Born to run: Olympic hopeful Ciara Mageean on the power of prayer... and a boyfriend who's very understanding
The 27-year-old from Portaferry tells John Meagher about her strong religious faith, the frustrations of competing against athletes who dope and why she's obsessed with running a sub-four minute race in Tokyo
Ciara Mageean prays every day, usually at night before she settles down for a long sleep, but she never seeks divine intervention when it comes to her races.
And there's a very good reason for that. "I don't pray to win," she quips. "Because that would mean that my God would be fighting someone else's god up there! I mean, if I'm racing a Muslim and she's praying too, it would be a case of whose god is going to win?"
The 27-year-old from Portaferry, Co Down, is one of the bright lights of Irish athletics, especially after her brilliant performance in the World Athletics Championships last month. She came 10th in the 1,500m final and her career-best time of 4.00.15 would have been enough to win gold in seven of the eight previous tournaments.
There were plenty of prayers in Doha - the controversial Qatari location for the championships - but they were general wishes to stay injury-free. "I usually pray for family and friends but I also pray that I can go out (to compete) and walk away happy.
"People might go, 'She's a wee Holy Joe' and my friends do joke about it, but I grew up in a Catholic household and went to Mass every weekend and it means a lot to me. I see prayer as a form of meditation and I also see the sort of strength it gave my granny when she had cancer and was near the end of her life.
"I'd be lying and sinning, though, if I told you I went to Mass every weekend. I don't - but I go when I can."
Mageean is refreshingly upfront about her faith - and she is just happy to shoot the breeze on just about anything. In an era in which sports people have become so conditioned to say nothing of interest when a journalist's tape recorder is placed in front of them, she comes across as the last of a dying breed.
The general public got a sense of that in her boisterous post-race TV interviews at the World Athletics Championships. She was clearly overjoyed to have done so well in her races and her enthusiasm proved infectious judging by the social media reaction.
"The response to it was ecstatic," she says. "I laughed to myself thinking, 'I must have been very dour before that!'
"For me, it's the coming of age and the realisation that this is my sport and I belong here and in the past maybe I thought that I had to have this air of professionalism and this stern face to show you were taking it very seriously.
"But then I realised that no, you shape your own path and if someone doesn't believe I'm serious, they can come and live with me and see how seriously I take it all.
"You can still compete with a smile on your face and I like to think that it's a good thing to show young people that sport can be very enjoyable and you can have a lot of fun out there.
"I just have to be careful in those live interviews not to swear!"
Mageean has long been seen as one of the great hopes of Irish athletics. She competed in the Rio Olympics in 2016 and all eyes will be on her when she takes part in next year's Tokyo Olympics.
She will be hoping to beat one of Ireland's greatest athletes Sonia O'Sullivan's long-standing 1,500m record of 3:58.85 and the prospect of working towards running a sub-four drives her in every training session. "It's not so much that I'm obsessed with four now," she says, "it's 3:59 that keeps going around in my head." In her wildest dreams, she says, she allows herself to think that she might run the distance in 3.55, but accepts that times of 3:57 or 3:58 are more realistic.
Mageean has been training professionally with Team New Balance in Manchester for the past two years. She says it - and coach Steve Vernon - have helped take her to a whole new level.
"And living in the house with other athletes just really focuses your mind," she says. "There's Dutch, Welsh, Swedish and Scottish - we eat together, socialise together. The girls are like sisters to me now."
She settled into life in England's north west quite well although she says she misses her boyfriend. Thomas Moran is also a runner and has competed for Ireland in the past. Although he is not at Mageean's elite level, he is an invaluable training partner for her when she gets back - or when he visits.
"He would beat me in any race," she says. "It's good to train with someone faster."
They met while studying at UCD in Dublin. "He helps me in so many more ways than just pacing," she says. "I'm very lucky to have a boyfriend who's so understanding. I had to move to Manchester to bring my running to the next level and he's so supportive of that. I see him once a month - sometimes not even once a month. He's always the one that travels, and makes the sacrifice.
"I'm very lucky to have someone like him. What I'm doing requires selfishness - and Thomas encourages that selfishness! He had booked a cinema date for us and I'd to do interviews and stuff and we had to cancel it - I'm just a horrible girlfriend!"
The day before she sits down for this interview, she and Moran had planned a lazy morning together.
But best laid plans went awry with drug testers called. It was the third time she had been tested since coming home from Doha.
"The second time I was in Kells because my boyfriend's granny had died and on 6am on the morning of the funeral the testers came. And yesterday, it was like, 'Seriously?' I just wanted a wee cuddle with him before he had to go to work and I'd be returning to Manchester.
"I'm not angry about it. It's just a bit of an inconvenience - but I am grateful for it, because I've nothing to hide."
Athletics has been badly tarnished by doping scandals over the past decade. And during the World Championships the sport's most celebrated coach Alberto Salazar - who trained Mo Farah among several other star athletes - was found guilty by a long-running anti-drugs investigation and banned for four years.
