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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 22 February, 2019

The former Cork hurler who swapped All-Ireland medals for 100-mile trail runs

Paul Tierney walked away from hurling as an All-Ireland winner at 22.

PAUL TIERNEY’S LEGS had carried him 59 miles by the time he realised his first win in the Lakeland 100 was within touching distance — a feat he’d been trying to achieve since 2011.

After third and second-placed finishes in recent years, the 32-year-old Corkonian was the quickest of the 300-plus competitors to complete the exhausting course last weekend.

The race is known as the ‘Ultra Tour of the Lake District’ in England. A route that covers 105 miles over the lakeland fells, including more than six kilometres of ascent, Tierney started at 6pm on Friday evening and finished shortly after 2.30pm on Saturday.

His official time — 20 hours, 42 minutes and seven seconds — was the second-fastest in the history of the race. It was also a four-hour improvement on his first attempt four years ago, so he’s been gradually getting closer to top spot. But you don’t approach a race like this with records or results on your mind. Survival, not victory, is the initial aim.

photo 1 Paul Tierney passes through the Longsleddale valley after approximately 79 miles of the Lakeland 100. Source: Via Paul Tierney

“You can’t really tell exactly what’s going to happen,” Tierney explains. “I’ve ruined a few races in the last couple of years with stuff like running someone else’s pace instead of doing my own thing and letting the pieces fall into place. It’s basically a case of making everything as simple as possible for yourself and running your own race.

“It’s not like a 10k where you’re asking yourself if you should make a burst and you’re always thinking about the race. This is too long to be thinking race, race, race all the time. You’ve got to get to a certain point and then you can weigh up what’s going on and think about racing.

“That happened for me at mile-59. I came into the checkpoint and last year’s winner was only just leaving. That gave me a big boost. I didn’t have any expectation really in terms of time. I did want to go under my old time but I wasn’t looking at it too closely because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t listen to what was going on in my body and I’d probably end up fucking up again.”

Casual runners who have managed to complete a marathon or two will be familiar with the infamous metaphorical ‘wall’ that you generally encounter at some point during the latter stages of the 26.2 mile trek. As you’d expect, when the distance is multiplied by four, you’re forced to scale several of them.

The key, Tierney says, is to break the race down into segments and tackle each one as it comes, rather than reminding yourself at the 50-mile mark that you’ve still not even made it halfway. Psychologically, that approach makes the challenge easier to absorb.

“In 100-mile races, you might hit 10 points like that where you think: Fuck this, I can’t go on. The thing to remember, I think, and the reason I probably had a good race this year is because I didn’t throw the toys out of the pram or get completely negative.

“My plan going into the race was to just think of the next three miles, or just think of the distance to the next checkpoint. That’s what works because all you focus on is, do I need to have a drink, do I need a salt tablet, do I need something to eat? You’ve got stuff to occupy your mind the whole time and any time I found myself saying, ‘I’ve got another 70 miles left’, or whatever, I just quickly put it out of my mind and went back to thinking about those next three miles.

“That really helps but you still have times where you think you can’t run anymore. The difference between having a good race and a bad race is blocking out things like that. I think I was about 75 or 80 miles in and I remember slapping my face, trying to stay awake. I don’t know what it was because it was only one night of running; it wasn’t like it was a multi-day thing or anything. But I just felt like I was falling asleep standing up.

“But you just deal with it as well as you can and hope to come through the other side. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you can end up dropping out of these races, but I just happened to have a good day last week.”

The win was the most satisfying achievement of Tierney’s running career… but not of his life as a sportsman. The 2001 Cork Senior Hurling Championship final still stands out above anything else. With 19-year-old Tierney at midfield, Blackrock were 4-8 to 2-7 winners against an Imokilly team that included the likes of Joe Deane and Mark Landers.

inpho_00060574 Tierney tackles Paul Flynn during the 2001 Munster Club SHC final. Ballygunner were 2-14 to 0-12 winners. Source: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

“I still think beating Imokilly in 2001 was definitely the best,” Tierney says. “I know it might not be as big an achievement as some of the people you’d be interviewing, but that was definitely the best feeling I’ve had.

