'When I first started running, I wasn’t able to do a lap of The Lough without stopping...'

'When I first started running, I wasn’t able to do a lap of The Lough without stopping...'
Claire O'Brien finished third in The Echo Women's Mini Marathon. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

IT’S been a decade since she competed in her first road race, and running has been giving Cork girl Claire O’Brien such fulfillment ever since.

After losing her twin brother Pat in a road accident, Claire found running to be her saviour and has been hooked to the sport ever since.

“Every runner has a ‘story’, and my running journey began in 2006,” said Claire. “My twin brother Pat was killed tragically in a car accident, just days before our 21st birthday.

“Our family was unique as my parents had two sets of twins. And with only three years apart, the four of us were very close and spent every minute of our childhood together.

“In some ways, I like to think Pat got me started in running as growing up — I had to run fast to keep up with him! While I couldn’t run away from the agony of losing Pat, instead I found that pounding the roads was and still is, the only way to lighten the load of grief.

“In 2010, I entered my first ever road race.”

A work colleague, Damien Elliffe from Scoil Oilibhéir, mentioned that he was training for a 10-mile race — the Ballycotton 10. Although she never ran before, her initial reaction was if he can do it, she could.

“That’s how it all began! Little did I know that this decision would set my life off on a very different path.”

Collette O'Donoghue, Mary Collins, Linda O'Sullivan, Gwen Conroy & Claire O'Brien from Watergrasshill AC competing in the 2018 County Cross Country Run hosted by West Muskerry AC in Ballyverane, near Macroom, Co. Cork. Picture: John Delea.
Collette O'Donoghue, Mary Collins, Linda O'Sullivan, Gwen Conroy & Claire O'Brien from Watergrasshill AC competing in the 2018 County Cross Country Run hosted by West Muskerry AC in Ballyverane, near Macroom, Co. Cork. Picture: John Delea.

Being from Gillabbey Street, and living just a stones-throw away from The Lough, that is where the 34-year-old schoolteacher began her training.

“Looking back now, I laugh as when I first started running — I wasn’t able to do one single lap of The Lough without stopping.

“My first taste of the Cork running scene was the Ballycotton 10. I remember being in awe at all of the runners and excited by the buzz of the crowd. It was my first time meeting Jerry Forde, a well-known wheelchair athlete and Cork legend.

“To say I struggled is an understatement! By mile 9.5, I almost collapsed and was literally carried over the line by my husband and greeted by paramedics. As I clutched my Ballycotton mug, I swore I’d never, ever run again.

“However, determination and a desire to set the record straight soon crept in, and I was back on the roads. I completed every Ballycotton 10 race until it sadly came to an end in 2017.

“My first running mentor was Pat Walsh and continues to be a close friend. In those days, training and races were never a chore. This was before I ever knew what a PB was, before I owned a running watch or racing shoes, and the only warm-up we did involved chatting to people we knew as we walked towards the start line!

“In 2017, shortly after I got married, myself and my husband John started training with Watergrasshill AC. The club coach Kieran McKeown was a huge influence in shaping my running capabilities. He set weekly targets for me and pushed me more than I ever ran before.

Claire O'Brien with coach Kieran McKeown. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Claire O'Brien with coach Kieran McKeown. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“A standout achievement for me in 2017 was being awarded Female Athlete of the Year by my club, and having the award presented to me by Dolores Duffy, who is an amazing runner, role model and friend. I have been lucky to represent my club in numerous races, and even luckier to come away with a few wins and podium positions.”

Some of those include overall winner of the Cloyne 4k Series in 2018 and 2019, Cork Cross-Country Novice and Intermediate Winner 2018, East Cork Novice Road Race Winner 2019, and coming thirdin Women’s Mini-Marathon in Cork 2019.

Another significant honour was being selected to represent Cork in the National Cross Country Championships in 2018.

In September 2019, Claire and her husband moved to San Francisco for her husband’s work. Since arriving, she has continued to run and compete.

“There are some noticeable differences here compared to Ireland’s running scene, which include a much warmer climate, hillier routes, and a lot of overpriced races. Since settling here, I have run two half-marathons, placing third overall female in one. I have also competed and won a number of local races at shorter distances.”

Claire O'Brien, winner of the Cloyne 4km, pictured with Sonia O'Sullivan. Picture: John Walshe
Claire O'Brien, winner of the Cloyne 4km, pictured with Sonia O'Sullivan. Picture: John Walshe

Her real focus recently was training for the Boston Marathon, which was due to take place on April 20.

“Like many other runners across the globe, I will have to go back to the drawing board and decide what to aim for next. I have started volunteering with a running club in San Quentin Prison called The 1000 Mile Club which was set up by coach Frank Ruona. We train with the inmates twice a week, and there are monthly races organised within the prison, including a marathon that takes place at the end of the year.

“This requires the inmates to run 105 laps of the exercise yard in order to complete the marathon distance. Volunteering with the 1000 Mile Club has been a very rewarding experience that I thoroughly enjoy.

“While my overall journey in athletics has been very positive, there are many tough days as well, particularly when I cannot run. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and I’ve learnt the tougher the injury, the bigger the comeback.”

She strongly feels Kieran’s belief in her and her supportive club-mates in Watergrasshill AC were the biggest factors that led to her running success.

“The friends that I’ve made, experiences I’ve had, and places I’ve visited have filled me with memories to last a lifetime. My running journey began only 10 years ago, and has given me so much fulfillment. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years have in store.”

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