Leap's own natural born runner
THERE really is nowhere like home.
It’s the Saturday morning after the weekend before, the calm after the storm, and life is returning to some degree of normality for Ruthann Sheahan.
Back home in Leap for the weekend, amongst family and friends, everything just feels right, like it makes sense, the way it should.And the refreshing West Cork air, galloping in off the Atlantic, has also helped Ruthann find her voice, after it had gone missing in action for a few days. But it had a good excuse. A few choice drinks at her parents’ bar in Leap, The Leap Inn, certainly helped its cause, she jokes.
‘Sometimes you just want to come home, don’t you,’ Ruthann mused, ‘just the change of scenery, to just be home.’
She’s right. It is always nice to go home.
Even more so when you return home a hero, as Ruthann did, following her amazing exploits at the 24 Hour World and European Championships in Katowice, Poland, the previous weekend, when she set a new Irish women’s 24-hour record, covering an incredible 229.3kms in 24 hours, to smash the 16-year-old record by nearly 23kms.
Not only that, but she finished fifth in the European Championships and seventh in the World Championships, the icing on top of an already tasty cake.
‘My goal was to try and at least make 200kms, because I wanted to prove I was worthy of being there,’ a proud Ruthann recalled, having only been asked six weeks before the event to take part.
‘The last two hours were really challenging and the desire to stop was getting bigger but once I was told where I was at and what distance I had travelled, I couldn’t believe it.
‘To break the old record (206.650kms), I was thinking that if I got to 200kms within a particular time and if I had time on my side, I would go for it. But I honestly didn’t expect to get to the stage I did when I did.
‘A lot of that was down to the crew with us over there, my husband George and a couple of other fantastic people, John Collins, Sean Finn, Jarlath Hynes. They were absolutely unbelievable.
‘They were making sure I wasn’t overdoing it, that I wasn’t going too fast, and even though I was going faster than I anticipated, my body naturally just found a rhythm. To get well beyond the record like I did, it shocked me.’
What’s even more mind-boggling is that less than three years ago, Ruthann wasn’t even running at a competitive level.
Now, the quality engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway competes in the growing sport of ultra marathons, has raced in the gruelling six-day Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, took part in the Comrades Marathon in South Africa and is planning to run the Ancient Khymer Path, a six-day event in Cambodia this November.
Just one question, Ruthann: why?
‘I love it. I really do,’ she enthuses, infectiously.
‘I took it up in Galway two and a half years ago as something to do for myself. I had done a bit of track and field with Glandore AC and Skibbereen AC when I was living at home. Chris O’Regan (Glandore AC), John McSweeney (Skibbereen AC) and a former teacher, Margaret Coombes, were all a big help when I was young.
‘But to be honest, before I started I hadn’t done anything for 15 or 16 years.
‘My first event was the Connemara marathon in April 2010. I enjoyed that experience so much, I thought that if I could run a marathon I wondered if I could go any further.
‘The other thing was that the training for a marathon is tough and there was no way that I wanted to start from scratch all over again.’
The Dingle Ultra Marathon followed in September. Armed with a beginner’s 50-mile training plan that she downloaded from the internet, Ruthann pounded the roads of Galway, where she has lived since ’99, and now lives with her husband George; a constant rock of unwavering support throughout this adventure. How fitting that their paths first crossed in Paris.
The first lady home in Dingle, she won. And she was now well and truly hooked.
Soon she joined up with a group of people that shared her interest – now called Marathon Club Ireland – where they ran official marathons every month in the west of Ireland, a great social get-together amongst other things.
‘Being around people like them is a great motivation. They always have a positive attitude. Nothing is impossible,’ the daughter of Brian and Ann remarked.
She also one brother, Tom, and one sister, Nicola.
Thanks to the promptings of Ray O’Connor, always a source of encouragement, she took part in a 24-hour ultra marathon in Helsinki, in a team of four along with O’Connor, Mick Rice and Valerie Clavin (who set the Irish women’s indoor record at that event).
‘That just blew me away. I had never even heard of a 24-hour event. It just seemed crazy. But at the same time, I just thought “why not? This could be the chance of a lifetime to do something really unusual”. I signed up, and that was that,’ recalled Ruthann, who by now had joined Athenry AC.
