THE demands on inter-county GAA players have prompted many to walk away from the sport earlier than they probably should have.
Many, like Lar Corbett, do so in order to focus on their profession, while others pursue the social life that playing GAA at the highest level had forced them to sacrifice.
Paul Tierney is a name that few outside of Cork might recall, but he was another such example. Tierney’s case bucks the trend, however. He played his last game of senior inter-county hurling at just 22 and decided to quit as another sporting pursuit was grabbing his attention.
What dragged Tierney away from GAA in 2005 was triathlons, but since then he’s continued to raise the bar for what his body can handle. Last July, he finished third in the Ultra Tour of the Lake District, a 105-mile race around the mountainous region of north-west England.
The pre-season slog around a muddy pitch in January is dreaded by every GAA player, but it suddenly sounds more appealing when contrasted with running up and down mountains for 24 hours and 34 minutes – Tierney’s finishing time for the Lakeland 100, a challenge that involves a climb of 6,800 metres.
Tierney, now 29, was a member of the Cork panel that won the All-Ireland hurling title in 2004 and, with age on his side, had a promising future ahead in the red jersey. But his ambitions changed. Hurling no longer got the blood pumping as it once had.
The game loses its lustre for many players, but what is it about gruelling ultra-running that appealed to Tierney more than the game he played and loved since the age of six?
“I just find an attraction in being out literally all day running, moving off your own steam without any bikes or other forms of transport. It’s just your own two legs carrying you so it doesn’t really matter what the distance is, whether it’s 50 miles or 100,” says Tierney, a Garda based in Cobh.
Why? That’s the first question he’s asked when people try to comprehend what motivates someone to push themselves to such extreme limits. The next question is, how? The challenge is more psychological than physical, says Tierney.
“Conditioning yourself physically to do it, obviously there’s a certain amount involved in being able to get around the hundred miles, but when you’re doing that kind of a distance, a huge portion of what you need is mental strength,” he explains.
“With a hundred-mile race, you only have to do it on that particular day. If you had to do that every week, then you’d see that you wouldn’t be able to condition yourself to do it, but in a one-off event, you just find that you slog through it.
“Okay, you’ll have bad patches, but because running 100 miles takes so long, you just accept beforehand that you’re going to have probably 20 bad patches. There are times when you feel like absolute crap, so you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m feeling terrible right now, but in an hour’s time I’m going to be fine.’
“Conditioning yourself is a huge part of it but you probably build that up over a few years. I started by doing a couple of 30-mile mountain runs. They took around eight hours and I couldn’t believe I was after running for that length of time.
“When you’ve done the 30, then you start thinking that maybe you could do 40, 50 or whatever and so on. You just keep progressing like that. But the body is a funny thing.
“It’s just about putting up with the pain. It gets to a stage where one thing is sore for an hour, but then that goes away and there’s something else hurting you. But you eventually you get to a point where you stop thinking about just completing it and you start thinking about competing.”
In August, Tierney will travel to France for his biggest challenge yet – the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, ultra-running’s All-Ireland. It takes in Italy and Switzerland before finishing in the French town of Chamonix. 72-mile and 105-mile races in the Lake District in May and July will be his warm-up.
“The Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc is seen as the big one, so I’ve always wanted to do it,” says Tierney, whose ultra-running career is entirely self-funded without any sponsorship.
“The cream of the crop go to it. A lad I was on the Irish team with for the Trail World Championships, he finished 34th overall in the UTMB last year, which is a very good result, so I’d be hoping to be in and around there.”
Tierney has a Celtic Cross on the mantelpiece, but having been on the periphery of the Cork team from 2003 to ’05, it’s not something he broadcasts proudly. He was a highly-rated midfielder -cum-half-back, but dislodging the likes of Jerry O’Connor, John Gardiner and Seán Óg Ó hAilpin was never going to be easy.
“I probably went as far as I could with Cork,” he says. “I was definitely missing something. I always worked hard but you need something extra and maybe I didn’t have it. I don’t look back wondering if only I had done this or that, I might have made the Cork team.
“I wish I had played more but I couldn’t blame anyone else for that. It’s down to whether you’re good enough or not and they proved that the right team was picked in the success they had.
“I also realised with the running that I wasn’t too bad at it, so I just decided to go for it. It’s all about how you perceive yourself and your own ability. Maybe when I was hurling, I perceived myself to be not quite good enough and not able to deal with it mentally.
“I was always worried going out on the pitch that I wasn’t going to play well and that made me tense. I’d look at fellas like John Gardiner and Jerry O’Connor – lads who’d have been playing in similar positions to me – and the confidence just oozed out of them. Obviously they’re great hurlers but having belief in what you can do is a huge part of it as well.”
Leaving the Cork panel wasn’t too difficult, but it was a different matter when he informed his club Blackrock that he’d no longer be available. Tierney had helped the club to win three Cork SHC titles – the first of those at the age of 17 – and was a symbol for hope for the future in what was an aging team.
“At the time I know there was a lot of talk behind my back in the club, people asking what in the name of God is this asshole up to? I probably expected that attitude from some people, but if they stopped for a second they’d realise there’s more to life, and you only get one life so you might as well live it properly.
“Their attitude was that you’re not going to the Olympics or something like that so why not play with us for a few more years and then go off and do whatever you want? That’s probably not a bad point to make, but any of us could be dead tomorrow or next year, so I want to do it while I can.
“I wasn’t going to be much good to a club if I wasn’t a hundred per cent committed to it. It would show on the field and it probably did too. I didn’t really want to be there so I wasn’t playing well as a result.”
Tierney recently resumed his involvement with Blackrock by agreeing to take the physical training sessions for the club’s senior team. He admits that the desire to dust off the hurley once again is still there, but that urge won’t get the better of him.
“I would actually like to play a few games but I can’t give the full commitment and I’m not going to just turn up every so often to play a game when some other fella who’s been training all year might end up missing out. That wouldn’t be fair. I’ve got plenty of my own commitments with running anyway so there’s no way it could fit in.”
100-mile races are Tierney’s thing for now, but he hasn’t finished raising the bar just yet.
“If I say to someone I’m doing a 100-mile race, they’ll tell me I’m mad, but there’s always someone madder than you. No matter what, there’s always something bigger. If I hadn’t qualified for the UTMB this year, I was going to another race in Italy instead in September.
“It’s the same principle – a huge loop around the Alps – but it’s actually 205 miles long, so it’s double the distance and probably double the elevation as well in terms of climbing involved. The winner last year did it in 80 hours, so three-and-a-bit days.”
When you’re reluctantly dragging yourself off the couch tonight to do a few laps of the local park, keep Paul Tierney’s 24-hour trek around Mont-Blanc in mind and the evening jog might not seem like such a chore after all.