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Just a while ago, I was scrolling through Instagram and a poster for what looked like a concert festival came up but instead, it was for ‘The Not Dead Yet Comeback Tour’ and it was Ciarán ó Lionáird announcing his comeback to professional running. It looks serious. He’s working with agent and coach Stephen Haas in Flagstaff Arizona and he’s working out with Edward Cheserek. So I wanted to know more about this comeback. We decided to jump on a call where we discuss this, his disappointment in 2012, a series of injuries, time away from the sport, adjusting to the real world and what will ultimately make this all worth it even if there is no Olympics.
This one goes out to all the listeners who want to rekindle that flame in training and sharpen their mindset for a comeback.
What is the Not Dead Yet Comeback Tour?
How did we get to this point?
“I was on a solo run last week and it dawns on me every once in a while that I’m doing this. Sometimes I forget. It just sort of organically happened. I’ll wake up in the middle of a run and I’ll say, “Oh shit. This is for real. I’m really getting after this.” It’s evolved. I do think a part of it is that I walked away from the sport obviously with a lot of disappointment about how my career post-college went and a lot of injuries. The Olympics in 2012 was just a disaster going in hurt and then going out in the first round. I don’t think I was emotionally capable of handling that at the time. I felt like I let down my country at the time. My last race was a DNF at the Portland Track Festival 1,500 meters in 2016 and then I took this long break. I’ve been able to do a lot of these cool and exciting things in the meantime but I think it started to dawn on me, especially when I came out here in the first week or two, I have left something undone. I wasn’t content with how I’ve done things. Over the past four years, people have said to me, ‘Would you give it a go again?’ I’d say no and that I was done. I factored that was because my body was so broken down and beat up from surgeries. Once I came up here and just isolated myself, I had more time to think. You’re on your own, it’s super quiet and I was running a lot. Maybe this isn’t how I want it to end. Maybe there’s a better way to go out? That wasn’t an Olympics but maybe better than a DNF in a 1,500 meters. The last part was this virus, lockdown and where the world is. You can make all the plans in the world for a career, family and life. And yet, this has shown that things can change in an instant. There are variables you can’t control. You only have one life and I thought, ‘Maybe I just want to get after this one time and right the way the story ends.’”
How big of a moment was it for him to make the 1,500-meter world championship final in 2011?
“My mindset was that if I went from 3:38 to 3:34 and made the world final then it shouldn’t be too hard to get to a medal then. It seemed pretty simple to me. Instead of taking the approach of let’s just keep building on what we have, I really ratcheted things up a lot. I paid for it.”
How hard was he pushing himself?
“Prior to getting hurt that indoor season in 2012, I was doing some things in workouts that even in 2011 when I made the world final that I could touch what I was doing.”
Looking back at his infamous interview after exiting in the first round of the 2012 London Olympics
“I really don’t have regrets about anything. It was what it was at the time. It was a product of the circumstances that surrounded me. I’ll admit that I wasn’t emotionally or physically mature enough to handle the stage I was in at the time and I own that 100%. Those are the words of an immature kid. If the worst thing that I’ve experienced is getting knocked out of an Olympic first round, then I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. And I have experienced worse things in hindsight…It’s also the words of someone who cared about what they do. Anyone who knows me knows that I put 100% into whatever it is that I do.”
“Righting the wrongs is just taking a more balanced approach to good days and bad days in training – which everybody has no matter what level you’re at and how fit you are. You’re slowly and consistently putting the work in and understanding this is a process and that’s the approach I’m taking now in this build back: Check the little boxes all the way along. Be okay with not being where you want to be and you’ll be where you want to be when the time is right. I didn’t have that foresight in 2012.”
How did he cope with the disappointment of London?
Undergoing surgery and finally getting answers
“The issue was I got that surgery in July of 2015. The goal is then to make the Olympics in 2016. By this point, I’ve had two surgeries on that side. My calf has atrophied. My right side is noticeably weaker than my left. So going into 2016, the big issue that caused me to step away was not necessarily pain. It was just I couldn’t get my left leg strong enough to function correctly. The pain itself had been eradicated. 2016 was just a question of time. I didn’t have enough time to get back from that surgery.”
