After a shining junior career that brought her to Arkansas Tech on scholarship, and to the European Junior Cross Country Championships in 2005, Aoife Cooke went off the radar. Now she’s back with some big marathon ambitions. 

The 2019 National Marathon Champion (2:32:34) left the states after three years with osteopenia and completed her education at the University College of Cork. On the US programme she noted that there was a huge focus on short term results, but “when you’re not running well it is a different story”.

Cooke, who comes from Ballincollig, took a few years off competing in her mid twenties but never stopped running. In 2015 she decided to do the Cork Marathon to get back into it and ran a 3.15. That was followed with a 2.46 in Amsterdam in 2017 under coach Emmet Dunleavy.

At the end of a difficult 2018 she left her office job where she knew she was not happy and began to work for herself as a Personal Trainer. It suits her much better and the flexibility allows her to train at a higher level. She is now coached by John Starrett from Tralee.

Working towards Toyko, but with plenty of good years to come

Before her victory at the National Marathon Championships, which puts at least one foot on the plane to Tokyo 2020, she says her biggest achievement in athletics was probably winning the National Novice cross country individual title.

Now, with a 14 minute marathon personal best under her belt, and in her own words, still young at age 33, she sees things in her future that she would not have seen before.

Age is an interesting topic in athletics at the moment, and when I put it to her that she has a good 10, if not 15, years of good running ahead of her yet, she couldn’t agree more.

Have the pressures grown?

With her focus on a spring marathon, probably Dusseldorf to try better her time again, I ask: does she feel more pressure to perform now that there are tangible opportunities in front of her?

“At the end of the day I have come a long way from where I started, a very long way. If I make it I make it. If I don’t I’ll be disappointed but at least I know I gave it my best shot.”

She also noted that given her age, if things don’t go well this year and she doesn’t make it to Tokyo she will still have another shot at the Olympics. “I have confidence that if I can stay injury free then I can do a better time than I did in Dublin, but you don’t know until you go through the training”.

Her plans include a 6 week trip to Iten, Kenya, for her first altitude training camp.

Inspired by Sinead Diver

In terms of dreaming of what she is capable of, seeing someone like Sinead Diver come into her own these last few years makes her think “wow I can have at least another ten years and she is still improving”. Their similarities are encouraging. Both did not compete in their mid twenties and came back to, or in Diver’s case, took up the sport in later years.

“She is fresh because she only started a few years ago and she is hungry for it, where as if you keep going from being a juvenile all the way through you know, you get tired and your body gets tired.

The best thing about taking the time off especially in college, you can go out and enjoy yourself and don’t have to worry about getting up going running 15 miles in the morning. I got the best of both worlds I had my time as a college student and now I get to have my time as an athlete.”

The USA and injuries

Female athlete health is a hot topic right now, and as time goes on more and more former collegiate athletes are coming out with their own versions of what Mary Cain experienced at the Nike Oregon Project in terms of nutrition deficit and bone health.

Aoife never felt pressure to lose weight but “definitely wasn’t taking care of myself” nutritionally.

She puts this down to a lack of education rather than a culture of weight-loss on her college team – “nobody was taking into account what I was or was not eating.” There was no advice on food, despite it being a crucial factor in performing as well as general health.

It is also very hard to eat well in America with so much fast food available. As a scholarship athlete her meals were provided in the canteen but it “wasn’t the best quality stuff”.

Photo: David Fitzgerald sportsfile

When you’re good, you’re good

Cooke made the point that in America it is very results driven, if you are running well they are all over you but it can be lonely when you’re not.

When she had to stop because of injuries she did not get a whole lot of support, which is why she came home prematurely in the end. “I’m there and I am injured and I can’t run and there is nobody helping me”. Luckily she has totally reversed the osteopenia now and has good bone density again.

On the maelstrom of media attention on this, what is her reaction? “I can’t say I am surprised.” There are “so many other things to take into account” apart from weight. “You can’t just stop eating and run well”.

“You don’t drive your car with no fuel in it. It might give you some short term gains but long term, no way.” Part of the problem is the pressure the schools are under for quick results as they paid out for scholarships, “they might get some results for a year, but then the next year, what are you going to do?”

Lifetime goals

Getting to the Olympics is”to the fore at the moment”. She would love to run the standard in the spring rather than rely on ranking. It is a big leap but she is confident that with her trip to Kenya and how training has gone so far that it is doable.

Her last two marathons saw her knock 30 and 14 minutes off her previous bests, so three minutes does sound achievable.

The 2:32 marathoner feels she is only at the start line of her career as a senior athlete and beginning to tap into that potential that has been there all along.

“Before Dublin I would have said let’s see what I can do, but now you know there is no limit. It boosted my confidence a lot and knowing that I am a 2.32 marathoner helps a lot.” Nobody can take that time away now, nor the Dublin national marathon victory.

The sky is the limit and as Sinead Diver shows, a 2:25 marathon isn’t impossible for am Irish born runner. “It could happen in four or five years.” We’ll be watching her future marathon career with excitement.

Bláithín is a middle distance and cross country athlete who has been known to accidentally run into trees. She is in total denial about having to work for a living – you can follow her attempts at run-commuting to work on Strava.

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