CORK’S top two marathon runners — one of whom will compete in this summer’s Olympics, the other of whom ran the distance in Rio back in 2016 — are the Cork City Sports Athletics Person of the Month Award winners for April and May.
On Sunday, April 25, Aoife Cooke achieved the dream of becoming an Olympian when winning the Cheshire Marathon in a time of 2:28:36, comfortably inside the qualifying standard of 2:29:30.
It was also a whopping personal best by almost four minutes for the Eagle AC athlete.
It made her the fourth-fastest Irish marathon-running woman in history behind Catherina McKiernan, Fionnuala McCormack, and Carey May and ahead of Sonia O’Sullivan, who now find herself in fifth on the all-time list.
The elite race around the small village of Pulford on the Welsh border was put on especially for those chasing the Olympic standard before the May 31 cut-off, and consisted of seven-and-a-half laps of a flat, rural countryside loop.
In ideal conditions, Cooke ran among a group of men, reaching halfway in about 1:13:50, well ahead of schedule and was obviously delighted to achieve her goal.
I suppose the pinnacle of the sports of athletics is to have made it to the Olympics, so that’s a huge deal for me,” said the 34-year-old.
A superb performance at the 2019 Dublin Marathon saw Cooke the first Irish woman home in 2:32:34.
Then Covid-19 appeared, which scrapped the 2020 competitive season.
“In the last year or year and a half, everything was uncertain with all the races cancelled and everything like that, so it feels like it was a long time coming, and it was a huge relief and a huge joy when I crossed the finish line and got the time,” she said.
“I was confident enough I’d be within the 2:29:30, although I was wrecked at the finish, but then I gathered myself, and the realisation set in. The second half I found tough. The legs were hurting, and it was a mental thing, but I told myself to keep the head, that I didn’t have long to go.”
Presently training at 7,000ft altitude in Utah, she will not race again until the Olympic marathon which takes place at Sapporo, 800km north of Tokyo, on Saturday, August 7.
A winner of the monthly award in the past, Lizzie Lee of Leevale is the May recipient.
At a specially arranged Micro Meet for Irish elite athletes at the MTU track, Lee — in her only her second 10000m on the track — covered the 25 laps in a time of 34:14.26.
This earned her selection as the sole female Irish representative over the same distance for the European Cup in Birmingham.
“I honestly thought my days of awards and international vests were over, so I’m absolutely delighted,” she said at the award ceremony in the River Lee Hotel.
"I must put my hand up in the air to Athletics Ireland and to the likes of Ian O’Sullivan in MTU, Donal Murnane, Ina Killeen, and Liam O’Brien for putting the meet on.”
The object was to run 82-second laps and this she did in the lashing rain, her finishing time of 34:12.26 being well inside the standard and giving her 25 seconds to spare over Meghan Ryan of DSD.
Lee then went to Birmingham, where she recorded a personal best of 33:04.50 for 17th place in the star-studded field.
“It was amazing pulling on that Irish singlet again,” she said.
I’m now going on 11 years as a senior international athlete, I’m 41 with three small kids, and I’m standing on start line with the best in Europe.”
Six years ago she captained the Irish team to the bronze medals at the European Cross-Country, and with the re-scheduled championships set for Santry this December, it is something that is already in her sights.
“I would run over hot coals in the National C-C to make the team,” she said.
“Leevale women will be going for four-in-a-row to win the club title and that puts fire in my belly.
“But the competition to get on that [Irish] team is going to be insane, they’ll all going to want to run in Dublin, but that will be the head-down goal from now on, and we’ll see what happens.”
The Cork City Sports Athletics Person of the Month Awards are sponsored by the River Lee, 96&C103FM, The Echo, Cork Crystal, and Leisureworld.