Wednesday, 9 December 2020

A weekend to remember; a weekend we can never forget

"You wouldn’t get this sort of hospitality in Kinsale, would you?", dad joked, prouder that he’d beaten me to the now regular reminder of that unplanned, late February weekend in Kinsale, than he was of the humour itself.

After being bedridden for almost two weeks with a virus (yes, the v word) from hell and unable to travel to England for a cross country race as planned, I made a last-minute decision to take the parents to Cork and meet up with some friends.

Such rash, last-minute plans, well outside tourist season, left us with zero choice in way of accommodation; we took the last room in town. 'Reasonably priced family room.' 'Central location.' 'Harbour view.' What could possibly go wrong?

After travelling across the south of the country with no great hurry on us, we arrived in Kinsale as the light was beginning to fade. We briefly stopped by the guest house and I ran in to pick up the key – we weren’t going to waste time on idle chitchat, though it later transpired that the landlady had a similar minimalist approach to her hosting duties – and we set about exploring the sites of the area. Not for the last time that weekend, we travelled all the back roads, via James Fort and Sandycove to windswept Old Head.

With a strong family principle of never returning the same way as we came, we took the only other road off the peninsula and returned to Kinsale via Ballinaspidal and its once-famous grotto. Exhausted from the day’s travels, it was difficult to conceive how busloads of Catholics, considerably more committed than ourselves, once made the 400-kilomtere round-trip from Wexford on a weekly basis and maintained a thriving local economy focused on moving statues and the like.

Drive-by pilgrimage complete, we headed to Dinos for a fish and chip supper.  “The Irish don't play games with their potatoes”, one reviewer had commented online. “Their fish and chips are the bomb.com!” I need say no more.

With bellies almost full, and dessert procured from the Centra across the road, we retired to our room-for-three to unwind.

Plans to enjoy aforementioned baked goods in a cosy room with a warm cup of tea were, however, overly optimistic.

Not only was the room cold – read ‘Baltic’ – but we couldn’t find the kettle. The heating, it seemed, had just been turned on, possibly for the first time in months, so there was nothing to it but to climb beneath the sheets, turn on the telly, and wait it out.

Only the telly didn’t work either.

I’m not sure who commented first, but I’m glad, convalescent and all that I was, that I wasn’t the only one to notice that the bed sheets were damp! The radiator – groaning to life as it was – wasn’t going to be enough to sort out this mess. I could only hope that the clothes I’d left on to keep me warm would also help keep me dry.

***

Thanks to body heat alone, we survived. And headed down to breakfast with misplaced confidence that things couldn’t get any worse.

When the Weetabix wrapper, my cereal of choice, didn’t have its usual crunchy feel to it, I quickly opted for the cornflakes, or own-brand alternative thereof. Unfortunately the lifeless flakes were already in the bowl by the time I realised they too were a relic of tourist seasons past.

“Excuse me, can we have some more orange juice, please?”, I called after the landlady, attempting to procure for Dad some more of the one consumable item we’d been carefully rationed.

“You can have this”, one of the guests at the table behind us declared, filling the hesitant void which represented not so much a refusal as a non-starter on the behalf of our host. “Our friend won’t be making it down for breakfast.” Either he’d been forewarned, or he was quite partial to Kinsale’s version of the waterbed!

“Grand” the proprietor declared, picking the glass of this apparently valuable commodity and placing it in front of Dad.

The small victory, however, soon turned as sour as the milk in our bowls, as our disbelieving eyes followed her towards the kitchen with the remains of the half glass dad had earlier managed to barter from mam.

This was hospitality to make Basil Faulty blush.

***

There was a collective sigh of relief as we made it out to the car, and set out on another day of adventure. I spent the following hours taking finish-line photos of the hundreds of runners, walkers and strollers who had completed the Kinsale 10 Mile – a race which my friend organises – consuming triangular sandwiches, and entertaining her twin girls. There was even tea, in Styrofoam cups, dispensed from a Burco boiler!

The parents, well and truly infected with the adventurers’ bug, headed to Galley Head, and took in all that the initial miles of the Wild Atlantic Way has to offer.

Following our reunion later that afternoon, we said our goodbyes to the Breens, and looked forward to all the all the athletics events we’d see them at over the summer.

