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Mary Cullen Heads A new Era In Irish Middle Distance Running 
PJ Browne, Irish Runner Magazine
February 1, 2006

After the European Cross-Country Championships, Mary Cullen headed back to Providence to sit for her exams.  Then came a welcome return home to Sligo for the Christmas break closing a very successful year.  She was entitled to a rest and a break from competition, but she decided to race in Belfast after consulting with her coach Ray Treacy. Her performance in that race encapsulates the essence of this emerging star.   

"I always wanted to run that race," she explained, "but for various reasons I was never able to. I took it out hard as it was the first race of the season for the Ethiopians. They let me go at first, but then they caught me (in the final 800 metres). I was pleased with my hard effort and I didn't find the going too bad. You expect mud and muck in Ireland." Cullen finished 4th, 11 seconds behind the winner, Etheleme Kidane, and two other Ethiopians. 

It was a defining, breakout performance by the 23 year old; she is not afraid to lead from the front, or to inject a telling surge when necessary. Mary Cullen is a courageous runner, rich in talent. She will graduate from Providence in May, and begin her career as a full-time runner. 

She is one of many bright prospects in a new era of Irish middle distance running a time of transition and realism that will culminate in the 2012 London Olympics.  After finishing her studies she will stay in America. "The plan is to stay here for the foreseeable future. It's worked really well for me and I have a brilliant group to train with in  Providence." 

Cullen is an ambitious athlete, but she is under no illusions about what the future might bring. "It's really a matter of where athletics will take me. I hope to get some kind of sponsorship, and if I meet the criteria some funding from the Irish Sports Council." 

In the meantime she has unfinished business in collegiate athletics. "My immediate goals are the indoor and outdoor NCAAs. I definitely want to win an NCAA title before I graduate." Last year Cullen finished 3rd in the 10k outdoor meet. "Johanna Nielsen (Sweden) will again be a formidable opponent, but the competition is always there in the NCAA finals."  

The European Championships in August will be her first post collegiate test. "The Europeans are very important to us now," she explains, "because the World Championships are so difficult to compete in with the African dominance. After that there is the Euro cross country, and I'd be hoping for a top 5 finish there, and maybe even a medal." 

"I'm excited about this summer, and when I go home in July, I'll be trying to get a training group together in Dublin with Roisin McGettigan and the other girls. Maybe we can get into a few races in Europe or England before the Championships." 

Cullen has run consistently well since last Summer. "Things have gone nicely for me. I had a good winter. If I can continue on that path, keep doing the training that Ray is giving me then I can't complain." Within hours of this conversation, Cullen ran a 9:02.13, 3k, an improvement of 12 seconds on her PB, placing her 10th on the Irish all time indoor 3k list. She was over a minute ahead of the runner up, testimony to her willingness to take the initiative in what was essentially a solo time trial. 

Mary Cullen comes from an enthusiastic sporting family At home in Sligo are two sisters and a brother. Mary is the second eldest. She was a lukewarm Manchester United fan. That didn't last long in a household that's staunchly Blackburn Rovers. Needless to stay Mary is the biggest sporting star in the Cullen family. 

"My little sister really looks up to me and it's nice to see her running a little. The family are totally behind me, as are all my immediate neighbours. Sometimes you might feel forgotten about over here but they are always reading about my races and it's reassuring to know that even from a distance we are very much in touch." She is very close to her family but accepts that long absences are part of full-time athletics. 

The life of a modern professional athlete doesn't allow for much contemplation. "You need to relax between the hard workouts," says Cullen, "especially when we are going two a day. A lot of us socialise with one another. It's a very close group, and we're all aiming for the same sorts of things, so there are no major distractions." 

"I like to read, especially sports autobiographies. I'm just finishing Caitriona McKiernan's book which is very interesting." Her musical tastes range from Robbie Williams, to Coldplay, and Postal Service. 

"I had a bout with shin-splints and stress fractures early on but I hope I can avoid them," she adds. Her training and ways of competing are in keeping with Ray Treacy's formula of ongoing training, racing, rest and recovery tailored to individual needs and capabilities.  

Cullen will graduate with a social science degree. "I'm not really sure about what I'd like to go into after athletics. Most likely I will return home and pursue a career in Ireland." Her focus is entirely on athletics, until she has satisfied her aspirations. " The big, big plan is of course the Olympics. To get to an Olympic Games is the ultimate. Making it to a final would be an added bonus. But really, representing your country at the Olympics is its own reward right there." 

Cullen is a well- rounded articulate young woman. She speaks with a refreshing and thoughtful candour.  The line that divides those who make it to the top from those who don't is a very thin one, and Cullen understands this better than most.   This may be her most solitary journey, but chatting with her reinforces the sense that when it matters most, she won't be far from the top.

Last weekend Cullen was an easy winner of a 5000m race in the Terrier Classic in Boston. Her time of 15:39.43 was the fastest time in the US Collegiate ranks this season 

Editor's Note: Our apologies in the delay in publishing this article. PJ Browne is an author for Irish Runner Magazine which should not be confused with irishrunner.com.

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