In Helsinki, she covered over 188kms in the 24 hours, respectable in the extreme, and important in that it helped open the door to the world championships in Poland.
The events kept coming, thick and fast, with the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the oldest ultra marathon on the planet, 56 miles between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, one of those events that she really wanted to take part in. And she did. It left a lasting impression.
‘It was phenomenal. What really struck me was that there were people lining the event who were extremely poor, I mean they were living on the streets, but they were there, cheering us on,’ she said.
‘But if you looked at them in the eye, they were there, “come on my sister”. It was just very emotional to see that people who had nothing were cheering us on.’
At the beginning of this year, the Arthur O’Neill Challenge – a run from Dublin Castle, in the middle of the night, down into the Wicklow Mountains – was also knocked off the to-do list, before the big one: the Marathon des Sables in April, a 151-mile endurance race spread over six days across the Sahara Desert. It’s one to tell the grandkids about.
‘This was the event that absolutely blew my mind. It captured my imagination,’ Ruthann explained.
‘I was always fascinated by the Sahara Desert as a kid. It just seemed like such an enigma. To get the opportunity to spend seven days travelling across it, I couldn’t wait for it.’
‘Mentally, it’s just a huge challenge. You can prepare for it physically, to a certain extent. The only difficulty with the physicality of it is that unless you have been training in the heat, you are going to find it shocking.
‘The first few days I was out there were a shock to the system. I followed the book. I was taking my salt, I was drinking as much water as I needed to, but you just lose water so fast that I found myself getting very dehydrated. You just have to keep calm and not panic.’
Night-time was also a test, with temperatures plummeting and the tents they stayed in were very exposed to the elements, so Ruthann got very little sleep at night, three or four hours maximum.
‘I found myself wandering out in the desert a few nights when I couldn’t sleep, lying out on the sand, looking up at the stars, and you realise just where you are and how fortunate you are to experience something like that,’ she said.
‘It’s achingly beautiful but so cruel at the same time. You feel like a little flea on the skin of the planet, and it just gets annoyed with you every now and now and then, and throws a sandstorm at you. We even experienced a bit of a desert storm, with thunder and lightning.’
With that adventure over, Ruthann admits that, for a while, she was a bit aimless, not knowing what was next, or what big goal she was going to set next for herself.
One day, the phone rang. It was Ray O’Connor. Athletics Ireland were wondering if she would take part in the 24 Hour World and European Championships in Poland. She didn’t need to be asked twice.
‘To wear the Ireland jersey was the ultimate dream come true. When I got it at the airport, my first instinct was to bless myself. It’s a huge, huge honour,’ she said.
Increasing her weekly training from its normal 60 miles to 80 miles, 100 miles, 110 miles, peaking at 130 miles the second last weekend before the event, Ruthann upped the ante. Big time.
Not only was she running marathons in Salthill, but she would run the six miles to the event, then run the marathon, and then run home after. Incredible.
Physically, she was ready. Mentally, she was ready. Bring it on.
‘You prepare yourself physically but in the second half of the race, from 16 hours on, it’s all about the mind,’ Ruthann explained.
‘You have to imagine how you are going to feel when you reach your goal, have a picture in your mind about how important it is to you and that if you don’t get it how disappointed you will be but if you do get it how ecstatic you will feel. You lean a lot of that when you are into the small hours and getting mentally weak.
‘Physically there is pain involved but it won’t kill you. It does take its toll on the lower legs and the quads. ten minutes after the race, I couldn’t walk. I needed to be “escorted” around,’ she laughed, adding that she will be forever grateful to the team’s fantastic support crew.
In active recovery right now, the weekend at home in Leap was just what she needed, back amongst her family, with her parents, who were in Poland supporting her, already having framed her Irish singlet and having it hanging in their popular bar in Leap.
Next, she is eyeing up the Dublin Marathon in late October to be her 50th marathon, as well as the world championships next May in Holland, while herself and husband George, who moved from London to the west of Ireland, are both travelling to Cambodia for the Ancient Khymer Path.
‘That will be a nice running holiday, until my competitive nature kicks in,’ she laughs.
The odds are it will, for Leap’s very own natural born runner.
• Ruthann will take part in Skibbereen Athletic Club’s second annual 10k road race and walk that goes ahead on Sunday September 30th, starting at 1pm.
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