We took the High Road out of Kinsale, through the narrow streets of Summercove, before stopping by Charles’ Fort. The unwritten rules for such journeys are that mam drives where she’s told, I, with a couple of maps on my lap, choose the route, and dad, with prime view from the passenger seat, comments on the relative abundance or lack of sheep, cattle, and tillage in each of the townlands we encounter.

And that afternoon there were plenty of directions given and received, and much farmland to be commented on. Bellgooley, Ballyfeard, Meane Bridge, Carrigaline. It’s as if we knew it would be a while until we could do it all again. Passage West, and the bypassing of the daunting Jack Lynch tunnel, was a highlight for our driver, as we took the ferry across the River Lee. We headed back to the mainland past Fota Island, and resolved to return to visit Cobh in the summer. We all agreed that these trips were going to become a more regular feature in our lives.

***

Two weeks later, the world stopped. 

It’s likely that in years to come time will be referred to as either BC – before Covid – or AD: after dat! 

But for us, that weekend in Kinsale changed everything, forever.

We were reminded that the good life isn’t all about meticulously planned vacations, luxury accommodation, and gourmet meals.

It’s about seizing every moment and ringing it for everything it’s worth.

Just a shame someone didn’t do that with the bedsheets!

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Let me give you an analogy.

Sometimes, in my crazier moments, I consider resitting the Leaving Cert.

I have a lingering curiosity as to whether, almost quarter of a century on, I would do better or worse.

The conditions would be quite different.

I’d have the benefit of twenty-three years of real-life experience and knowledge acquisition and assimilation.

I’d approach with a greater sense of self-confidence and self-worth.

I would not have the benefit of two years of intensive and focused study and revision.

I would, however, have better, easier ways of learning and remembering crucial facts.

There would be a less riding on the results. I’d be less nervous. I probably wouldn’t be as motivated.

Whether or not I’d do better or worse remains in the balance. 

But that’s exactly why I’d want to embark on such a venture.

If I did do better in those exams now than I did in 1997, I would, in fact, be better at those exams now than I was in 1997.

If I did worse, it would be down to the effort I put into revision (the training, let’s call it); the way in which I approached the exams (let’s, for arguments sake, call that my motivation, or, dare I say it, my mindset); other factors specific to that particular day (the conditions); or bad luck with the questions asked (the opposition).

Perhaps you can start to see where I’m going with this?

Now, not only has my knowledge (hopefully) improved, but so has technology. All the knowledge needed to complete a good leaving certificate exam is available at my fingertips. Typing a few key words into a smarter-than-me phone will give me the information I need to answer questions on everything from algebra to zygotes. Yes, I still need to know what the question is asking, to own and know how to use the phone, and to take from it the information I need to maximise the marks awarded.

I’d still need to put the work in.

If technological assistance was suddenly allowed, however, not only would it not be the same race as the original Leaving Certificate.

It wouldn’t even be the same sport.

...

I wouldn’t really resit the Leaving Cert.

Not ever.

But every year since 2003, the last time that I set a steeplechase PB, I’ve been resitting that particular athletics exam; trying to see if I can replicate or improve on the result or, since getting older, just how close I can get.

The conditions are not the same every year. But the sport is.

Or at least it was.

I’ve become a wiser, smarter racer and a better judge of pace. I train smarter. I’d like to think that I’m better at the technical aspects of the event.

I even, occasionally, do some cramming (some call it altitude training).

But I’m older. Much older. I can’t bang out 400m sessions like I used to. I don’t train as hard as I once did. Some days I’m not even all that motivated.

But I’m still curious. Still curious how close I can get to that ancient PB.

When I come close, as I did in 2011, I appreciate how very different training can lead to similar results in the same sport.

When I don’t, I receive a timely reminder that I should have better appreciated my best results (along with my Leaving Cert grades) when they happened.

Better or worse, I have fun comparing where I am now to where I was then.

Soon I won’t even have that.

But when I sit my (probable) final steeplechase test next summer, I won’t be doing it with a smarter-than-me phone in my hand, or a faster-than-me pair of spikes on my feet.

I’m not interested in a different exam.

I’m only interested in the old one.

And not only will the spikes be similar to the ones I wore when I last broke 11 minutes, but, God and some superglue willing, they’ll literally be the same pair!

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

If I was an athlete...


If I was an athlete…

… I’d be getting ahead by putting my feet up!

