Ultra runner Paddy O’Leary has never trained for a road race but recently ran a 2:20 marathon.

He may be better versed hurtling over the trails, but after his 2:20:42 performance at the California International Marathon (CIM), Paddy O’Leary will now give some serious thought to targeting the marathon standard for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games.

The prospect of competing internationally in dual running disciplines is only one of the talking points in the relatively unknown Irish ultra runner’s story.

A novice to the sport, O’Leary only started running seriously three years ago and jumped straight into the trails, mountains and ultra running.

Intriguingly, his participation in December’s CIM was not planned, and only happened as a result of a devastating Camp Fire that wreaked havoc across northern California.

In the months prior, O’Leary had been training specifically for a 50 mile ultra trail race with 10,000ft of climbing, but, due to the poor air quality caused by the fires, that race was cancelled.

He was left with a predicament. Accept his season was over and have a break before regrouping for 2019, or find a race to at least put the work from training to good use. His legs did need a run-out, right?

So who is Paddy O’Leary?

The 30 year-old was born and raised in Wexford, Ireland. Growing up, like most Irish teenagers, he played a lot of team sports, primarily Gaelic football, before excelling in lacrosse at University College Dublin.

After relocating to American shores in late 2013 to take up a research position at the University of California, San Francisco, he jokingly says he “fell in with a bad crowd” of ultra and trail runners.

“The people I run with are all mountain, trail and ultra runners, and I felt very drawn to that side of running when I moved out to America,” he tells Fast Running. “In San Francisco we have an unbelievable playground in our backyard with some of the best trails across the country.

“That just opened my eyes to the ground you can cover with your own two feet and I was hooked after that.”

Running on the mountains and trails was a fun pastime during his first couple of years stateside.

However, that would soon change.

By 2015, the incremental signs of improvement were enough to awaken O’Leary’s love for competitive sport once more, and he felt called to get serious about training and racing.

Over the next couple of years, that competitive streak saw O’Leary compete and challenge the front end of various 100km and 50 miler races. The progress he made in those short couple of years did not go unnoticed and at the start of 2018 he made his Irish debut at the Trail Running World Championships.

Photo: K. Kortebein

A change of plans

Jump forward to autumn, and the talented ultra runner aimed to close out this year’s racing at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Marin Headlands, California on November 17.

However, after months of training for the 50 mile trail race, his plans were thwarted at the last moment due to the fires in northern California.

“I had already been tapering at the start of November for the 50 miler, but then the race was cancelled,” he explains. “I still wanted to run a race, and a good friend of mine, Tim Tollefson, who is an ultra runner for Hoka, connected me with the elite coordinators of the CIM.

“It was kind of tricky to get a place because this was the US Championships, but I managed to get a spot.

“I then had two weeks to get ready for the road marathon, but because the smoke was still pretty bad, I did two or three big tempo workouts on a treadmill, which was kind of soul sucking.

“Thankfully the smoke began to clear up a week and a half before the race and I managed one big run outside and a couple of speed sessions.”

So after months preparing – both physically and mentally – for an ultra trail race, O’Leary got ready – in what little time he had – for a road marathon.

Race day came and in his own words he “wanted to push my limits and risk having a bit of carnage at the end”. It paid off, and, having never specifically trained for a road race, O’Leary now has a 2:20:42 marathon best.

It took a huge 10 minute off his debut 2:30:34 at the 2017 Boston Marathon. Again, this was something he did not specially train for as he was in the midst of mountain training.

“My time at the CIM was a big surprise of course, although I did approach the race with cautious optimism of running a fast time, even though I was training for the longer ultra race,” he says. “I felt I had a time like that in me, but I also approached the race with no expectations whatsoever.

“I have done a lot of speed work over the last year and a half. That gave me the confidence to know I was capable of knocking a couple of minutes off my Boston time. I was delighted to take 10 minutes off and get in that 2:20 range.

“Reflecting on the race, I was 140th after one mile and by the finish line I was 68th. I have to be happy with that, it’s just the lack of training caught up with me in the end.”

The CIM itself was won in a time of 2:12:39. However, because the race incorporated the US Championships, a huge depth of talent was in town, and O’Leary’s 2:20:42 performance only saw him finish 68th overall.

In comparison, the same time would have ranked 15th in this year’s London Marathon or 26th in 2017.

It should be noted that the course is point-to-point and has a net downhill, but that does not take anything away from the performance. The CIM is a Boston Marathon and US Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier after all.

The cross country factor

O’Leary credits running in the Bay Area’s cross country circuit as a major contributing factor in the huge strides he has made during his short running career.

“The race I was meant to do, The North Face Endurance Challenge, is a long fast 50 miler, so I used cross country quite a lot to train for it over the autumn,” he says. “I have been running cross country in the US for the last two years, and my speed and mental attitude to racing has vastly improved from that short fast racing.

“After the 50 miler was cancelled and I jumped into the CIM, the quick running in cross country really carried me through the road marathon.”

When asked about the cross country conditions and level of competition he adds: “There is a variety to it. Several of the courses would be fairly flat, but there is also one or two that head up into the hills and would incorporate a good bit of climbing. There is no muck in California though.

“Out of all the post collegiate circuits in the US, the Pacific Association in Northern California would be one of the strongest. You have a lot of former NCAA All American athletes and a lot of Olympic trial qualifiers jumping into the cross country races.

“As an ultra runner it is really fun to hold my own with them. Our team, which is all ultra or trail runners, is strong and we are able to compete, which was great.”

Future plans

O’Leary has one more year as an oncology postdoctoral researcher at UCSF. After that, he would like to take a step back from full-time work and predominantly focus on running for a few years.

“I am thinking about moving back to Europe, likely towards the mountains, so in the Alps regions,” he says. “I would love to do a full season of mountain racing in Europe and also to be closer to home and be more involved with the Irish mountain running scene.”

In terms of his immediate running future, his 2:20 marathon performance – having never trained for a road race – has opened up his eyes to the potential of a dual running career on the trails/mountains and roads.

“It has definitely crossed my mind and giving the next Olympics a shot is something to think about,” he enthuses. “My time ranks me as the 11th fastest in Ireland this year, but I know I would have to get down to the low 2:17 / high 2:16 to be at all eligible for Tokyo 2020.

“However, my time at the CIM has certainly given me a lot of hope and optimism to what I might be capable of after a block of proper training for the roads.”

Now back in Ireland for the Christmas break, O’Leary intends to give a lot of consideration towards planning his 2019 season.

Somewhere at the top of his list is whether or not to dedicate a few months of training solely to road running and target an autumn marathon.

“For 2019 I was always aiming to run my first 100 mile race, specifically the UTMB around Mount Blanc in France/Switzerland,” he explains. “That was my initial plan, but now I am considering taking a step back from the trails later in the year to really try and knock more off my road marathon time.

“If I do run a marathon next year I might aim for New York in November or CIM again in December.

“However, I won’t commit yet, because I could go completely the other direction and stay on the trails for the World Trail Long Distance Championships, which take place in Argentina in November. So that is attracting me too.

“They will be both brilliant to do, but it’s a nice problem to have.”

Whatever he decides over the coming months, it will be his decision, but one thing that is already confirmed, O’Leary’s has a bright future ahead of him on all terrains.

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