By James O’Brien
“I’m not ecstatic, but I’m not disappointed.”
Sonia O’Sullivan, Ireland’s 2000 Olympic 5000-meter silver medallist, sat in the opulent confines of New York City’s Tavern on the Green, pondering the 6.2 miles she had just raced in Central Park Saturday morning. The occasion was the 30th running of the New York Road Runner’s annual Women’s Mini Marathon, a 10-kilometer road race that, this year, attracted in excess of 4,700 participants, including some of the most accomplished female distance runners in the world. Such as O’Sullivan.
“I’ve run faster,” she said, “but this shows that I’m making progress and moving forward.”
In fact, the 32-year-old native of Cobh, Co. Cork, sped around the undulating lap of Central Park in a time of 31:22, to equal sixth fastest in the history of this event, a time sufficient to claim $5,000 in prize money and bonuses. The only problem was, two of those faster times also came in this year’s race.
At the sharpest end of the field, Asm’ Leghzaoui, a diminutive 25-year-old from Morocco, pruned 14 seconds from the previous world’s best time for the distance, stopping the clock at 30:29 and earning a total prize purse of $15,000. In second place was Kenya’s Lornah Kiplagat in 30:44. O’Sullivan placed an isolated third.
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“If I was winning, I might have run 20 seconds faster,” O’Sullivan said, “but when you’re back there on your own, you’re not pressing as hard.”
O’Sullivan has never been one to take defeat comfortably. Her commitment to winning is renowned on the international distance running scene; she didn’t come to New York to place third.
From the gun, O’Sullivan was immediately at the forefront of the stellar field, forcing the pace as the group hammered northward on Central Park West, before entering Central Park at 91st Street. Remarkably, the first mile was covered in 4 minutes and 50 seconds, a pace fully 9 seconds faster than Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe had set in storming to a course-record victory 12 months previously. Hard on the Irish woman’s heels was a pack of distance running luminaries: Ludmilla Petrova from Russia, winner of the 2000 New York City Marathon; Derartu Tulu from Ethiopia, 2000 Olympic gold medallist in the 10,000; the U.S.’ Deena Drossin, silver medallist in the March World Cross Country Championships 8K held in Dublin, plus a glut of other stars all capable of taking this, one of the most prestigious titles on the international women’s road racing calendar.
As the field wound its way into the Park after approximately one and a quarter miles, O’Sullivan began to feel the effects of the torrid pace. “They got away from me quickly,” she said. “They didn’t really make a move; it was more the constant pace. They just kept it going.”
Once the break had been made, however, O’Sullivan was consigned to run her race in isolation, which she did determinedly. While she ended up 38 seconds shy of second-place Kiplagat, she also had 22 seconds in hand on the fourth-place finisher, Olivera Jevtic of Yugoslavia.
Though the prestige of the New York Road Runner’s Women’s Mini Marathon is unquestioned — “If I’d won, it would have been a really big deal,” O’Sullivan said — still, it was mostly a steppingstone in her return to the top of the world’s elite roster after a span of time characterized by upset and change.
Eyeing elite ranks
On Nov. 7, 2001, O’Sullivan’s former manager, Kim McDonald, 45, died suddenly in a hotel room in Australia. As prehaps the most influential individual in the professionalization of international distance running, McDonald’s death rocked the world of track and field. For O’Sullivan, that turmoil was soothed by the birth of her second child, Sophie, on Dec. 23.
Emotional upset followed by the rigors of childbirth and the demands of two infants — O’Sullivan and her partner, Nick Bideau, had their first child, Ciara, in 1999 — may hardly be a recipe for success for a world-class athlete. But it seems nothing more than in perfect character that O’Sullivan should reemerge with remarkable speed at or near to the forefront of the world’s elite.
Back in March, at the Dublin World Cross Country Championships, O’Sullivan galvanized the fans who came to see her at Leopardstown Race Course, placing seventh in the 4-kilometer race and leading the Irish team to the bronze medals.
“That was really good fun,” O’Sullivan recalled. “And it was great for all the people who came out to watch and who put so much into organizing the race.”
Since then, O’Sullivan has contested some of the finest road races in the world, from Carlsbad, Calif., in April to the World Half Marathon Championships in Brussels, Belgium, in May, sometimes with results that were below expectations, sometimes with results that were superb, and sometimes with results that, like the Women’s Mini Marathon, were cause for satisfaction though not jubilation.
There is, of course, a larger objective in mind, in both the short and the long term. On a close horizon are the European Championships, being held in Munich, Germany, from Aug. 6-11. Only the Olympic Games and World Championships mean more in terms of international prestige and O’Sullivan would dearly love to win the 5000 and 10,000 gold medals that she claimed in 1998.
“I’ve been pre-selected for both, but I’ve still got to get the qualifying standards,” she said. Those marks, 15:44 for the 5000 and 33:20 for the 10,000, should be perfunctory for O’Sullivan. Nonetheless, she competes in Manchester, England, this coming weekend in a bid for the latter, and will go for the former later in the season at a venue still to be decided.
In reflecting on races just run and on those to come, the sense is distinct that this is O’Sullivan in her element — with tangible goals on an ever-narrowing horizon. All the training, all the steppingstones, are means to more satisfying ends: fast times, big wins, gold medals.
Contemplating her Central Park race, its good and its bad, she shrugged and said: “You can overanalyze it. You’re far better off to just go out there and race. I’ve generally run well off a lot of races, so I’m looking forward to the summer with less training and more racing.”
For the summer, O’Sullivan will be based in her English home in Surrey. “In the ‘burbs,” she said, smiling, “near Hampton Court. The Royals are our neighbors.” With its proximity to the white-hot track events in Oslo, Zurich, Berlin and Stockholm — not to mention family in Ireland — England is the ideal base from which to plan her attack on the titans of Europe. And after that? There will be more races.
That’s the long term; there are always more races. Next year will bring the World Championships in Paris, then the 2004 Olympic Games, taking place in Athens, will again galvanize the sporting world.
“The Olympics are the big thing,” O’Sullivan said reverentially. “I’ll run the 5000 there.” She leaves it unsaid that the only prize missing from her glittering trove is an Olympic gold. If that thought has crossed her mind at this moment, she does not let it linger. There are so many objectives, so many races to win. Her thoughts have moved on.
“A marathon sounds tempting,” she said. In October 2000, O’Sullivan contested the Dublin Marathon on a whim. She won, wearing training shoes, in 2 hours 35 minutes 38 seconds. But now she’s thinking of a serious competitive effort. She looks at the road racers milling around her. “When you come to a place like this and get a taste of it. . . . I’d like to be part of a marathon one day.”
They’ve got one of those in New York. It’s finish? Hard alongside Tavern on the Green, 50 or so meters from where O’Sullivan was seated. She didn’t come here to place third. You may expect that she’ll be back.