It seems that, at every turn, I’ve been the big bad reality wolf recently, quashing people’s hopes that they’re going to finally get to play that promotion game, reminding them that even a truncated or delayed season was a faint reality.

But, finally, the sports world seems to be coming to the realisation that 2020 just isn’t going to happen.

And while every man and his training-partner dog has been busy demonstrating that they are tougher and more resilient than the next, devising a mega weights workout for their back garden, or calculating just how many miles they can tot up within a two kilometres of their house, the clever ones have been saying nothing.

In a competitive world, becoming ever more professionalised, sportspeople have been conditioned to prove that they want it more than the next, to fight against all the odds, to not, for one second, give up hope. It’s as though they must always fight to the bitter end, or to die trying, only stopping when they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming from the battlefield.

And that’s part of what makes sportspeople so special.

There’s little room, then, in that world for the ones who’ve played this smart. The ones who walked away as soon as the going got tough. The ones who figured that life itself was the only thing we’d be battling for this year. The ones who realised that being sensible, saving the strain for a later date, would yield greater results.

So often sportspeople talk about the sacrifices they make. The time they miss with their children. The lives put on hold. The constant effort. The pain.

And while not all alternatives are possible right now, there are still many opportunities to catch up on some of those missed life experiences. To give the body a break and let it fully recover for once. To do new things. To prepare for life after sport. To, perhaps, extend a career at the other end.

Whether you’re currently uncovering mental resolve you never know you had as you sprint up the stairs for the 400th time today, or you’re giving the body the first holiday it has had in years as you finally crack on with that online course you’d put on the long finger, 2020 will certainly be a year to remember.

But if you're not rolling around the garden in tears of laughter after doing wheelbarrow races with those unluckly enough to share your space, you're probably doing this wrong!

Thursday, 2 January 2020

What would I do?

Imagine you're a coach.

Maybe you already are.

Your star female athlete, after months of concern, has finally plucked up the confidence to speak to you. She’s heard and read much about the consequences of amenorrhoea, and feels that it’s time she shared with you the things that have been bothering her.

She hasn’t had a period since she upped her mileage and became more disciplined (read: “obsessive”) about her diet, eighteen months ago. The nagging pain in her foot, which gets worse the further she runs, is also a concern.

How, as a coach, do you respond?

Is your first reaction: “Oh no, the ‘P’ word! Periods are too embarrassing for me to talk about!”

Now, just imagine you’ve got past the initial discomfort, and accepted that it’s probably more awkward for the athlete to talk about periods than it is for you. Do you then question why you need to know?

Are you unaware of the risks of amenorrhoea (i.e. the absences of a regular period), under-eating, increased training and the resultant energy imbalance? And that the persistent, nagging pain might indicate a stress fracture?

Or maybe you know a bit about the issues (or have quickly educated yourself via your search engine of choice), but still question how this is relevant to you? Afterall, you’re a coach, not a doctor!

And it can’t be that bad, can it? Your athlete doesn’t have an eating disorder. If she had an eating disorder you’d know about it, wouldn’t you? She’s not even that thin, you think. If she’s not that thin, there can’t be a problem, right?

Wrong!

Now, let’s just suppose that your athlete is excessively thin. Everyone has been remarking about how ‘in shape’ she looks. She is lean and running well. Changes have happened since she’s upped her training and visited the nutritionist. And there’s been the big race wins, the personal bests and international call-ups.

Long may the good-times roll!

Then someone suggests that her thinness may be becoming excessive. Having been away at university all term, her parents haven’t seen her in a few months. When they do see her, they barely recognise her, and express their concern.

Do you try to reassure them by saying that’s all part of the bigger plan? She’s turning into a real athlete now, and being thin is all part of that.

Are you too close to notice just how excessive, dramatic and damaging the changes have been?

When the parents suggest that her absent periods may also be an issue, do you explain that away too as a normal by-product of training harder. Do you remind them that this happens to many female athletes? Do you suggest that it’s more difficult to find an endurance athlete with a regular period than it is to find one that doesn’t?

Are you naive enough to question if she’s better off without them anyway?

Or do you know and understand the risks, and the devastating long-term affect on an athlete’s health, but either consciously, or unconsciously, feel that this is something that just happens to athletes in other training groups?

Or do you know and care, and want to help, but just don’t know where to start, or who can help? Afterall there’s lots of information out there on the dangers, but very little advice on what to do next!