"As an athlete, I am disgusted and appalled by it," Mageean says.
"It's so frustrating. And those are the people (dopers) I have to race against as well. I'm very happy that the investigations are happening and people are getting caught and that's what clean athletes want to see happening.
"I hate it when people all tar us with the same brush and say athletics is so dirty and they're all at it - which we're not.
"Most of the athletes that I know, I'd put my life on the line to say that they're clean. I know I'm a clean athlete and it's awful that I'm tarnished by those others. I wear my Irish vest with pride knowing I've done it all honestly."
Sifan Hassan, the Ethiopian-born Dutch athlete, won the 1,500m final in a canter. It came just days after she had taken gold in the 10,000m - running the last 1,500m of that in a sub-four minute time leading many, including Sonia O'Sullivan, to question how such a feat was possible. Hassan was coached by Salazar and in a tearful, emotional post-race interview she insisted that she is not a doper.
Mageean sighs. "How do I deal with that? That's someone I'm going to come up with in the future. They're tested. They say, 'I'm a clean athlete'. There's nothing I can do and I just hope that the sport catches up any dirty athletes and dirty coaches and all of these investigations continue to happen." To be clear, Mageean is not accusing Hassan of doping.
"It was interesting that she (Hassan) said afterwards that she was very angry because her coach was banned, but she didn't express anger at him for what he did. If my coach was banned from the sport, you can be damn well sure I'd be very disappointed in him and the fact that he had brought my name into disrepute by doing something he shouldn't have been doing."
She accepts that some have switched off from athletics as a result of drugs scandals but she believes other, wealthier sports have had a far easier ride.
"Other sports aren't scrutinised as closely," she says. "The likes of soccer and rugby. They don't have the testing structure that we have in athletics and they don't have the publicity about it either. There are soccer and rugby players that have tested positive and it isn't publicised and I would wonder why that's the case."
Could the money that swishes around those sports, she wonders, be a factor? "We don't earn big bucks in athletics," she says with a laugh.
"You earn a living and you can feed yourself, but I'm not saving for a house."
She says she is grateful for sponsorship opportunities from the likes of New Balance and Circle K - and she sits down with Weekend on the day that she launches the Here for Ireland campaign for the latter brand. Her main source of income is derived from Sport Ireland and she receives assistance from Sport NI too.
"Brands are interested in the year leading up to the Olympics but outside of that it can be very difficult, so when there is a chance to get sponsorship you have to jump at it."
Mageean grew up in Portaferry and athletics wasn't her first love. It was camogie, which she played with great enthusiasm.
"Even though it's a (Gaelic) football county, hurling and camogie are really big where I'm from and all my idols growing up were camogie players and hurlers."
It was only when she started secondary school that she started to run seriously.
"My PE coach asked me to join the cross country team. I only joined an athletics club when I was 15 or so but I don't think it was a disadvantage to come to it later. Playing camogie really helped me with athletics. I was strong and I only started getting injuries when I gave it up. And as it's a team sport it really helped me with social skills."
Her love of camogie has never abated and when she is back in Portaferry she still pucks a sliotar around with her father and siblings.
"I've two hurls in Manchester," she says, proudly. "It's part of who I am."
Her training regime is, as one might imagine, intense. She thinks in miles, rather then kilometres and over the winter she will average 75 miles a week.
There's training virtually every day with a treble session on Wednesdays and especially demanding sessions on Tuesdays and Fridays. "But Steve makes sure that we've a lot of fun - we crack up with laughter every time. He always says, 'A happy athlete is a fast athlete'."
Sleep is crucial. "We all go up to bed at about 10pm and have a chat while brushing our teeth. I'm not the best sleeper - I'm up a lot during the night because I have to wee. But I'm lying down resting for about 10 hours all up. And I'll nap during the day, too - sometimes for as long as 90 minutes. It's vital to help you recover from hard training."
She is careful about what she eats, but not fanatical.
"The last time to have chocolate? Last night. We're doing so many miles that we have to get the calories in, but it is a balanced diet and I often eat the same foods. I wouldn't be one to go out to a restaurant and ask them to use a specific oil (for cooking) or anything like that."
There is no opportunity to meet with Thomas before she has to fly back to Manchester after our interview. And while she will get to rest that evening, it's back to hard training the next morning. Mageean is not one to complain, however.
"I'm getting to do something that I love and if I'm to reach the potential that I think I'm capable of, I have to put the work in."
There's a smile on her face. "If you'd told me at the beginning of the year that I'd finish in the world's top 10, I'd have taken your arm off. It's going in the right direction and, please God, I stay free of injury."
A prayer or two might help with that.
Ciara Mageean is an ambassador for Circle K. Customers can use the Circle K app or their loyalty tag in-store to generate digital coins that Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls can use to fuel their journey to the Tokyo 2020 Games. To support the athletes, simply download the Circle K app