If you’re travelling through Kinlough on Sunday, 14th August, don’t be surprised if there are few people outdoors.
The locals will be glued to television coverage of the Olympics in Rio and especially the Women’s Marathon where one of their own will be representing Ireland.
Breege Connolly has become a local legend in the small north Leitrim town after she was selected on the Irish athletics team for the Rio Olympics.
A late developer, Breege has made great strides in her athletic career, culminating in her selection - and a place in Leitrim folklore.
|Living just a matter of yards from the Donegal border, Breege went to secondary school in the Sacred Heart School in Ballyshannon, but despite the school having a strong athletic base, she didn’t really get the athletic bug until she moved to live in Belfast at the beginning of the new millennium.
She will be the fifth Olympian from Leitrim and is proud that she will represent Kinlough, who gave her a big send-off last month.
“The turnout was great, because I’ve been working away from Kinlough for a while. It’s lovely to come back and get that reception,” she said.
“I suppose it doesn’t happen very often. I know it’s a small village and it means a little more extra, too.
“I suppose it’s just a message, it doesn’t matter what size your county is. We can compete with the best of the rest.”
Breege doesn’t really fit into the dream Olympic story. “I didn’t ever have the dream of being an Olympian. I think because I started running so late in life, I was probably 23 when I started and really and truly, it is only four years ago that I started racing marathons competitively. So up until that time, I was running away and doing things on my own steam. I was taking little bits of time off the marathon.
“But then four years ago it became a little more serious with the coaches that I have. It was just one of those things that came together. It was the right race on the right day.
“Marathon is all about on the day. Perfect preparation doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a perfect race. I was lucky,” said Breege.
It was probably a miracle that she slipped through the system at school level with Pat McManus in charge of athletics at the Sacred Heart in Ballyshannon.
“Do you know what, I don’t think there was a slipping through. I think at the time, living in Kinlough with mum and dad, with just work and getting to training. It was just an opportunity lost. It just wasn’t feasible for me to be going in and out to training. I remember, I did one cross-country race with them, but that was it.
“I think it just wasn’t the time for me to run. It’s as simple as that,” said Breege, who has pedigree in the family tree, most notably in Teresa McGloin, who is among the top female athletes in the north west.
“Teresa, my cousin, was the year ahead of me and she was very good at cross-country. My sister, Caitriona, was also very good at cross-country and she did run for the Sacred Heart School. It just obviously wasn’t for me at that time. It took me a while longer to find it.”
But while she was a late developer, she has worked hard at making up time.
“I really enjoy it. Running, at its best, is just a simple sport, put on your runners and get out there and do it. I just enjoy it. There’s nothing nicer than when having free time, nothing nicer than a long run, or when the sun is shining.
“I appreciate (that some might find it difficult) but I really enjoy it. I know when you’re marathon training, you have so much to do, but you just commit and do it. For that 12 to 16 weeks, you just say it’s worth it, for this window of time. I don’t know for me if it would be sustainable for a marathon training schedule.
“But it’s a part of my life now. It is how sport has become engrained in people. No more than watching TV in the evening, it is a thing that I do and I don’t find an hour a day too much to give to it.”
Looking ahead to the Olympics, there are mixed emotions: “There is excitement, but there is probably apprehension still, just to make sure that training goes well and that you stay fit and healthy and injury free. Those are all really important factors. But as it gets closer and closer, it gets really exciting. Sure there is nothing better than representing your country and then a village like Kinlough.”
It will be her first time in Rio and while others might be worried about the zika virus, she is happy that all will be well.
“Do you know what, I probably didn’t know enough about it. On the 23rd May (the day of selection), we have been receiving emails from Athletics Ireland. I’m aware of the risks and I’ll take precautions. I think it’s very much an individual thing. I think if athletes feel the risk is too great, then that’s a wise decision for them as well. For me, I think I’m going to go with it and hope for the best that I don’t get bitten. Please God. It is the unknown. I think they are erring on the side of caution, preparing people for the worst case scenario.”
As for the marathon itself, she is just hoping that a lot of things go well.
“Every Marathon is a fingers crossed scenario. You want to put in your best performance. It will be no different. There are different factors this time with the heat and the humidity, but I’m going to do my best to prepare for them as well,” said Breege.
Breege's rise has been phenomenal for someone who says she "didn’t do a day’s exercise in my life until after I left college and even then I only started to run when I went travelling and that was only to get places quicker and to catch buses and trains.”
She joined her first athletic club when she moved to live in Belfast and that was purely, she insists, to make new friends in a new city.
That was in 2003 and she did not run her first competitive marathon for another nine years, in 2012 and that was only a few months after linking up with her current coaches and receiving proper coaching for the first time.
“When I moved to Belfast it was a strange city to me and I joined a running club, North Belfast Harriers, purely to run for fun and make friends.
“And I did that for a number of years, made many friends in the club and ran for fun and one night when I was on a night out I met my current coaches Martin Deane and Paul Elliot and they offered to coach me.”
Breege ran her first marathon, the Dublin City Marathon, in 2003 along with her cousin Finn Valley athlete Teresa McGloin, who is also a native of Kinlough.
“I was so naive, now when I look back on it, that it was unreal. I did no training worth talking about for that first marathon. I had seen Teresa out running for it so I decided to join her and go for a few runs.
“I think I did two 18 mile runs and a couple of six mile runs but that was it.”
She did not run a marathon again for nine years and after Martin Deane and Paul Elliott had taken her under their wing.
In April of last year she achieved the qualifying time for Rio in the London Marathon. She ran the London 2012 Olympic course in only her fifth ever marathon.
Her London time of 2.37:20 was well inside the Olympic Qualifying standard of 2.42.00 and just a little under three minutes inside her Rotterdam time of 2.40:25.
Breege will have Lizzie Lee, Leevale AC, and Fionnuala McCormack (nee Britton), Kilcoole AC on the Irish Marathon team for Rio, in August. Fionnuala has strong family connections in the Ballintra-Cashelard area of south Donegal.
Breege will not lack for family support fromparents Sean and Maureen as well as siblings Matt, Donal, Cathriona and Cora as well as the wider Connolly family.
No doubt she will have the whole of Kinlough and Donegal behind her as well.