Irish Olympian dons running spikes again following lockdown

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One of Ireland’s top Olympic runners donned racing spikes again for the first time in weeks as athletics tracks emerged from coronavirus lockdown.

Kerry O’Flaherty, 38, from Newcastle in Co Down, admitted she had been nervous at the prospect of having lost some speed.

The Mary Peters Track in South Belfast opened its doors again on Monday to elite runners as Northern Ireland eases its restrictions.

She is a 3,000 metre steeplechaser who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

This year’s Tokyo Games have been put back to 2021 due to a pandemic which has grounded sports around the world.

Athletes like Ms O’Flaherty have been following “winter”-style programmes designed to build stamina rather than speed in the absence of race meetings.

She said: “I have been training on trails and the road and the beach so it has been great to get back to the track.”

The athlete was recovering from injury so the coronavirus restrictions actually gave her extra time to recuperate without worrying about missing events.

She said her fellow competitors in countries like Australia had been able to return to training much earlier and swimmers in Northern Ireland still faced difficulties – but added it was good to be back.

Being at home more meant being closer to the fridge, but she said she had many years experience of being disciplined and keeping a good balanced diet.

She runs around 70 miles a week in training.

Dame Mary Peters 80th birthday
Mary Peters Track, named after the Munich Olympics gold medal-winning pentathlete from the city, is Northern Ireland’s pre-eminent venue for athletes (Liam McBurney/PA)

Kerry Woods, a director at Athletics Northern Ireland, said: “It has been a very difficult time for our athletes, to try and find an alternative venue.

“It has been very challenging for a lot of them.

“We are delighted to have it back and up and open.”

Only 12 people are allowed at the same time, with a maximum of six sportsmen and women and coaches working together.

Sand pits for the long jump remain closed and athletes have to take their own equipment and use hand cleaners.

Normally at this time of year up to 28,000 people would use the South Belfast venue, including many school sports days, but this year most staff were furloughed and the area is quiet.

Ms Woods said: “We have seen a big impact on the revenue that will bring in.

“It has a financial impact but that is nearly 30,000 athletes who won’t be able to train and get the benefit of such an amazing facility.”

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