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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 20 September, 2019
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Ciara Mageean finds her happy place

It has not been easy to live away from her boyfriend, but with the right support, the Irish middle-distance runner is giving herself the best chance of success.

MARPLE IS a small, sleepy town in Stockport, South Manchester. It is, in many ways, the quintessential English town, with a population of just over 20,000, known — if at all — for its canal locks. 

Ciara Mageean has called Marple home for two years now, having joined Team New Balance Manchester to work under the guidance of coach Steve Vernon in November 2017.

Ciara Mageean	next to her time after the women's 800m race Mageean at Morton Stadium in Dublin last month. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Vernon, a former English cross-country champion, has assembled a small team of professional runners and cultivated what he believes is the perfect environment for young athletes to train and live in, without the stresses of a full-time job, but with the support of a committed sponsor. 

Having grown up in Stockport, Vernon’s knowledge of its endless off-field tracks and parks made it the ideal setting for his athletes to train hard, recover and live like a professional, a set-up Mageean felt was the right fit for her.

Mageean had spent seven years in Dublin studying and training under Jerry Kiernan before she made the decision to move to England and join Vernon’s small, but elite, team of athletes. 

Right on the edge of the Peak District, Marple is flanked by a number of idyllic parks and hills for training, all but a stone’s throw away from the house Mageean shares with five other athletes. 

The decision to make the move and try something different was, in the context of her athletic’s career and development, a no-brainer. In leaving Dublin behind, Mageean sought a fresh start, a new challenge. 

The switch to a full-time lifestyle in Manchester has not all been smooth, as one would expect with such a significant life move, but Mageean is now fully settled in England and it’s showing in her results on the track.

In March, the 27-year-old claimed a brilliant 1,500m bronze at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow, to add to her European outdoor bronze over the same distance three years previous. It was significant too in the fact it was her first major medal since joining Vernon’s team.

It propelled Mageean forward, imbued her with a renewed sense of confidence and provided verification, if any was needed, that the decision to part ways with Kiernan and start afresh away from home was absolutely the right one. 

In many ways, the Irish middle-distance runner has found her happy place in her new home away from home, striking the right balance between life on and off the track, between training and downtime. 

In July, Mageean produced one of her most impressive performances to date, smashing her personal best by over three seconds at the Monaco Diamond League, a time — 4:19.03 over a mile — that also met the Olympic qualifying standard in the 1,500m category.

This summer has also seen Mageean defend her National Championships crown at Santry and then return home-home to Portaferry and the nearby Mary Peter’s track to win the Belfast International over 800m.

“I’ve had a really nice season so far and I’ve been happy with the progression,” she tells The42. “Medalling in Glasgow and that race in Monaco has given me a lot of confidence and it just confirmed to me that I’m in the right place.

“I had won a medal at the European outdoors so it was nice to claim another at the start of the season and just remind the rest of the world that you’re someone to keep an eye on.”

Ciara Mageean celebrates winning a bronze medal After winning European indoor bronze in Glasgow. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Mageean has always been one to keep an eye on, but with age comes experience and maturity, and it is clear she is reaping the rewards from the lifestyle she now leads.

The house trains, runs, eats and often travels together. That team aspect, coupled with the guidance and expertise of Vernon, has provided Mageean with optimum conditions to develop, grow and thrive as an athlete.

“I’m in that mindset of a professional, with the belief I can be the best in the world. I’ve never felt so much at home somewhere that isn’t actually home.”

But such success demands sacrifices, no more so than when Mageean’s decision to move away or the benefit of her career meant she had to make an unspeakably difficult one to move away from family, friends and her boyfriend.

Marple may only be a short drive away from Manchester Airport, via Stockport, and a quick flight away from home, but Mageean’s training and racing schedule means she only sees her boyfriend once a month. 

“It is hard,” she admits. “I had lived in Dublin for seven years and I was very close to my boyfriend, so that was very hard to move away and actually only see him once a month.

“It’s pretty rough and actually quite a selfish decision to make. As an athlete, you live a selfish life and because of that, I’m the one who often feels guilty. But once you’re open to accepting that it’s something you’re going to do for the next few years and because there will be an end to that, you can adjust and adapt. 

I always plan to meet Thomas at some point in the month to make sure I don’t get too sad. I do miss him and I do miss a lot of the things at home. But it means a lot to have someone so supportive.

As an athlete himself, Mageean’s boyfriend — Thomas Moran — understands the sport and the sacrifices involved when you’re at the very top. 

She continues: “I’m very lucky to have a boyfriend who understands that and is really supportive of it. He would actively make sure I make the right decisions for my athletics, even if it’s not the nicest decision for our relationship. He’s just delighted to see me achieve and he’ll do everything he can in order to help me achieve as well.

“I’m going to St Moritz to prepare for Doha [World Championships] and Thomas is going to come and pace me for my sessions, but it also means I get to see him for a bit before flying out to Doha.

“That mental side is just as important as the physical side of him pacing my sessions and being handy in that sense. Having that emotional support there, it just makes me feel happier. It’s hard but means so much to have his support.”

Mageean has openly spoken about her struggle with anxiety at major championships in recent times, but her work with Vernon and sport psychologist Kate Kirby at the Sport Ireland Institute has helped contain those demons.

It is clear that Mageean, even accounting for the difficulty of being away from her boyfriend, is in a brilliant space, both physically and mentally, at the moment and her positivity and energy permeates our conversation.

A lot of that comes down to the environment she is now immersed in.

“I find I’m in a really good place mentally. I’m working closely with the sports psychologist and I talk openly with my coach about how I’m feeling towards racing. I have a team around me that inspire me every day. If you surround yourself with the right people, it brings you forward.

Ciara Mageean celebrates with coach Steve Vernon and Alicia Vikander Mageean with coach Steve Vernon and training partner Anna Silvander. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“People think I run all day, every day but they don’t realise you’re actually just a human being and you need to smile and need to have fun. My coach always says, ‘a happy runner is a fast runner’, and he really breeds that in our team. He wants us to be happy there and feel at home in Manchester.

“It is something people underestimate, just how important all the other aspects of your life are. There’s much more to you than just the track and quite often that’s the easy part. Going out and doing your training is the easy part, it’s all that downtime in between that you have to occupy, away from family and friends. 

Those mental battles that you have in those times are probably the hardest. It’s quite easy getting out and blasting out a session, that’s the bread and butter, but all of that stuff in between is where a true athlete is made and that’s something I’ve started focusing on and doing properly.

“I’m so much happier now and more content with the set-up that I have now and it has meant I have been able to thrive as an athlete. It is hard to get that balance right, it’s something you have to work really carefully on and I’ve had to do that since going to Manchester. But you hope the sacrifices and all the hard work pays off in the end.”

And in that sense, there is much to look forward to for Mageean, both in the near and distant future. Later this evening, she is back in Dublin for the Morton Games to compete in the 800m [8.25pm], before the focus narrows on the World Championships in October. And then there is the small matter of a second Olympic Games in Tokyo just 12 months down the track.

“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life and that’s an exciting place to be in,” she smiles. “It’s so much fun.”

The Morton Games takes place at Santry this evening from 6.45pm. Entry on the gate is €10 and U16s go free. 

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Ryan Bailey

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