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'It's an amazing outlet, the release it gives you. Throw on your runners, it's so easy'

First marathon to Olympic marathon in a year, triathlons and rowing – Caitriona Jennings shares her story.

“COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT it,” Caitriona Jennings laughs down the phone at one point when discussing running.

Catriona Jennings Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

She says it half-jokingly, almost in passing at the time. But it’s clearly evident in the grand scheme of things that it’s a fairly true statement. Looking back through the years to where she is now, it’s been quite a long road.

There have ups, there have been downs. Positives and negatives, both on her sporting journey and elsewhere in life. But through it all, there has been one constant for the most part and that’s running.

“It’s an amazing…. release is probably the wrong word,” she tells The42.

“It’s an amazing outlet to have an hour every day and to just go running. Throw on your runners, it’s so easy to do it. It’s amazing, the release it gives you.

“You’re stressed about something in work or if something isn’t going as planned, it’s just amazing how nothing seems like a problem after you’ve run for an hour… or four!”

Let’s go right back to the start. Long before she was an Irish triathlete. Long before she and her sister, Sinead, were Olympians.

Growing up in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, sport was always a central part to life in the Jennings household. Her earliest memory is probably her parents bringing them swimming at the age of four or five.

In school then, off the top of her head, there was basketball, badminton, camogie, volleyball. Everything and anything really.

“Any sort of sport that was on offer in our school, I gave it a go,” she continues.

“I really loved all forms of sport. I always had the swimming going in the background but it was really just a combination of every sport in school I started doing.”

Eager and enthusiastic, she grins that she’d try her hand at anything. Of course, she enjoyed running as part of all of those other sports, but then came a chance to concentrate and focus on that, without using the various bats and balls.

2018 SSE Aitricity Dublin Marathon Launch Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

A PE teacher in the school decided to form a team for a Cross Country race. She tried out and got picked, simple as that. Her mam wasn’t overly impressed at the school days being missed to go off racing, she smiles, but sure look.

From there, she never really looked back.

“Running wasn’t necessarily my first choice, but I mean, once I got into it I absolutely loved it. And then I suppose around the same time, we started doing triathlons.

“I was only 12 when my two older sisters were getting into it so I gave it a go as well and it kind of just grew from there.”

Jennings did her first triathlon at that age. It was a really short one but it gave her a flavour for it, she recalls. Watching her older sisters do the longer ones, she was mad to follow in their footsteps. That enthusiasm.

They soon joined a triathlon club in Coleraine and started travelling around the country competing everywhere and anywhere. And then out of the blue, an opportunity arose. Spotted at the National Triathlon Championships, she was selected to represent Ireland.

She credits an Olympic Youth Camp she attended at the age of 16 or so for planting the seed in her head, for forming the idea that she could go further, and properly excel at elite level in the green singlet.

That, she did, but shortly after came college and the various distractions that go hand-in-hand with that.

“Ironically enough at that point, I probably wasn’t training quite as hard as I had done when I was at home. I suppose first year living away from home, doing my own thing…

“Running was just nearly easier than triathlon, because triathlon, it’s so time-consuming and you have to train for all different disciplines.

“I was really just running to stay fit and stay in shape. Running to get out and enjoy it more so than with anything in mind.”

And so came the gradual transition back to just running. There was a lot of competing here and there, but nothing major. The main focus was on completing her Law and Accountancy degree in UL, and pursuing that afterwards.

2018 SSE Aitricity Dublin Marathon Launch Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

She moved to Dublin to do so, and joined Rathfarnham AC when she relocated. Again, it was more just for fun, for the social side of things, to have an outlet.

“Because sport was such a big part of my life, I did want to do something but I wasn’t really doing it with any great expectations in mind,” she continues.

“It was just to do a couple of Cross Country races and to be part of the team. I suppose then it just spiraled from there. I started competing and doing better and wanting to do better, and training harder. It was just a really positive snowball effect.”

Before she knew it, she had run her first marathon and an Olympic marathon in less than a year. Running a marathon was something she had always wanted to do, but in the run-up to Dublin 2011, she found herself hampered by injury.

