CORK'S Aoife Cooke returned from a high-altitude training camp in Kenya, earlier this spring.
The Eagle AC runner is hopeful that the six-week stint, spent training at almost 2,500 metres above sea-level, will help her to achieve the Olympic dream.
Cooke finds herself in with a sporting chance of securing a place for the Olympic marathon, at the upcoming 2020 Summer Games in Japan, following her women’s national title win at the Dublin Marathon last autumn.
Also long-associated with Youghal AC, the 33-year-old smashed her previous best by 14 minutes, when running 2;32;34 in the capital, back in October; a performance which would have been good enough to see her line-up at most editions of the marathon the Games.
Now, she needs a little bit more, in order to advance her chances of getting a ticket to Sapporo. Provided the event actually goes ahead of course.
But the intense training camp in Iten, an area renowned as the ‘Home of Champions’, could help her to eke out that further improvement needed.
"It was a great experience. I actually read the book, ‘Running With The Kenyans’ (by Adharanand Finn), while I was over there, which is interesting.
"We know the Kenyan runners are top-notch, so you want to go over and see how they train, how they live and what they do.
"Running aside, to see how people live over there was amazing. It really is a focus on running, sleeping and eating.
"It gave me an insight into the professional athletes’ lifestyle and you can see how that would benefit a person.
‘‘When you get up in the morning to go for your run, you’ll see big packs of people just running along.
"Most of the runners don’t work, so it really is run, home, chill and then sleep.
"They don’t do anything and then they’ll go out and do their second run in the evening.
"Anyone who runs there is an athlete – there are no people going out to run for fun,’’ said Cooke.
‘‘Where Iten is, it’s probably the highest point where most people go to train, at 7,800 feet, which does make it ideal for endurance running.
"The altitude up there has proven benefits.
"The idea is, your lungs will get stronger, and you are developing more red blood cells to circulate oxygen around the body, which is what you need for aerobic fitness.
"So, it is ideal for marathon training. You would run slower over there, just because of the altitude.
"It’s just about accepting the fact that ‘I’m going to run a little slower here, but it’s going to benefit me once I get home’.
"It’s very hilly over there. That only helps to make you stronger as well.’’
A personal trainer as well as an elite runner, Cooke has won races such as the Ballycotton ’10 and the John Treacy ’10.
Her triumph in Dublin has been the highlight of a career in which she may not yet have peaked.
The training continues, and over 100 miles are clocked up each and every week. With two sessions per day, followed by a long run at the weekend, it’s a schedule that is working for the women’s national marathon champion.
But it wasn’t always that way. Having had her fair share of injury setbacks, and having struggled to find form, a little over a year ago; change was necessary.
‘‘It was December of 2018 when I really made a decision. I had a bad run up at the national cross country race and I hadn’t been running well for a few months before that.
"I knew that there was something I needed to do. I think it all just stagnated a little bit. So, I got on to my new coach (John Starrett).
"He changed the training. He had been following me on Strava, and even in that first interaction with him, he said; ‘you can make the Olympics.’
"For me, being at a low point at the time, and not running so well, to hear that was a major boost. I made a decision to really put my running first.
‘‘I work for myself so I have the time to train and rest. The rest was probably what I was missing before.
"The chill-out factor – rest and recover – is probably the most important thing when you are training so hard. That’s made a big difference,’’ she said.
Later this year, there’s a possibility that she could be pulling on the green vest, and racing around the streets of Sapporo, on the biggest stage of them all.
The problem at the moment will be finding a suitable race to qualify, given the uncertainty of the sporting calendar, owing to the outbreak of COVID 19.
But, as it stands, Cooke’s more immediate target is the marathon in Vienna on April 19. The Olympic dream is still very much alive.
‘‘We grew up watching the Olympics, watching the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan. Everyone knows the Olympics and what a big deal it is.
"The standards for the marathon are a lot higher this year, so the qualifying time is 2;29;30. I need to get another three minutes or so.
"I do feel, where I am now, I’m in better shape than I was at the same point before Dublin, which is a good sign.
"As long as things keep going in the right direction, things are looking good. It’s really exciting.’’