In the first part of a new series where top athletes recall their memories of competing at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, we chat to Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan who in 1998 became the first athlete to win the senior race double.
The early years
Hailing from Ireland, a country with a rich cross-country tradition, Sonia O’Sullivan had a close affinity with the discipline from a young age. Aged 22, the tall Cobh native made her IAAF World Cross Country Championships debut in 1992, finishing seventh in the senior race in Boston behind USA’s Lynn Jennings and Irish compatriot Catherina McKiernan.
O’Sullivan quickly went on to establish a formidable reputation on the track. She won the European 3000m title in 1994 and the following year took her maiden global crown with 5000m gold at the IAAF World Championships in Gothenburg.
O’Sullivan then went into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics among the favourites for 5000m gold but, badly affected by a stomach upset, failed to finish the final.
Highly motivated to right the disappointment of Atlanta, O’Sullivan won world indoor 3000m silver in March 1997 just two weeks before making her first World Cross Country appearance for five years in Turin.
She approached the event with high expectations, but was disappointed to place ninth behind Ethiopian Derartu Tulu.
“Coming off the Atlanta Olympics I was doing everything I could to make up for the Olympic Games and, if anything, I was probably trying a bit too hard,” recalls O’Sullivan, who found some consolation in earning a team bronze for her country.
She described the performance as “a big wake-up call” and returned 12 months later for the 1998 World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech – the first edition with both a long and a short-course race – a different athlete.
Working hard to improve her nutrition, she admits: “If you compare 1997 with 1998, I look like two different people,” she says. “I was leaner than the previous year and you could see the tone in the muscles, I was much fitter.”
Only intending to focus on the 8km long course race – a distance that exceeded the standard 6km distance that had featured in previous years – she had prepared well for the additional endurance challenge.
O’Sullivan had put in some 120-mile training weeks earlier that year during her first ever altitude training stint. Meanwhile, she had prepared for the Moroccan heat by spending a long period of time training out of Australia.
“It was really hot (in Marrakech), but when you go through a summer in Melbourne you get some hot days,” she recalls. “I remember meeting some Irish journalists over there who were roasting and they couldn’t believe how I didn’t look bothered by the heat.”
The 8km race – contested over four two-kilometre laps – in the Menara District proved a predictable slog as Britain’s Paula Radcliffe set the pace at the front with O’Sullivan covering every move.
But with the race reaching a crescendo, O’Sullivan recalls how dozing officials failed to direct them down the correct finishing straight and it required some quick thinking on O’Sullivan’s part to seize her opportunity.
“I thought, ‘this is the last lap, I’m not running any further’,” says O’Sullivan. “So I kept running parallel to the finish straight and I recall Paula later saying that she had no idea what I was doing. But the night before I had run around the course and I knew there was a gap in the fence which would allow us back on the correct course by the finish line, so I took the initiative and ran through the gap again before Paula and (Gete) Wami followed.”
O’Sullivan, who possessed the superior sprint anyway, powered clear to strike gold by more than three seconds from Radcliffe with Wami of Ethiopia further back in bronze.
Toasting her victory and sat by the swimming pool later that day, it was only in conversation with Bob Kennedy, the former US 5000m record-holder, that she made a late decision to run the short-course race the next day.
“The long course was the only priority coming in, but after talking to Bob, who asked me if I was running, I thought, ‘why wouldn’t I run tomorrow?’”
She also endured an incident that night which didn’t help her chances. A market trader was trying to sell a bracelet to O’Sullivan, but as she backed away she struck a concrete post and gashed her knee.
“It was nothing major,” she says. “Once you have your mind made up to do something, I didn’t let it bother me.”
On the day of the 4km, Morocco’s home favourite Zahra Ouaziz and Ethiopia’s Kutre Dulecha set off at a breakneck pace over the first kilometre, leaving O’Sullivan to ponder, ‘what am I doing here?’
However, she refused to panic and two kilometres later she caught the lead pair. “I thought I would have a bit of a rest (when I caught them), but I could feel myself slowing down so I quickened the pace.”
O’Sullivan ran away a decisive winner by a 14-second margin from Ouaziz to clinch a memorable double – one she still cherishes to this day.
“It is right up there with my world 5000m gold medal,” she says in terms of the size of the accomplishment. “Also after the IAAF split the competition into two races (long and short course) and changed the meaning of the event, to be able to run and win both races felt like I had still won the World Cross.”
In 2000 she went on to place seventh in the long race before returning for the 2002 edition in the Irish capital, Dublin. Just three months before the event, Sonia had given birth to her second daughter, Sophie, and she only re-started running on New Year’s Day of that year.
Despite being understandably short of full fitness, she took to the start line at Leopardstown Racecourse for the 4km short course race determined to run well and secure a team medal for Ireland.
Inspired by the passionate home support, she placed seventh and spearheaded the six-strong Irish team to bronze by just one point from Russia and Australia.
“I did the best I could, but this one was all about the team,” she recalls. “I remember at the team dinner that night my eldest daughter, Ciara, who was two-and-a-half at the time, dancing on the stage in her Irish jersey. She was running the show.”
World Cross benefits
It was the perfect way to bring down the curtain on her World Cross Country career, which spanned a decade of competition and formed a key element to her career.
“It was really important for me and I wish I could have run more times at the World Cross.” she says. “I valued it as an important part of my year. I always took a big break after the track season, but after coming back, the World Cross always gave me a mini-focus and a reason to be out there training.
“I would absolutely recommend competing at the World Cross because it takes you out of your comfort zone,” she says. “You don’t have control of what is going on; it is a very aggressive race. You have to approach it with an open mind and allow yourself to hurt as much as you can.
“In some ways it is the hardest race in the world,” she adds. “But you can gain so much from it.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF