Beaten tracks

Finish of a 400 metres heat at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles

A typical scene of health and safety risks at the local athletics track, today.

I’ve been living in France for seven years, but one of my goals for this year is to move back home to Ireland. Given the lack of jobs in Ireland these days, though, I’ll probably find it easier to tick off my other two 2012 goals of running both the Paris and Dublin marathons in personal bests.

But the runner’s attitude is: I’ll do it alright, you wait and see.

It will be hard to leave behind one perk of living in France – the public services here are much better than most other countries. Healthcare, public transport, education, cultural institutions… all are well-funded and relatively efficient. You can see where your tax money is spent.

Sports facilities here are also excellent. Away from the crowded city centre, each suburb and satellite town of Paris seems to have its own fully-equipped sports centre, complete with athletics track. Since moving to my current area just outside Paris last May, I live near two running tracks, both open free to the public without fear of the vandalism and compensation culture that have sucked the fun out of many recreational spaces in the English-speaking world.

Surprisingly, I’ve never seen more than a few people running on either track at any one time – I’d have figured they’d be jammed with people availing of a free élite-standard sports facility in the neighbourhood.

The nearer of the two tracks is where I went to do my speed work while training for last October’s Dublin Marathon. It’s not usually open in the evenings, and so every Saturday morning I would wake up at 7:00 (my working-day get-up time) to hit the track before the sports centre was overrun with kids.

At the track I would do a workout that I think I picked up from a training guide by Eamonn Coghlan in The Irish Times before the 2004 Dublin Marathon – one slow lap and one fast, then two slow and fast, then three and four, before back down to one. On the fast four-lap I’d time myself for the mile – having been at 6 minutes 46 seconds in August, by October I had got my time down to 5 minutes 56 seconds. I’d also time myself for a sprint in the final fast lap of the session, and that summer I improved from 1 minute 32 seconds down to 1 minute 24 seconds.

After those sessions, as the children and parents rolled in, I would stroll home and feel quietly happy with what I had done.

The other track near me is open in the evenings for rugby training on the artificial field in the centre, so that’s where I still go on weekday evenings. It’s two miles to the track, then I usually do either two or four miles on the track before running the two miles home again. The track is beside a heliport, so occasionally there’s the dramatic background of a helicopter whirring in to land. And you can see the Eiffel Tower in the near distance as you run down the back straight. (There’s an athletics track right beside the Eiffel Tower too, though it’s not full-sized – it’s only 350 metres a lap.)

Apart from the infrequent risk of a hefty rugby player stepping out onto the track in front of me, it’s a place where I can concentrate on running. On the street you have to be alert for pedestrians, dogs, cars and other urban obstacles. Running in forests, you can trip on a root or get blindsided by a speeding mountain biker who shoots out from a downhill trail. But the track is all yours.

If you’ve only ever run on roads or trails, then the first time on a real athletics track is a revelation. Being there gives you a sense of purpose and professionalism that you don’t get when you’re trotting around the block – you feel like a real athlete, a colleague of your heroes. The bounce of the surface has your legs crying with joy.

And then there’s the irresistible urge to daydream about being in an Olympic final – because if running doesn’t make you dream of achievement, nothing ever will. I can’t run on a track without subconsciously upping my pace and striking for home. Dreaming on the track seeps into my body and pushes me to be a faster runner.

Thinking of running tracks reminds me of sad news from before Christmas. University College Dublin, my student home, closed and dug up its Belfield track at short notice. I had never run on the track there – my college years coincided with my, ahem, prolonged hiatus from running. In any event, it always seemed to be closed or off-limits to anyone not a member of the college athletics club. But since I started my marathoning I had always hoped to run there.

A world record was set on the Belfield track – the 4 x 1 mile, in 1985 when Ireland had a golden age of milers and middle-distancers like Coghlan, John Treacy, Frank O’Mara, Ray Flynn and Marcus O’Sullivan. It seems that the track was left to slide into disrepair until it was inevitably considered a health and safety risk. Are there now only two public running tracks (Santry and Irishtown) in all of Dublin? And no proper indoor track facility?

Now isn’t a good time to call for public funding for sports facilities in Ireland, given that we’re now struggling to fund our basic health and educational facilities. And you don’t need an athletics track to run.

But put a bunch of kids on a track like they see on TV at the Olympics, and surely some of them would get hooked for life – and be less of a lifelong burden on the public health system as a result. Sounds like a good investment to me.

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