“Myself and Cash [team-mate David Cashman], we were 18 or 19 and we had all these players on the team that we looked up to, hugging us on the pitch and telling us how great we were. Back in the club afterwards, the whole parish and all the people we grew up with thought we were God almighty himself. It was absolutely brilliant. Doing what I’m doing now, it’s very, very different.

“It’s nice and I still have that competitive side in me, but it doesn’t really come close to that team thing; achieving something with the lads you played hurling with all the way up. That’s definitely the number one, although this is still probably close to that.”

That win over Imokilly gave Tierney the second of three Cork SHC medals. He was a substitute in 1999 when they beat UCC to end a 14-year wait for county honours and played a key role again when the city club retained their title in 2002 at Newtownshandrum’s expense.

Tierney was at centre-back for the Cork minors — a team which also featured Brian Murphy, Setanta O hAilpín and Tomás O’Leary — when they lost the 2000 All-Ireland final to Galway by a goal, and the Rockies man also went on to become a regular for the Rebels’ U21s, so his inclusion in the county’s senior panel for 2003 came as little surprise.

He watched on from the bench for the 2003 All-Ireland final as Cork lost to Kilkenny and had the same view again in 2004 as Donal O’Grady’s side returned to Croke Park to avenge the previous year’s defeat to the Cats in the decider. Tierney was still a young player who had to remain patient before breaking into an exceptional Cork starting line-up, but that wasn’t much consolation for him.

“With all due respect to my couple of years on the panel with Cork, winning an All-Ireland with them doesn’t come close to either of those other achievements I mentioned because I don’t feel like I contributed anything to it. I didn’t play.

“People will tell you that the subs are part of it, but to me that’s bollocks. I felt like a fraud, sitting on the bus and people are cheering for you.

“I just felt embarrassed, to be honest. I didn’t want to be there. Not that I didn’t want to be there, I suppose. It was a great experience. It’s just not how I wanted to be there.”

Despite being part of Cork’s National League panel in 2005, Tierney had just turned 23 when he quit hurling later that year. Always keen to augment his limitations as an athlete, triathlons were his next port of call. And that eventually led him to long-distance trail-running, among other pursuits, which is what continues to challenge him today.

There are no regrets about leaving hurling behind at such a young age, he insists, but the benefit of hindsight has taught him that his approach back then was slightly naive. Quantity, not quality, was his philosophy when it came to training.

“I wish I knew then what I know now,” says Tierney. “I was definitely doing the wrong type of training. I thought it was great. I thought if I train more than anyone else it’ll pay off and I’ll be starting for Cork. That’s all I wanted at the time; to get a place on the team. I was putting in hour upon hour every day, whether it was in a ball alley or in the gym.

inpho_00091135 Kilkenny's Derek Lyng being pursued by Cork's Paul Tierney during a National Hurling League game in April 2003. Source: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

“It wasn’t a case of training twice a week, plus a gym session and a match. I was there every day doing loads of stuff like that. But looking back, I wasn’t doing the right stuff at all. If I could turn the clock back I’d spend a lot more time focusing on my head; the mental side of it.

“I had practiced all the skills and had them covered, but as soon as you’d put me in a match situation, my performance would be determined by one thing: winning the first ball. If I didn’t win the first ball or even the second ball, my head started to worry and I’d get tense. Then when the ball came to me I could end up missing it completely because I was thinking negatively.

“Now, I’d certainly know how to control that better, throw caution to the wind and just drive on. Not think too much about what I was doing, basically.

“But I’ve moved beyond it at this stage, obviously. I don’t wake up wondering what might have happened. But I certainly would do things slightly differently if I had the time back. Whether that would make a difference, I don’t know, but the team was very good at the time and I can’t fault anyone who didn’t pick me because they picked the right team, as the results showed.

“I think back to certain things now that we’re talking about it; like in 2003, I was having a good pre-season with challenge matches and stuff, I was going pretty well. We played a game against Clare, or maybe Galway, and I remember I started the game really, really well.

“About 20 minutes in I was soloing through the middle of the field and hand-passed the ball off just before some guy came in and creamed me. He shouldered me straight on and I think I did my AC joint.