Have you tried seeking assistance for cases like this in the past, and struggled to get the assistance and advice you needed?

Are you being told by the ‘professionals’ that this is ‘normal’, or that issues with your athlete are not yet bad enough to warrant intervention?

Or, do you fall into the most dangerous category of all? Do you see all the warning signs, and say nothing? Do you simply hope that your athlete will be the one athlete that gets away with it?

Long may the good times roll, eh?

But they don’t, do they? The bad times roll much longer.

Always!

Amenorrhoea: the next steps


Much has been written about RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) and the Female Athlete Triad - the causes and consequences in particular – but considerably less information has been provided on what to do next and where someone who is experiencing amenorrhoea can seek help.

Unfortunately, delayed menarche (primary amenorrhoea), and the absence of periods (secondary amenorrhoea) have all too often become accepted consequences of endurance training. While common, these hormonal imbalances, which have severe long-term consequences, should never be considered normal, or even an expected side-effect of training for endurance events.


RED-S and the Female Athlete Triad

The Female Athlete Triad – the co-existence of disordered eating, menstrual irregularities and sub-optimal bone health among female sportspeople – has been expanded over the years.  RED-S recognises that poor bone health isn’t the only consequence of energy imbalance; that males can be affected too; and that the energy imbalance resulting in menstrual disruption isn’t always due to an eating disorder, or even intentional energy restriction.

And while the shift in terminology removes the blame and has helped break down the taboo around the subject, there are some potential pitfalls. While not all energy deficit is the result of an eating disorder, the softer terminology associated with RED-S means that eating disorders are sometimes overlooked.

Eating disorders are a group of complex and serious mental illness, with potentially fatal consequences, which will not be cured by simply increasing energy intake. They must be treated with specialist support, including psychotherapy.


Amenorrhoea: a major warning

Another potential downfall of the softer language of RED-S is that we lose how big a red flag the absence of menstrual bleeding is.

Yes, in some cases, hormone levels can be reduced, and bone health compromised, long before menstrual function disappears. But amenorrhoea is the best single warning sign we have that something is not quite right, and should always be followed up.

As with eating disorders, the GP is the best first port-of-call, but, as with eating disorders, a GP may well explain amenorrhoea away as a normal response to endurance training.

Common? Yes. Normal? No. Serious? Absolutely!


Get your bone mineral density checked

Osteopenia - reduced bone mineral density - is the most common, significant, and long-lasting side-effect of reduced energy intake and low hormone levels. Low body mass, low body fat, and a limited variety of impact forces can add to osteopenia risk in distance runners.

Distance runners, particularly females, should have their BMD checked every few years. The short, pain-less DEXA scan can give you a good indication of your current bone mineral health, and relevant populations can often have these scans done free as part of research studies.


Treatment

Amenorrhoea can be caused by things other than energy deficiency, including genetics, and the first step a GP should take is to rule out underlying medical causes, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and hypothalamus or pituitary gland issues.

Athletes experiencing RED-S, or the components of the Female Athlete Triad, are likely to be treated in a variety of ways. In the past individuals would have routinely been prescribed oral hormonal contraceptives and sent away, hoping for the best, and while this may often still be the case, it is not current best practice.

The best treatment is a return of regular menses. This may involve increasing energy intake, gaining weight and/or reducing exercise volume. For already obsessed athletes, missing training and increasing weight may be daunting, and this is where coach, family and peer group support is crucial, and long-term development must be emphasised.

Other dietary interventions, including increased calcium and vitamin D intake (or supplementation), are likely to also be recommended. As is some form of hormonal replacement therapy, particularly if bone mineral density is already impaired.

The sooner the issues are resolved, the better the outcome. Athletes experiencing primary and secondary amenorrhoea should seek medical help as early as possible. If your GP is reluctant to intervene, see the help of a specialist sports doctor.


Get involved in research

Research continues to be an important component in expanding our current knowledge and treatment of amenorrhoea and osteopenia. DEXA scans, while great for picking up osteopenia, are poor at predicting osteopenia in the future. Bone marker tests may be better.

Similarly, there may be better prevention and treatment methods than those currently applied. And if we enhance our understanding of why some athletes are more susceptible to menstrual dysfunction than others, then we can become better at prevention.

It is important, therefore, that athletic individuals donate their body to science as and when the opportunity arises.


