when I saw Cross-Co.. only to find was a programme on Cross-Country Skiing this Sunday. Do let us know if you find out it is to be screened – it's not unlikely as there are all sorts of events on the digital channels these days (I've pressed Record on a Biathalon that will be screened on Sunday that I wouldn't have known about).

    I think you can be forgiven for this being only peripherally linked to cycling, Garry. Great story.

  6. Mike wrote:

    Great post, Garry, and you're obviously very proud (justifiably so) of 'your girl'.

    However, reading it has quite exhausted me, so I'm going to have to take the rest of the day off!

    Good luck to them all in Portugal, and a Merry Christmas to everyone.

  7. Garry Lee wrote:

    Thanks folks! It's on Eurosport fairly early on Monday morning. I saw it advertised.
    Don't expect her to do well. She's done very well by getting there at all! This is running with really BIG girls!

  8. Hilary wrote:

    Good luck to Lizzie and the others on Sunday. She obviously has the ideal blend of perseverance and talent. I'm not short of perseverance but the talent is definitely lacking! 🙂

  9. paul sloper wrote:

    best of luck lizzie well done for getting there am sure you will make your mum and dad even prouder best of luck for the race regards paul

  10. Tom - Lizzie's brother wrote:

    Best of luck to Lizzie (her success not just genetic – I'm her brother have a resting heart rate of 50 even when I don't exercise for a month and a Haemoglobin of 18 and can run box to box in a soccer match i.e. similar genes, but would never have the determination to get where she has) – some lady!

  11. Mary wrote:

    Good luck to you Lizzie, you are inspirational and I loved this blog, (thank you Garry).

  12. Chris wrote:

    I see from your other post that Lizzie is fit again after her injury, Garry. By the way, I recorded the Eurosport programme on Sky+ then watched it a bit later. Was it nervous energy or does she always jump up and down like that just before a race? Lizzzebedeeee!

  13. Garry Lee wrote:

    It's her nerves!! You can pick her out in the starting line-up of any race. She's done that when she's nervous or excited since she was a small girl!! She'll be knotted when I tell her you commented!!

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