“At that point I was apparently supposed to be starting the first league game against Limerick instead of Mickey O’Connell, but the injury put me out for a few weeks and I never ended up starting that year. Mickey obviously went on and played in a Munster final and an All-Ireland final in midfield.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten injured and started that league game against Limerick. Maybe I would have gotten a break but, as I said, they picked the right team anyway. Donal O’Grady was a brilliant manager, a brilliant coach, and I’d only have positive things to say about him.”

Tierney may now be able to identify mistakes he was making during his time as a hurler, but that’s not to say that he suddenly became the finished product as soon as he took things in a different direction.

The nature of physical activity, athletic pursuits, the human body, is that each day is a lesson. It’s a constant learning process and Tierney’s approach has evolved to become more varied. He runs every day but, more often than not, there’s time for a second session too; gymnastics, climbing, parkour — low-intensity, movement-related exercise. Something different.

photo 2 Just outside Coniston, Paul Tierney approaches the end of the Lakeland 100 with one mile remaining. Source: Via Paul Tierney

Tierney has also been impacted by movement expert Ido Portal, who has a background in traditional martial arts and whose influence can possibly be seen in the likes of Ultimate Fighting Championship stars like Conor McGregor.

Tierney: “A good analogy is that, first of all, running is a healthy thing. It’s good for you. If you compare that to food, carrots are also good for you. But if all I survive on is carrots, I’m going to be deficient in a lot of things.

“You have to look at different types of movement like different types of nutrients, and different types of movement gives your body different things.

“If you starve yourself of movement, not just your body but your brain goes backwards too. The more good movement you can give your body, the better it’s going to be for you.

“That does have an influence on my running in the sense that I pay much more attention to how I run now. I do all the drills that I need to be doing to make sure that I can maintain a good form when I run; thereby, the longer I run, the less impact it has on my body because I’m doing it correctly.”

Recovery is also a vital element of Tierney’s outlook. Last Thursday, five days after putting himself through a 105-mile race, he came fourth in a nine-mile fell race. He entered in order ‘to see how the legs were, a bit of experimentation’.

“That’s something I never would have done three years ago but now I’m concentrating on specific running-related strength work, combined with running technique drills, and as a result I wasn’t as sore as I’d normally be after such a long race,” he explains.

“Complete rest is counter-productive to recovery. It’s best to keep moving at low intensity. I was able to do relatively well in that race on Thursday due to focusing on movement as part of my recovery.”

That all ties in with Tierney’s business venture — Missing Link Fitness — which offers outdoor movement classes, running technique coaching, sports massage and personal training near Windermere in the north-west of England, where he’s been based for the last couple of years.

photo 2 copy Paul Tierney pictured with his girlfriend Sarah (and an enthusiastic photo-bomber) after winning the Lakeland 100. Source: Via Paul Tierney

Nevertheless, he remains passionate about his roots in Blackrock and Cork hurling — even if some friends and former team-mates still struggle to comprehend what motivates him to endure such a gruelling discipline.

“It’s just pure enjoyment of being out in nice places and pushing yourself,” Tierney says. “To be honest, I prefer shorter fell or mountain races because you can really push hard. I suppose if you wanted to equate it to something, look at crossfit and the buzz people get from really, really pushing themselves hard for a specific amount of time and then resting.

“You get a really good buzz from doing something like that and that’s similar to short fell races, where you absolutely smash yourself to get to the top of a hill, then you turn around and you get to run three-and-a-half-minute miles down some rocky slope. It’s a big adrenaline rush and that’s my favourite kind of running.

“I never have to say: Oh no, I have to go out for a run today. I just enjoy it. My girlfriend, Sarah, is quite a good runner and sometimes we’ll do hard sessions together but it’s never a chore. You might sometimes be dreading it just beforehand but really you’re looking forward to it. It’s just another way of pushing your body. I always find it enjoyable.”

Setting records might not be the target when you’ve got over 100 miles to get through before the finish line appears on the horizon, but it’ll certainly be on Paul Tierney’s mind if he returns for the Lakeland 100 in the summer of 2016.

“You’re not really worried about times when you’re going into it. The mindset is just to get around it, and if you win or finish in the top three then that’s brilliant. I would like to say that I could have a go off the record but I’m still 50 minutes behind it. It could be made up but not easily.”

If he manages it, the win over Imokilly might finally have to settle for second place.

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Paul Dollery

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