What coaches, parents and other support staff can do

Coaches shouldn’t be afraid to ask female athletes about their current menstrual status. While this shouldn’t be a public conversation, the topic should be one that is openly discussed.

Stress fractures – particularly recurrent or slow healing ones – are often an indication of underlying low bone mineral density and hormonal or dietary issues. They can be used as a conversation starter, and a prompt to encourage an athlete to discuss RED-S with their GP.

Always encourage athletes to seek professional advice and treatment when they are experiencing some or all of the elements of the female athlete triad.

Be prepared to provide support around the treatment that they are receiving and any training adjustments that are required. As previously mentioned, reducing training volume or increasing weight may be a difficult proposition for some athletes.

Always take a long-term approach to training and development, and encourage athletes to do the same. Advising against dieting, sudden weight loss, and an obsession with being thin can help, and positive body image, no matter what an individual’s current shape or size, should always be encouraged.

Prevention is always better than cure, and we all play a role. Too many athletics careers are prematurely derailed by stress-fractures and other injuries resulting from RED-S.

Eating disorders: what we can do to help

I turn away in tears, no longer able to watch the near-skeletal figure on the treadmill across the gym pounding out mile after joyless mile.

I am upset not just because of how thin this individual is, and the potentially-fatal strain their body is under, but also because I am aware how much someone is inevitably hurting, emotionally, by the time they reach this point.

Most of all, I am upset because I feel unable to help.

How many of us have been in similar situations, where we’ve encountered someone clearly suffering from an eating disorder, with or without exercise addition or other mental health issues, and felt that we could not intervene?

Is it a lack of expertise that is holding us back? Or the feeling that it is not our place to say something? With denial a major feature of eating disorders, are we simply afraid that the individual will turn down our offer of help?

We can’t force a grown adult to seek treatment against their will. At least not unless they are an immediate harm to themselves or others. But we can certainly offer help.

And while we’re considering whether or not it’s our place to say something, or our responsibility to intervene, we should take a moment to put the taboo of eating disorders aside.

If this was an individual standing on a bridge, ready to jump, I wouldn’t be concerned that my offer of help was untimely or out of place. Nor would I worry that I might make matters worse. I probably wouldn’t even think twice before dialling 999.

If I was a barman and a customer was clearly over-indulging in my goods, to the point that their health and wellbeing were clearly in danger, I would be legally obliged to stop serving them.

Why does the same not apply to those exercising to the point of self-destruction?

Why are eating disorders so different?


Not all eating disorders are visible

And this is just with anorexia that has progressed to the point that it is physically obvious! If we can’t support with these, how can we even consider supporting the large number of individuals who are engaging in destructive eating behaviours that have no obvious physical signs.

Most individuals suffering from Bulamia, for example, maintain a constant weight, but the binging and purging practices which characterise the illness also have severe physical and mental consequences for the individual.

Those with early stage anorexia may also not display any excessive weight loss or physical changes. Particularly in a distance running environment, where thinness is common, the individual’s health may already be severely compromised by the time their illness becomes physically evident.

Changes in mood, feelings and behaviours may be better early warning signs in these cases.

A comprehensive list of warning signs can be found on the website of Beat (the British Eating Disorder Charity).


Intervention is not easy, but it’s unquestionably necessary

Did you know that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders? People aged 15-24 years with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their age-matched peers. Approximately half of these deaths are sudden cardiac deaths.

In the US, one person dies as the direct result of their eating disorder every 62 minutes! We don’t have similar figures for the UK or Ireland, but death rates are high and sudden death is a real possibility!

Add to that the fact that the earlier an eating disorder is treated, the greater the chance of recovery. Oh, and that many individuals suffering for an eating disorder often do not realise the extent of their destructive behaviour, and the importance of intervening becomes a little bit more obvious.

Many athletes, when sharing their eating disorder stories, will mention a trigger point to them seeking help – often somebody else intervening – or a wish that someone had said something sooner.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They very, very rarely improve without professional treatment, and early treatment significantly increases the chance of recovery!

So, while we’re worrying whether now is the best time, or wondering what the right thing to say is, there’s someone who just needs us to say something.


Denial an issue

Denial is a major characteristic of eating disorders. If you suggest to an individual that you think they aren’t eating enough or are too thin, then the chances are that they have an answer for that. They are likely to explain it away.

