With all my bellyaching over snow and ice, you’d think no Irish person ever ran on a real winter’s day.
Well, you might have seen recently Fionnuala Britton charging across the snowy plains of Hungary to European cross country glory, with her compatriots close behind to secure team gold.
But over two decades ago another Irish athlete announced herself to the world in a thrilling cross country race over similarly wintry conditions.
The 1992 World Cross Country Championships were held in Franklin Park in Boston, Massachusetts, and this most Irish of American cities was expected to provide success for Ireland’s Catherina McKiernan. Running in the event for the third time, McKiernan was in great form and Irish hopes were high for a good showing or even the win.
The rolling parkland course was covered in snow but McKiernan seemed unperturbed. After staying near the head of the main bunch for the early stages, at the 4-kilometre halfway mark she moved up to join the two leaders, Albertina Diaz of Portugal and two-time defending champion Lynn Jennings of the United States, who had won Massachusetts state cross country titles on the same course during her high-school days. These three stayed clear for the rest of the race, and so the scene was set for a barnstorming finish.
In the last kilometre, McKiernan took the initiative but couldn’t shake off her two rivals. Suddenly, with a few hundred metres left, Jennings sprung out from behind the Irishwoman and kicked on.
However, McKiernan fought back, catching and then overtaking Jennings. Coming around the final bend the advantage seemed to be with her.
But within sight of the finish line Jennings attacked again – and this time the move was decisive. The Irish athlete couldn’t respond and had to be content with silver ahead of Diaz.
There was great Irish delight at McKiernan’s achievement – a hard-fought World silver medal in a thrilling race over difficult ground, with the prospect of greater things to come. (Adding to Ireland’s good mood was the 7th place finish by Sonia O’Sullivan, on the threshold of an even more stunning career that would include a future success in this event.)
But the future brought a very peculiar sort of frustration, as McKiernan won silver in the next three World Championships too and never managed to make the leap to gold. The following year in Spain the same three runners were in the medals again, with Diaz this time relegating Jennings to third. The 1994 race in Budapest saw McKiernan just hang on to silver ahead of another Portuguese runner, Conceição Ferreira, and behind Hellen Chepngeno of Kenya. And in the northern English town of Durham in 1995 she finished second behind Derartu Tulu in a stellar top ten dominated by Kenya and Ethiopia.
“Of the four silvers, it was the one I should have won,” McKiernan wrote about that 1992 race in Irish Runner magazine twenty years later, “but I was young and naive and didn’t have the experience or confidence to win.” McKiernan wasn’t wearing any winter gear that day, and one wonders if that was a factor too – after all, Jennings was wearing gloves and a T-shirt.
Happily, McKiernan went on on enjoy notable victories too – the 1994 European Cross Country title, for instance, as well as the London and Berlin marathons. Today she is a ChiRunning instructor – I attended her course last January and got great benefits from it. And the woman herself was very friendly and interesting indeed.
You can watch the full 1992 women’s World Cross Country Championships online – part 1 is here and part 2 is below, with Portuguese commentary to give you that special thrill of recognising a familiar name in a foreign language: