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'I'll be on the line knowing I've really earned this one. It has been a tough ride'

From the high of the Rio Olympics, Sara Treacy endured a difficult two years but after being plagued by injury and self-doubt, the Meath runner is back racing for Ireland again.

SARA TREACY WAS shifting through the gears, coming into her running prime.

Samokov, 2014. A career-best 12th place finish at the European Cross Country Championships, helping the Ireland women’s senior team to a bronze medal.

2015 was fruitful, too. The Irish national champion over 1,500 metres and 3,000 metres steeplechase, as well as the British 3,000 metres indoor champion. Motoring now. The curve was only going in one direction.

Sara Treacy Treacy in action at the Rio Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And then Rio, 2016. Up another gear, as a career break from medicine to invest everything in athletics signalled her intentions. The form and shape of her life. Despite a bad fall in the steeplechase heats, a 17th place finish in the Olympic final at the Estádio Olímpico Nilton Santos.

Initial disappointment, a bittersweet feeling, as the injury carried over from the semi-final compromised her performance on the biggest stage, but there was hugely encouraging evidence of her potential. Room to improve. Only the start, and big things and bold plans ahead.

Then, a roadblock. And setback-after-setback, injury-after-injury. Stagnation, frustration, self-doubt. Two years of it. Back to square one, start all over again. Maybe Rio was the peak, and this was the comedown.

“Not long after the Olympics I picked up an injury that I spent a long time trying to get rid of,” Treacy explains. Treacy laments.

I was in a bad injury cycle, and kept getting more problems. I was in a rut and couldn’t get out of it.

Treacy spent much of the winter after Rio in rehab. A shoulder injury was compounded by a knee problem diagnosed as iliotibial band syndrome, which caused pain and tenderness to the thigh and just above the knee joint. She would get back on the track, and then suffer a relapse.

Her recovery graph was wildly oscillating, less the desired straight upward line. In the space of an eight-month period, the 29-year-old recalls starting and stopping her comeback seven times, having to start that unbearably monotonous process from scratch again. Whatever about the physical strain, the mental fatigue was draining.

“It was just a really frustrating time,” Treacy continues. “I went from being on an absolute massive high in Rio, and I came back and had all these plans. I wanted to go to the World Championships in London the following summer and was really excited to push on from where I had got to in Rio.

“I felt I didn’t get to do myself justice out there by having that fall. I never really got to show exactly where I was at. I was looking forward to coming back and really pushing on but I just hit this injury rut.”

From scaling the ladder through hard work and sacrifice, the Meath native was left helpless as it all unravelled around her, the only thing she could do was to watch on as the sport — and her peers — moved on and up without her. Would she ever get back?

Sara Treacy The Meath runner has endured a difficult few years with injuries. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

2017 came and went like that, the World Championships, the indoor season, the cross country season. And Treacy was no closer to a comeback. It would have been easy to leave it all behind, because as the self-doubt pervaded her thoughts, so too did things outside of athletics.

“The longer you’re out, the other things in your life kind of start to get your attention. I had been putting my medical career on hold to do athletics and was making these big choices to just focus on running, yet I wasn’t even able to train properly, let alone compete.

“You start to question ‘Am I ever going to get back to that level and have I had my best years already?’

“These things go through your head because I kept getting injuries. I couldn’t get rid of them. I wasn’t getting that positive stimulus from training because it wasn’t going well, I was just doing rehab.

I had put my medical career on hold for quite some time and I was wondering should I be doing it much longer. But even still, athletics was very much on my mind. I kept telling myself ‘I haven’t retired, I’m still very much an athlete.’

Retaining a steely and indefatigable determination to regain her fitness — perhaps because running is, quite literally, in her genes — Treacy remained committed and focused on getting back, juggling work and training, not to mention getting married towards the end of 2017.

Treacy moved to England to study medicine at Birmingham University in 2007, and has been based there ever since, completing her studies and qualifying as a doctor. After Rio, she was stationed in Worcester Hospital in paediatrics, but long hours and change are part of the job.

The progress was slow, but it was better than none at all. Small steps, retain the faith. Be patient.

There were countless throwback photos on Instagram, remembering the times she was at the heart of championship races, rather than watching from afar. Reminiscing about the good and memorable days travelling the world in the green of Ireland with friends and team-mates. But there was always a message; it will come. She will be back.

Under the guidance of veteran coach Bud Baldaro, and with the support of her husband Callum, Treacy negotiated the pitfalls and moved forward. Local road races over 5km distance were the initial litmus test. A million miles from the Olympics, but this was her Olympics now.

Just run, and not break down. Take the small wins and build on them.

“I knew if I could get back running with my club, I could go from there,” she explains. “It was tough, but I really enjoyed it and got the love back for running. It was the first time I could actually train consistently so it was a start.”

Sara Treacy Treacy finished 17th in Rio. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As Treacy’s comeback gained momentum, she received a big boost in the form of an ‘International’ level Sport Ireland grant of €12,000 for 2018, another indication of just how highly regarded she is as a high performance and international athlete even after the injury problems.

If anything, the support and backing imbued her with further motivation to scale those heights again, and overcome all the hurdles that life had thrown in her way since Rio.

“I kind of owed it to everyone to keep going,” Treacy says. “I felt, whatever was going on in my head, I had to just do it and get back.”