Training with Ben Blankenship in 2016 and the most impressive workout that he watched ahead of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and Rio
Spike technology changes and how that applies to him after a string of injuries
Lessons learned from his time away from the sport
“I got away from the sport, and in a positive sense, I met some really interesting people who have given me perspective on life that I carry with me back into the sport. Professional distance running is a bubble and a bit of an incubator. It was nice to step away from it and broaden horizons a little bit…I come back to the sport now knowing that balance is an important part of mental longevity.”
“At the end of the day, I stepped away and I took on this mindset of ‘I’m not just a runner’ and I wanted to do other shit whether it was in work or outside of work. I wanted to distance myself from this world. The biggest thing I’ve learned from meeting people away from the sport and having experiences removed from the sport of running is that I am a runner at my core and it’s OK to admit that running is something really special. To be able to call yourself a runner is amazing. To be able to have the chance to do it at a high level – maybe even do it as your job or represent your country – besides it being something you love so much and naturally have a disposition for is a gift that maybe you shouldn’t throw away. I learned that being away from the sport. When I was in the sport, I was super frustrated like ‘Fuck this. I’m hurt all the time. This is bullshit.’ The time where I “treated my body to death” any epiphanies that I might have had have pulled me back into the sport. Now, I can look at it and say I am a runner at my core and that’s pretty cool.”
How did he handle the real world when running was the only thing on his resume?
“A lot of athletes face this and it’s something athletes should talk more as a community. It’s the difficulty of leaving the sport and figuring out what’s next…To any athlete that’s a professional runner and stressing about it, there are always ways to do bits and pieces to show your mind works as well as your body and that you have some chops for different things.”
How out of shape did he get in his time away from the sport?
Where is his happiness now?
“I learned running will always be a key to mental balance for me. I’m pretty type-A and operate at 100 miles per hour. That was an adjustment when I started working in corporate. In running, you’re used to setting a goal and chasing after it as hard as you can. You learn to pull back because not everyone operates at that pace in the regular world. I learned that lesson and re-applied it to running here. Running itself makes it easier to have that mental balance where on a good or bad day you can compartmentalize it. You end up in this really good balanced mental space. Running tires you out enough and gives you these moments of clarity. I think when you’re out on a longer run, for someone like me, that keeps me in a good mental headspace. It’s been fun to have a goal again. The prospect of ‘Hey, this comeback is actually for real now and I’m actually doing it’ is really exciting. In contrast to 2014, 2015 and 2016, the training isn’t breaking me down. I’m seeing improvements every week. I’m not necessarily trying to find these big jumps. Things are happening just by me showing up and ticking the boxes every day. That’s super fun because it allows you to look forward to the next week and then the next week.”
Olympics or no Olympics. What makes this worth it?
“I was watching a video the other night of Jerry Garcia talking about where they got the name and inspiration for The Grateful Dead. They were originally this band called The Warlocks. Another band that ended up being The Velvet Underground had the name The Warlocks so they had to change the name. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh are in their house in San Francisco and they pull out this dictionary. The first word that Jerry Garcia says is ‘Grateful Dead.’ He said it resonated with him because it wasn’t a somber tone surrounding death. It had a hint of optimism in it that you could turn the page on something and almost look back retrospectively from that place to your life and say, ‘How can we do something different here?’ or ‘How can we do something fun?’ In the same video, he talks about looking at these two towers in LA that the government was trying to tear down and says that he never wanted to make something that lasted post-death or made to stand the test of time. He wanted to have fun in the moment. He wanted to make something that while he was doing it was the most fun that he had in the world. Taking inspiration from that, it’s not necessarily making an Olympics and having a statistic on a piece of paper that’s gonna say I made the Olympics. It’s going through the process day-to-day and having fun in the workouts, runs and bullshitting with the boys. I’m hands-on-knees sometimes with Ches because that guy is hilarious. Just having fun. That in itself would have been a win as opposed to the destination. I guess it’s really cliche to say but the journey, not the destination is perhaps more important…Olympics or no Olympics, there will be a better end to the running DNF at the Portland Track Festival. Of that, I’m pretty confident at this point.”
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