Kerry O'Flaherty wades through Antrim mud ahead of Rio Olympic trip
Kerry O'Flaherty was happy to wade through thick Antrim mud on Saturday as she continued her build-up to competing in the Olympic Stadium in Rio next August.
The county Down woman was pleased with her 11th place finish in cold and mucky conditions which could scarcely be any further removed from what she will have to face in the Brazilian city.
Twelve months ago, the county Down woman was in the 'Olympic hopeful' category.
Her 3,000m steeplechase personal best and Northern Ireland record of 9:52.94 set in May 2014 had been good enough to earn her a Commonwealth Games spot in Glasgow but was still almost eight seconds outside the Rio standard.
The Newcastle athlete and her coach and partner, Richard Rodgers, believed the Olympic mark was within reach, even though her name wasn't necessarily cropping up in Irish athletics circles about likely Rio qualifiers.
However, on a July evening in Letterkenny, O'Flaherty helped create a piece of Irish athletics history as she, Michelle Finn and Sara Treacy all pushed each other to achieve the Olympic Games standard.
O'Flaherty's time of 9:42.61 cut nearly 10 seconds off her previous personal best as Finn (9:43.34) and Treacy (9:44:15) were also under the Rio mark of nine minutes and 45 seconds.
Irish steeplechase trio motivating each other
"I don't think three Irish athletes had ever achieved an Olympic qualifying standard in the same race in Ireland," recalls O'Flaherty about an achievement which came five days before her 34th birthday.
"I'd become great friends with Michelle Finn and before that race in Letterkenny we said we'd not let each other go in that race and that's what happened.
"And if you were talking in terms of a rivalry between the three of us, the way I would put it is that myself, Michelle and Sara have all really spurred each other on to put the work in."
In under 10 minutes, O'Flaherty's life had taken a dramatic turn.
First up, the county Down woman had booked herself a trip to the World Championships in Beijing six weeks later.
The trip to China didn't go entirely to plan as she suffered in humid conditions with her heat time some 23 seconds outside her Letterkenny run.
"When I ran in Letterkenny, that was when I really peaked in terms of the season and it was a long time to hold that through six weeks to late August.
"I held back at the start of the steeplechase heat but it was still very, very fast right from the start and I quickly got into lactic."
As Kerry began to suffer, she realised why so many of her fellow competitors had been wearing ice-jackets in the call-room before the steeplechase qualifier.
"My body temperature starting rising and rising and the lactic started to build and I struggled in the last kilometre.
"But hopefully I've learned a few things about how to cope with the heat a bit better."
Arguably, even more significant to O'Flaherty's chances of doing herself justice at the Olympics is that she will be able to plan her season, given that she has already banked the Rio standard.
"If I hadn't got the qualifying, the plan probably would have been to go to the (United) States early this year for altitude training and then chase the Rio time in the late Spring meetings at places like Stanford.
"It would have been a massive expense as well having to do that in addition to the toll that it would have taken on the body."
Instead, O'Flaherty is now in a position where she can largely pick and choose her races.
O'Flaherty wins European team bronze
The 34-year-old also arrived into 2016 as a European cross country team medallist after helping the Ireland women clinch bronze at last month's championships in Hyeres.
Follwing her outing in the Northern Ireland vest at Saturday's IAAF Antrim International Cross Country event at Greenmount, the Newcastle athlete is planning a short indoor season before heading to her regular altitude base of Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees later in the Spring.
"I will probably base myself there until August and travel to races in the early summer from Barcelona including the European Championships in Amsterdam, which are five weeks before the Olympics.
"I am in a good position but I still have to show decent form and I will hopefully get through a round at the Europeans to give myself some good preparation for Rio."
O'Flaherty's support from the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, which includes twice-weekly hurdling sessions with Tom Reynolds, has also been supplemented by sponsorship from three Downpatrick-based McGrady businesses, which she says, will cover her altitude training costs ahead of Rio.
Coach and partner Rodgers the planner
While SINI and her new sponsors are vital ingredients to O'Flaherty's Olympic build-up, the constant in her athletics life, and indeed personal life, is coach and partner Rodgers.
O'Flaherty's first Facebook post after the Letterkenny race thanked Rodgers for "sticking with me and believing in my dreams".
"Richard has developed a really good programme for me. He is happy to listen to other coaches with maybe a bit more experience in certain areas.
"We've learned from the likes of Chris Jones coming in at times on the endurance side of things because I came essentially from a 1500m background.
"Richard plans everything out. Looks at the race programme and that takes a little bit of pressure off me.
"And with me getting the Olympic standard, I now have to fill in the whereabouts forms in terms of being available at all times for drugs testing so he is able to remind me about things like that.
"Richard has been coaching me for the best part of 10 years and now that we're partners, I suppose our lives are very athletics orientated.
"But it seems to be working very well."