She remembers hearing, ‘You have to run a marathon before you can race a marathon’ though, and that drove her on. The enthusiasm was still there.

“That was an amazing experience,” she reminisces.

“While I knew I wasn’t in amazing shape for it, I said I would still run it and learn from that experience and be able to bring that to the next marathon that I did.

“I remember distinctly finishing Dublin — I ran 2.42 that year and I remember thinking, ‘If I can run 2.42 off a cross trainer, I can definitely run much faster with the right training and the right preparation’.

“That gave me an awful lot of confidence actually, even though it wasn’t an amazing marathon in itself, it did give me a huge amount of confidence for the next one.”

The next one she ran was in Rotterdam in April 2012 to get the qualifying time for the London Olympics. Jennings clocked a time of 2:36:17 and subsequently booked her ticket to the Games.

“It actually was,” she agrees, when she’s reminded of the time frame.

“At the time, I never really thought of it actually. I suppose you just kind of get swept up in the moment and you don’t really sit back and reflect.

“Thinking about it now, it probably was a huge amount to expect — not alone having gone from my first one to my Olympic marathon in a year but also that would really have been the third marathon that I had done that year, if you take the 12 month period.

“It really just probably was too much, especially when I wasn’t used to the distance and my body, I didn’t know how long it would take to recover and things like that.

Catriona Jennings Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Possibly that was one of the reasons that it didn’t go as well for me as I had hoped,” she pauses briefly as she thinks of that August day in the English capital, and her voice breaks ever so slightly. “I guess that’s just life, isn’t it?”

Jennings has spoken in the past of the disappointment of that 42 kilometre race, battling injury on injury and how she felt like she was letting the country down as she finished last in a time of 3:22:11.

That said, she accepts that it’s a huge feat to have represented her country at an Olympic Games, and that’s something that can never be taken away from her.

“Absolutely,” she smiles. “I was really proud of myself for getting there.

“In a way, the only reason that it didn’t go as well is because I just wanted to get there so badly. I wanted to run my very, very best and I just obviously tipped the weighing scales a bit and I overtrained.

“In saying that, I guess it’s still amazing to have gotten there, and I’m glad that I finished it. It is unfortunate that I didn’t have the race that I wanted.

“But I suppose, in a way, it just means that I have maybe some unfinished business there that I need to get some sort of retribution for at some point in the future!”

Jennings adds: “I mean I’d love to get back running those kind of times again that I’m capable of.

“It’d be nice to run Dublin and run a really good time in Dublin. It’d be really nice to run a really good home marathon. Where it all began, if I could run a good time there it would be a really nice achievement for me.”

Jennings’ sister, Sinead, is also an Olympian. She competed at Rio 2016 alongside Claire Lambe in the Lightweight women’s double sculls and they wrote history as they became the first-ever Irish women’s crew to make it to an Olympic rowing final.

To have two Olympians in the one household, that must be fairly special, and something that makes the family very proud?

“They’re incredibly proud of us. But I always think, ‘Well, they were just unbelievable parents to be able to give us the opportunity to get there, really’. They sacrificed so much to help us when we were younger and they brought us to all the races — as all parents do, I know.

“I think it’s really nice for them that they can see, I suppose, some fruits of their labour as well. I’m incredibly proud of my sister and I know she is of me. I think we’re both really lucky and blessed that we were able to get there.

Claire Lamb and Sinead Jennings Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Our brother-in-law as well, Sam, Sinead’s husband, is a double Olympian too. We often joke with my own husband and my brother-in-law that they have big shoes to fill!”

She tried her hand at the rowing as well after London, switching codes simply because she couldn’t run with the injuries she had sustained. A bit of encouragement from Sinead went a long way and as she got a knack for it, the goals and aspirations got bigger.

But it just wasn’t the same.

“It went well for a couple of years,” she says.

“But ultimately I wasn’t going to achieve what I wanted to achieve out of it so I decided to call it a day, and just went back running for fun at that stage.”

Running, the one constant.

And it still is.

Olympians, Lizzie Lee and Caitriona Jennings this week launched the 39th SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon.

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Emma Duffy

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