True to her word, Treacy hit her markers and made a welcome return at the Irish National Athletics Championships at Morton Stadium back in July, having stepped up the recovery effort in the early months of 2018 after endless hours and miles of toil.

It was a significant juncture for the Dunboyne AC runner as she could put to bed the demons of the preceding 24 injury-ravaged months, and a second-place finish in the 3,000m steeplechase behind fellow Olympian Michelle Finn left huge grounds for optimism.

“It was a tough slog,” she laughs, but the smile was back on her face. This moment may have never arrived, she may never have got back to this level, yet there is always that danger of wanting too much, too quickly.

It must be tough, as a former national champion and Olympian, to accept that you have come back a different athlete. All of those past glories, past successes, past wins, past podium finishes and personal bests mean nothing. The slate is wiped clean, but everyone — including yourself — expects normal service to resume. The head says one thing, the body says another. 

“Yeah, the summer just gone was really disappointing,” Treacy admits. “I raced and did a few steeplechases, and while I tried to be positive about it, you get caught up by what you used to do.

“I didn’t break down in a race which was obviously good but ultimately I was running over 30 seconds slower than I was the last time I was racing. I had come back a completely different athlete. I think deep down I knew I was going to come back in some shape or form, but it took a lot longer than I thought. That’s probably the hardest part.”

As Treacy was managing the physical and emotional toll of her increased training load on the track, August brought a change in job as she moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham to begin Core Medical Training, the two-year part of postgraduate medical training.

While it meant work was now less than two miles from home, considerably reducing her daily commute, the nature of it brought greater demands on Treacy and her time, at a point when she was back pushing for national honours and international selection.

The irony, however, is that the toughest months of the year from a work perspective have coincided with her best running form since 2016, as Treacy earned selection for her ninth European Cross Country Championships this Sunday.

The Ireland Senior Women team celebrate with their bronze medals Celebrating European Cross Country bronze in 2014. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

A fifth-place finish at the recent National Cross Country Championships in Abbotstown was not her desired result, but again Treacy is cognisant of the fact she cannot get ahead of herself and compare times and finishes with where she was before the injuries.

Four years after helping Ireland to European bronze, Treacy will be back in the green vest on the start line in Tilburg on Sunday morning, alongside national champion Ciara Mageean, Finn, Kerry O’Flaherty, Ann Marie McGlynn and Fionnuala Ross.

It’s hard to know what will be going through her head because while it is a stage she is no stranger to, this will undoubtedly feel different. Perhaps in a good way, but getting back to this level has been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows and fluctuating emotions.

It has required immense mental fortitude, commitment and perseverance and for that, Treacy has achieved so much in getting back to the start line. For so long, for so many reasons, she doubted whether she’d ever get back, but others around her believed when she simply couldn’t. When there was no escaping injury hell.

“One of the things that got me back was thinking of Rio,” she explains. “I just kept thinking I couldn’t leave it the way I left Rio. That was one of the big overriding things when I was injured, I just can’t end my career like that.

“My second last race I fell, and then raced in the Olympic final with swollen ankles and a swollen knee. I felt rubbish. I couldn’t end my athletics career like that and ever since have felt like I’ve unfinished business.

“But first and foremost I just needed to get out of the rut and hopefully, after doing the hard part so to speak, I’m out the other side.”

At 12.35pm tomorrow, the starting gun will sound for the European Cross Country Championships senior women’s race, as 283 runners from 38 different countries set off to tackle the 8km course.

In 2012, Treacy was part of the Irish team that won gold and in Samokov four years ago, she finished just outside the top 10 in a time of 29.23. It is an event which holds so many happy memories, so it is therefore fitting that it is here, at these championships, where the start of the next chapter begins for Treacy.

“It does feel a bit different, but words can’t describe how excited I am. It’s amazing to be back at this level and I’m excited about it, but I do feel like I’ve really worked hard for it this time around.

Kerry O'Flaherty, Sara Treacy and Michelle Finn Back smiling: With Kerry O'Flaherty and Michelle Finn at the National Championships in July. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It has been a rollercoaster to get back and with work being demanding recently, I have found it really difficult. I’ll be on the line and I’ll know I’ve really, really earned this one. I do feel like…it has been a tough ride and I’m glad I’m back there and hopefully I’m going to push on from here. I want it just as much as anyone else, maybe more. I just want it to go well so badly.”

That’s the very least Treacy deserves.

Stay positive, stay focused. Small targets, realistic expectations. One rep at a time, one race at a time. Trust the process. It will come. 

“I don’t know what level I’m going to be at when I go this year. I’m really hoping for a good run and a good finish, but I don’t really know,” she adds. 

“I need to go in and run smart and be a bit savvy running the race. I can’t get caught up in the emotion of being there. I have to set my realistic and achievable expectations and can reassess what it all means afterwards. I feel like I’m almost getting carried away, even talking now, because if I lose the run of myself, I’m not going to run that well.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, I’ve only had a couple of months of consistent work. There’s a lot more I can do. I feel like this is the start of the next few years. It’s hugely positive to be back and a really good confidence boost for me but I’m not there yet, there’s so much work to be done.”

Above all, however, Sara Treacy is back running for Ireland again. Back on that upward curve. 

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Ryan Bailey

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