Athlete in focus: Maria McCambridge

"Maria McCambridge is the quintessential club athlete, having been in the Club from 14 years of age.  She had a most successful juvenile/junior career and, as her coach for four years, I can only remember one defeat in cross-country or track & field (1500m upwards).  The one defeat came after three games of hockey in that week!

She was always intense about her training and qualified for the Olympics twice; World Cross Country and World Indoors.  Of course in Ireland she will be remembered for her victory in the Dublin City Marathon.  In DSD, she will be remembered for her dedication to Club competitions and the great example she shows to our younger athletes, making herself available at all times.  Hopefully we will have Maria as an important member of our teams for many more years!"

Eddie McDonagh


How did you get started in running?

I started running in 3rd year at school. I did the East Leinsters Cross Country and came 3rd, then went on to do the Leinsters and came 5th (there was no All Irelands for U14 back then), and I loved it!  Eddie and my mum got talking at the race and I went down to Dundrum AC training shortly after.  I was hooked from the start!

 

Tell us a bit about the path your running career has taken from the start, the challenges, and who the major influencers were.

I have been running a long time now, and I have had a number of coaches along the way, each one having a major influence on my career.  Eddie started me off, and I owe him so much.  His passion and enthusiasm is incredible, and is still as strong 20 plus years from when I first met him.  I love the way he insisted we get a good aerobic base of miles, something I really think is sorely lacking in a lot of training groups for kids, resulting in poor conditioning, and the hills...!!

"I love the way he insisted we get a good aerobic base of miles, something I really think is sorely lacking in a lot of training groups for kids, resulting in poor conditioning, and the hills…..!!"

I went off to Providence College on a Scholarship in 1994.  My injuries really started in my 3rd year there and I have always been my own worst enemy.  I wanted it so much that I wouldn't give in to injuries until it was far too late and I had to stop running completely. Being injured and away from home was really tough, but academically Providence is a great College, so I threw myself more into my studies during these times.

"I wanted it so much that I wouldn't give in to injuries until it was far too late and I had to stop running completely."

I came back to Ireland and I found it very difficult.  I had not been able to run in 6 months due to a femoral stress fracture.  I didn't know what to do with my life then, and it seemed everyone at home had moved on. Eventually I decided to go to UCD and do a Post-Grad and it helped me re-adjust.

I eventually got back running a year later and joined in with Jerry Kiernan’s group.

I met my husband Gary in 2002 and we just clicked.  We were married a year later and we just became a real running team.  I loved how he trained; he was so creative and inspiring, always finding new places to run and ways to challenge himself.  I wanted to join in more and more with the training he was doing, and so we started working together.  It was probably more just me trying to hang onto the back of his workouts really, but I loved it!  I was training harder than I had ever done in my life.

I got seriously injured, however in 2007, and didn't run for 9 months.  We were now living in Letterkenny, and when I did get back to running Gary wasn't really around for me to run with anymore due to his work commitments.  I found running life really hard up in Letterkenny initially.


"I did exactly what he said and for the first time I did easy recovery running.  At 38 I learnt and accepted the importance of this. I finally got it!"

Then the Marathon Mission started, a project funded by the Dublin Marathon to improve the standard of Irish Marathoning.  I started working with Dick Hooper and it was great to have a group to meet up with every few weeks and a new input into my, now marathon, career. 

I think I learnt the most from Chris Jones.  I think I was so ready to really listen and make a change.  In 2014 I got really sick and run down and was in a hole that I just could not seem to get out of.  I had a long chat with him and I was, for the first time, really open to listen.  He was so full of knowledge and so willing to share and communicate it.  I did exactly what he said and for the first time I did easy recovery running.  At 38 I learnt and accepted the importance of this.  I finally got it!  I really benefited from his training and ran my best marathon in Dublin 2014, narrowly missing the win, setting a PB of 2 hours 34 minutes on a strong windy day.  I was really sorry to see Chris leave Athletics Ireland and head back to Wales. 

 

Were you involved in other sports when you were younger?  Did you have to make a decision on this?

I played every sport I could as a kid, but my second love was definitely Hockey and I found that hard to give up after school.  I was really stepping up my training though after school, in preparation to head off to the States, and I knew it was time to start really focusing purely on running.

 

What motivates you?

"I always believe in having a goal - short, medium and long term.  These running goals are what get you out the door in the cold and rain and what push you hard in the middle of a workout."

I always believe in having a goal - short, medium and long term.  These running goals are what get you out the door in the cold and rain and what push you hard in the middle of a workout.  But I love the simple pleasure of running.  I love how it feels and I need that.  No matter what, I will get that run in (unless sick or injured).  It is part of me.  It defines me, and I hate taking running breaks as I just hate that feeling of not having gotten that run in.  A break, of course, every so often is really important, though, as one has to let the body recover. 

 

What’s your favourite distance/event?

My first love is the track, and my favourite distances are the 3km & 5km. The marathon just prolonged my career.  I don't think I am naturally the best marathoner, but it was a new challenge and came at a time when I had to move on.  I will always do a track workout every week.  It’s my favourite surface, even when marathon training.  I believe strongly in speed and turnover throughout the year.

 

Tell us about what you regard as your greatest achievement(s) in your athletics career.

