Seamus O'Donnell interview - 3 Times National Marathon Champion
In this article Seamus O'Donnell provides some insight into his distinguished career as an endurance athlete.
What got you interested in running?
I started running in 1971 at the age of eleven with St. Johnston AC. The local club had just been founded and everybody else was joining.
What kind of running did you do as a Juvenile?
I ran both track and cross-country events. Sports days were big in Donegal at that time and during the summer there would usually be a sports somewhere in the county every Sunday. I was mostly mid-pack in competition but I got a few podium finishes later on including a silver in the Ulster U-17 3000m. I also qualified to represent Ulster in the O'Duffy cup in 1978.
We usually did ok in road relays. Even then road was my preferred surface. I finished second in the Donegal community games marathon but in those days only one runner qualified from each county so I didn't progress to the finals.
How did you find the transition from Juvenile to Senior Athletics?
I started in NUI Galway (then UCG of course) in 1979. For several years I trained and raced with UCG AC. I won the county intermediate cross country when in first year and placed in the Connaught intermediate and novice. Around 1983 we won the Connaught Senior ahead of very strong GCH and Loughrea teams. I won the county 5000m nine years in succession, 800m four times and the 1500m 6 times. Also won the Connaught 1500m and 5000m a few times as well.
What was training like during your time in UCH (NUI Galway)?
I trained most days at lunchtime with the guys in UCG and Mike Small. I did the long run on Sundays with PJ, Christine Kennedy, Mike Small and a few more from GCH. Danny claims he was still running in the juveniles at that time but he has caught up since. I usually ran about 60 miles a week.
How did things progress after you left UCG?
I joined GCH in 1986 after completing my studies in UCG. At first I continued with pretty much the same training and racing. However I had a terrible run in the Streets of Galway 8K running 26 something. It was time to get serious or pack up. I had never run 80 miles in a week at that stage but with P J’s encouragement I ended up averaging 84 miles a week for the next year and didn’t miss a day for 17½ years.
Your best racing seemed to come on the road and at the longer distances. Can you tell us a little about that?
My first road race was when I was 16. I had already run a 1500m and 5000m earlier in the day but I found that I was more competitive in the road race which was over 7½ miles. From then on I ran on the road whenever possible and ran the Ulster 25K the following year.
I always preferred the longer races. There used to be a 20 mile sponsored run at home. I first did it when I was 13. At that age we were only supposed to do a few miles and get picked up by a bus but once I got started I had every intention of doing the 20. Even though it wasn’t a race I found it encouraging that I could keep up fairly well with the seniors.
I didn’t run a marathon until I was 20. My first marathon was 2.57 but I got down to 2.39 the following year. For several years after that I ran consistently in the 2.33 – 2.37 range. It was only when I upped the mileage that the marathon times started to improve. I ran 4 marathons in twelve months (1998 -1999) in 2.31, 2.27, 2.24 and 2.20.
Your best success came at the Marathon.
Yes. My breakthrough at the marathon distance came with the 2.20 in Tralee in April 1989 as it was the first time that I was competitive in a marathon. I had been 5th in Dublin with the 2.24 but hardly saw another runner in the whole race whereas in Tralee it was like any other race. I was outside 1.12 at half way but kept passing runners all through the second half and at the end only John Griffin was ahead of me and I could see him up the road. He was supposed to run a marathon in Holland that weekend but as the national marathon was being staged in his home town he decided to run there instead.
That got me thinking about winning a national marathon. Later that year I got two internationals. I was 9th in the Great Scottish 25K in 1.19 and 7th in 2.23 in Crete. That was probably my best marathon run. Most of the field of 104 had personal bests well under 2.20 and the course was very hilly. So I was delighted to run that fast and be ahead of so many.
I moved on to win the National Marathon Championships in Clonmel 1993 (2:23), Mallow 1996 (2:25), and Derry in 1997 (2:29).
What do you remember from these championship wins?
Clonmel was the trial for the world championships and had a fairly good field. Luckily for me none of them ran up to expectations and even John Griffin had a clanger. Despite being mis-directed I ended up winning by about 5 minutes.
In Mallow I was about 3 minutes off the pace at 20 miles but ran 15 minutes flat for the three miles from 22 to 25 and only took the lead inside the last mile.
The race in Derry ended up in a sprint finish with Pauric Mc Kinney. That was probably the most enjoyable one as Pauric had won the bronze in the national 5000m the previous year so everyone expected him to outkick me. There wasn’t much in it at the end but there was enough.
What was your typical marathon training program like?
The marathon was always the main target for the year and usually only ran 2 or 3 races during the build up but would normally have averaged 25 – 30 races in the year.
I found I ran best without a coach - and so did the coaches! My typical training program was about 12 weeks of hard distance work running 100-120 miles per week. I used a four week taper down to the goal marathon race running 90, 80, 70 and the week before the marathon doing only 50 miles.
What's your training like now?
I do the main GCH training runs on Monday evenings and Sunday mornings and I average about 75 training miles per week. I still train harder than most GAA superstars! For the past few years I've done a few races but not many. I run because I enjoy it and sometimes that includes racing and sometimes it doesn't.