In a distance running context this is even more likely, where extremely low body weight is not only highly accepted, but often expected.

The general advice when offering support to someone with an eating disorders is to approach in a place which is private, quiet and comfortable for them. Avoid approaching at meal times, or in any other environment in which they may be more uncomfortable or anxious that they normally are.

You should listen and communicate non-judgementally. Ask the individual about how they are feeling, and care about their answers. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) manual recommends that you focus on specific behaviours that concern you and the underlying emotional distress they may be feeling, rather than weight, food or appearance.

There is the possibility that your sensitive, non-judgemental approach is brushed off, or treated with defensiveness or even anger. But that doesn’t mean that your conversation has not been worth the effort. The individual may need time before accepting help.

There is even a chance that they are relieved to have the opportunity to talk about their feelings. They may even have been waiting for someone to reach out. It’s just as important to be prepared for a positive response to your offer of help.


First steps

Both Beat and Bodywhys, the Irish Eating Disorders Association, recommend that visiting the GP is the first step on the road to treatment. However, with stretched healthcare resources, it is not without its drawbacks!

B-eat has an excellent resource on their website to prepare individuals for the reluctance to refer they may experience. It has advice and prepared answers to possible misunderstandings they may encounter.

No individual who feels they have an issue should come away from a GP appointment without a referral for a specialist eating disorder assessment. They especially shouldn’t be told that their eating disorder is not yet severe enough.

It is also worth noting that while many dietitians will have some awareness of and training in eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia are mental illnesses, and will not be resolved by dietary intervention alone.


Treatment

Once an individual has been assessed, depending on the stage of the eating disorder and the severity of the weight loss, inpatient treatment may be required.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend outpatient psychological support involving Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy or other appropriate therapy or counselling delivered by an eating-disorder specialist.

For those under 18, family therapy should also be recommended. Exercise may be contraindicated, particularly in the early stages of treatment.

The Beat and Bodywhy helplines both give advice not just for those suffering with an eating disorder, but also for those supporting them. Parents, friends and, potentially, coaches will play an important role in recovery, which may take some time.


In summary

If you know someone who may be suffering from an eating disorder, approach them in an empathetic and non-judgemental way. Yes, it will be a difficult conversation, but it may just be the one that enables them to seek the support that they need.

The Beat and Bodywhys helplines can provide advice on how to raise the issue with an individual, who may or may not respond in a receptive way. But don’t give up hope.

The GP is the first port-of-call on a long road to recovery. No individual should be turned away because they are “not yet thin enough”, or that they are “just going through a phase”.

Early intervention is crucial! With the right support recovery is not only possible, but likely.

If that was me on the treadmill, slogging through my third gym session of the day, I might not fully appreciate the offer of help from a caring, non-judgemental stranger. It might not be what I want. 

But it might just be what I need.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Doping: Ireland excelling at both hypocrisy and apathy

The date: 1st March 2008.

The venue: Queen’s University Playing Fields in Belfast.

The mood: sombre, yet defiant.

A portion of the sizable crowd that have gathered to watch the final stages of Senior Men’s race at the Irish inter-club Cross Country Championships boo as Leevale’s Cathal Lombard wins the title ahead of South-African born Alistair Cragg. The remainder watch quietly in disappointment.

Lombard is making his first appearance at a national level following a two-year doping ban for EPO use. The message the Belfast crowd deliver is loud and clear: Lombard is not welcome. He may have served his time in the eyes of anti-doping bodies, but not in the eyes of Irish athletics fans. They are a much tougher crowd to win around.

Lombard announced his retirement from athletics that afternoon. We’ll never really know if that was always his intention, or if the cold reception he received in Belfast (and at lower key races over the previous months) expediated his decision to walk away. Either way, he never ran competitively again. And few were disappointed to see the back of him.

***

Fast forward to November 2009 and news has just broken in Ireland that Spanish racewalker Francisco (Paquillo) Fernandez has committed an anti-doping rule violation. Over the coming months various versions of the story emerge. By the time the case is heard before the Court of Arbitration for Sport the fact that the Olympic and three-time world silver medallist was found in possession of multiple doping products, including EPO, previously purchased with intent to use, was no longer contested. Ban dates are the only thing debated in a case which we were originally led to believe was a set-up.