There are a number of achievements that I am very proud of;

A key one though, is the day I ran 15:05 in the 5000m in Belgium in 2004, securing an Olympic qualifying time. It was such a sense of self-satisfaction.  It had been a really frustrating period as I was under immense pressure to get the qualifying time in May or June, due to the fact that the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) had put an early selection date in place.  I knew I was capable of the 15:08 Olympic qualifying time - I knew I was in that shape.  I had run so many 5000m that summer and I kept running around the same time - 15:30, but I had been unable to find a high quality 5000m event before the OCI’s deadline.  

"DSD was amazing to me at this time! The whole experience though, seriously took its toll on me. No athlete should have to go through something like that."

After the deadline had passed I told myself it was not over until it was over!  I got into a suitable race after the Nationals, in Belgium, despite Gary advising me to take my break and to forget about it!  But I was determined to prove myself right!  I finally rested up and had the most perfect race ever - it just clicked!  It was for me!! I was thrilled!

What followed next was a tortuous three weeks of appealing to the OCI to allow me compete and awaiting a decision. There was uproar about it at the time. The whole country went crazy - fighting for me to go the Olympics and, thanks to a number of individuals (you know who you are and I will be forever grateful to you!), the OCI finally relented and added me to the team bound for Athens.  DSD was amazing to me at this time! The whole experience though, seriously took its toll on me.  No athlete should have to go through something like that. 

 

What about the lows? Were there times you felt like giving up?  If so, how did you get through it?

"I think as an athlete that you have to reinvent yourself every so often.  Find new challenges and goals." 

I have had many lows in the course of my career.  Too many to count!  I think as an athlete that you have to reinvent yourself every so often.  Find new challenges and goals. I changed coaches a number of times, mainly because I needed a change, a new approach, to keep things fresh.  Every coach has played a huge part in my life, but at times they just ran their course, and I got a bit stale.  It’s hard changing coaches, especially in Ireland as it is so small, but generally when I changed it was just that I wasn’t motivated to do the same thing for another training cycle.  At times I felt I had stagnated and had not improved and wasn’t inspired. This was mainly in my 30s and I was more self-aware then.  I was no longer this shy kid who couldn't speak up for herself.  I was always interested in coaching, and read everything on running and training, and towards the end of your career you realise you might not have many years left competing and ‘this is your life’.  So I picked up the courage to do something about it!


"I was a crock and still tried to train in the hope of getting the time. I was a train wreck that eventually crashed in May 2016 and I didn’t know how to get myself back up again."

The lowest point was this last summer, 2016.  I crashed mentally, physically and emotionally. Everything had gone wrong leading up to making a qualifying time for Rio - running into a dog 2 weeks before running the Frankfurt Marathon and then taking 6 months to properly diagnose and treat the injury, to then badly damaging my ankle when I stepped into a pothole out running.  I was a crock and still tried to train in the hope of getting the time.  I was a train wreck that eventually crashed in May 2016 and I didn’t know how to get myself back up again.  Nearly a year later and I am finally in a better place and have found joy again in my running.  I am not sure where it is going now, but I am enjoying the process of getting fit again and going down to the Club and joining in with the DSD girls. 

 

What do you feel are the most important attributes of a successful athlete?

I believe a strong work ethic is vital to succeed in athletics.  It is a tough sport and you have to have the desire and drive to get the training in no matter what.  You need to surround yourself with a supportive team, whether that be your coach, parents, partner, training group etc.  
 

Can you give us an idea of a typical training week at the height of your athletics career?

At the height of my track training (2004/2005), I was running around 70 miles a week.  Tuesday and Friday were my workout days.  They were usually around 2-3 miles in total volume - very intense, Monday was a hard 4 miles followed by nearly an hour of drills, plyometrics and sprints.  These were gut wrenching!  My miles were fast typically 5:50-6:10 pace.  I did two double days am and pm and always followed on the third day with one run.  I think this helped me recover.  I now know this was too much intensity and I should have done easy runs but at the time I wouldn't listen to this.

During my best marathon days I would typically run 100 miles per week.  I followed a two-day break between workouts and often the long run would incorporate some sort of workout.  Under Chris Jones workouts were really long and by the time you had finished (warmup and cooldown included) you could have done 18/20 miles.  Under Dick Hooper workouts were generally 10km based and with a hard long run at the weekend.


Is there anything in particular you have learned in the course of your career that you want to pass on to other athletes, parents of athletes or coaches?

"If I had the courage, I would love to tell a good number of Parents to ‘back off’.  They are often too interfering and do not understand the bigger picture"

My advice to younger athletes is to try and understand that there is a bigger picture.  It is not just about the here and now.  I strongly hate the labelling of “the next big star” to anyone under 17.  All too many don’t make it past Juniors.  All too often I have seen the most talented kids unable to handle it mentally when suddenly they are no longer winning.  Kids don't understand patience and development.  That’s why it is so important that the coach has their overall development at heart.  They have growth spurts at different stages and their body has to be allowed adjust at these times.  They have to learn resilience and perseverance and a good work ethic.  If I had the courage, I would love to tell a good number of parents to ‘back off’.  They are often too interfering and do not understand the bigger picture.

 

So, what's next?

I would love to get more involved in coaching, particularly with young athletes someday.  I train the running section in two Triathlon clubs and I love it.  It’s really rewarding and they are a great bunch.