As the original news emerged in Ireland, national governing body officials were quick to distance themselves from the then shamed Spaniard, despite his close ties with Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane. Perhaps fearful of a backlash from the fans who were so vocally unforgiving in Lombard’s case, Patsy McGonagle, the then Athletics Ireland High Performance Committee Chairman, tried to reassure the Irish public whose taxes help fund high performance athletes, by stating that Heffernan and Loughnane were both largely based in Ireland and only had occasional contact with Fernandez. He added that "in the circumstances we must reassess that arrangement and we will definitely be making alternative technical coaching arrangements for our athletes".

Whatever those “alternative technical coaching arrangements” were, they never seemed to hinder Heffernan’s continued contact with the Spaniard, despite much denial along the way.

McGonagle, the Irish Olympic team manager, was again quoted in national newspapers in July 2012, playing down the link, following reports the continued association between Heffernan and the then-banned Spaniard when the Irish team had a training camp in Fernandez’s home town of Guadix. “There is no question and there never has been of Fernandez coaching Robert Heffernan - or any of the Irish walkers”, McGonagle states.

The same article also contains strong words from Liam O’Reilly, an Irish Olympic team coach and the camp leader during that Guadix trip. “I think what appeared was a terrible reflection on journalistic standards. All the positive effort and hard work has been ignored simply because he [Heffernan] knows somebody who has done something wrong…Then somebody comes along and tries to insinuate or imply that he is doing something wrong. I think that is unacceptable.”

Heffernan himself initially played down the link, despite much evidence to the contrary. As time passed, however, and perhaps sensing the changing mood of Irish athletics fans – a World title and an Olympic medal can work wonders – Heffernan and his cronies became less concerned about how the links were perceived, with regular social media posts of them training together. Fernandez, it appears, had fully morphed into Heffernan’s coach, even if his wife Marian was still being used as a cover – Athletics Ireland, perhaps, wouldn’t tolerate the name of a drug cheat next to one of their athletes.

Fellow Irish racewalkers Alex Wright, Brendan Boyce and Cian McManamon were also benefiting from the training opportunities that Fernandez was providing in Spain, and elsewhere, with Heffernan being credited as their coach.

And then, once it became clear that, bar a handful of voices, the Irish population no longer had the zero-tolerance to doping cheats they once had, the stage was set for Fernandez to finally receive the credit he deserved. In early August 2017 the Athletics Ireland website listed Pacquillo Fernandez as Wright’s coach on the team announcement for the World Championships in London later that month.

“Alternative technical coaching arrangements”, it seems, had little to do with protecting the integrity of the sport and everything to do with fobbing off the journalists and saying the right things to protect reputations until the whole issue blew over.



And blow over it certainly appears to have done.

***

And in some ways, all of this is understandable. Heffernan and Fernandez were friends. Maybe Fernandez would never have used those products – he just fancied keeping them around, just in case he changed his mind again. And yes, he’s served his time. Maybe a two-year ban changes people. And maybe the reputations of Heffernan, Wright, et al., should not be tainted by who they choose to hang around with. I get all that. I even get that Fernandez may be a (mostly) good and nice guy.

And maybe, he is the best coach around.

I get all that. Even if I don't like it.




A post shared by Paquillo Frdez/Ex-atleta®️ (@paquillofernandez) on


What I don’t get is why we have to involve the children. And why Fernandez has to be turned into some sort of icon.

***

Just two weeks ago, Ray Flynn, who in 2016 stood for election as president of Athletics Ireland (a landslide defeat, incidentally), tweeted a photo of his group of young athletes from the ‘Sligo Academy of Racewalkers’ training with “the best coaches in Spain”; a photo in which Fernandez was, of course, front and centre.




To adapt an analogy Heffernan himself put forward: "You go to a nightclub in town, there’s going to be fellas in the cubicle next to you taking cocaine, but it doesn’t mean you do". But you wouldn’t parade your children (or worse still, someone else’s children) into that cubicle for selfies, and pin those fellas up as some sort of role models who your children should be privileged to meet.

***

Just over a decade on from that spring afternoon in Belfast, much has changed, it appears, in terms of attitudes to dopers in Ireland.

The Irish crowd have gone soft.

Maybe Lombard should have stuck around a little longer.

Maybe he should have offered to help coach some kids!

Yes, that might have changed the Irish public’s attitude towards him.