68. Caitríona Jennings: The mindset of the long distance runner

Sue Stockdale talks to Caitríona Jennings, an Olympic athlete and current Irish 50km and 100km record holder about the preparation, training and mindset required to perform at the highest level of athletics.

Caitríona initially representing her country as a junior triathlete before competing for Ireland in the Olympics and World Championship events. Caitríona has always balanced her athletic career with a successful professional career. Having studied Law and Accounting in University, Caitríona joined the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2001 and was promoted to the position of Tax Director before joining Goshawk Aviation as Head of Tax in 2016.  Currently living in Hong Kong, Caitríona took on a new role as VP Risk in CDB Aviation in 2019 when she relocated here with her husband.  Caitríona is a member of the board of directors of the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and leads the Aviation working group.  Caitríona is also a founding member of Propel, an industry networking group for aircraft leasing professionals based in Hong Kong.

This series is kindly supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations. Find out more at squadcast.fm

Find out more about Caitriona Jennings via Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn 

This series is supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations. Find out more at squadcast.fm

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Key Quotes

 “Typically I do try to run early in the morning if I can because I find that once I have my exercise done, I’m more relaxed for the day.”

“I’m humbled to think that I currently hold the Irish record in both 50K and 100K distances.”

“Running. It’s a very easy sport to do.”

“I think running has instilled a really strong sense of discipline into me, my timekeeping and how I structure my day.” 

“The most important learning that I got from running was how to be resilient.”

“There’s always a positive to everything and I try to just constantly focus on that positive.”

“I’m going to be running for as long as I spend a day in work in the office.”

“I have those moments of doubt all the time, the little voice in my head, but I just constantly try and reinforce positivity.” 

“What I’ve learned in the past, If you try and burn someone off too fast, you’re actually only destroying your own race.”

“The amount of research that’s been done and evidence is overwhelming to show the connection between gut health and mental health.” 

“I am motivated to reduce the records for both the 50 K and the 100 K.”

Caitriona Jennings Transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to episode 68 of access to inspiration the show where you can gain inspiration from people who may be unalike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. This episode was recorded using Squadcast, remote recording platform, which empowers podcasters by capturing high quality audio and video conversations that listeners love. We are proud that Squadcast are sponsors of this podcast. And you will find them at Squadcast.fm. My guest today is Caitriona Jennings an endurance athlete who has represented Ireland in the Olympics in the marathon and holds the Irish national record at 50 kilometers and a hundred kilometers. And one of the ways she gets motivated is a bit of friendly rivalry with her sister who was a world champion rower. So welcome to the podcast Caitriona it’s great to speak to you today.

Caitriona: Thanks Sue pleasure to be here.

Sue: Now, I must say to the listener, as I’m speaking here to an Olympic athlete, I find it really amusing that she’s sitting, speaking to me from an office in Hong Kong and dressed in a business suit. So clearly you have a day job as well Caitriona is that I right?.

Caitriona: Yeah. I pay the bills but unfortunately not good enough to run, to pay my bills. So I have to work as well so that I can have a decent lifestyle.

Sue: So maybe just, that’s a good place to start then. Tell me about your job.

Caitriona: Im a VP Risk in CDB aviation, which is an aircraft leasing company headquarters in Dublin but we also have an office here in Hong Kong. Essentially what the business does is it acquires aircraft and leases them to airlines around the world. And my role is to assess the risk of the airline and the countries in which they operate so that we, I guess can make an informed decision as to whether it’s a good business opportunity for the company to lease the aircraft.

Sue: That sounds like a pretty full on job, by the way. You’re describing it there. Katrina, how do you manage to balance a job like that and running?

Caitriona: Yes, it, I mean, it is a full-on job that requires a lot of time and I wouldn’t really call this a true nine to five job because there’s always various deadlines that must be met. And regardless of what you’re doing, you have to achieve them and make sure that that’s all running smoothly. But I typically do try to run early in the morning or early in the day if I can, because I find that once I have my exercise done, I’m more relaxed for the day. I don’t mind working late, or I don’t mind having to work through a long shift. I know I’ve already kind of ticked my box of training because it is more difficult to stay, goes on and you might get pulled into something. And then you find that you ended up working late and getting grumpy because you’re sacrificing more than your time. You’re also sacrificing your training for the day. So I find that if I get it done early it’s best, but I also do try to [00:03:00] prioritize the days in the week where I have a specific speed session to do or something that isn’t just a matter of running at whatever time suits me. So that again, I just can have that done before I start focusing on my day.

Sue: And you say you get up early, how early is early?

Caitriona: Oh, it’s not that early, maybe six, 6:00 AM. But I know people that could have so much earlier and I have to drag myself out of bed every day. It’s exciting. So it could be a lot worse. Yeah.

Sue: You’ve had a really illustrious running career Caitriona and Im noticing on your achievements, you’ve held the Irish national record for every distance from 10 K upwards over the years up to ultra running. That seems like you have a massive amount of achievements?

Caitriona: Well, no, I’ve never held anything below 50 K. I’ve held 50 K and a 100 K. So yes, I’m humbled to think that I currently hold the Irish record in both distances. I do find quite an achievement for myself and not something that I thought I would actually do. But now I have both now that I have them I want to hold onto them for as long as I can and try and set a bit more challenging records for the next generation going through this, that might find it a bit more difficult to make.

Sue: Tell me, how did you get into running in the first place?

Caitriona: So my family, they’re all sports fanatics. My parents were very sporty and encouraged us to get involved in all sorts of sports, regardless of what it was. My mum brought us swimming three mornings a week at 6:00 AM, and my dad brought us out cycling. But in addition to that, with the school that we were in, there were lots of sports available. So we played anything from badminton, basketball, volleyball, kimogi. I mean, you name it, we play it, you know, like myself and both my sisters and we loved it. We find it like so much fun. And I suppose it was just the normal life. I didn’t really know anything other than playing some sort of sports and but the older I get, the more grateful I am for that opportunity, because it led us into both myself and my older sister Sinead ultimately ended up in the Olympics, but that, I suppose that base or that grounding home life, where we were always involved in sports gave us opportunities to kind of find the sport that we were both really interested in and two excel at it.

Sue: And what did Sinead then follow as well?

Caitriona: So Sinead rowed she actually was the world champion in this lightweight single skull and then herself and her partner Clare Lambe went to the Rio Olympics in 2016 in the double skull and finished sixth in the finals. So at the time it was the best result of an Irish female crew in the history of rowing so it was an amazing achievement for them. And I like to think that, that kind of was a stepping stone onto the success of the female athletes in Tokyo in 2020, where we had four girls in the quad win a bronze medal, which was the first medal for Ireland in rowing. So pretty great achievement for them.

Sue: So, is it quite a competitive household then between you and your sisters?

Caitriona: Extremely competitive yes. Not just, in sport, at anything. When we were younger, any board game, or game of cards or anything that was supposed to be [00:06:00] fun was never, it was always quite competitive.

Sue: I can imagine your parents had a bit difficulty keeping the peace.

Caitriona: Exactly. Yeah. If they weren’t involved.

Sue: So once you were doing these many different sports. Why did you follow running as opposed to anything else that you were doing ?

Caitriona: Initially I got involved in triathlon, which made sense at the time, because as I said, we did go swimming three mornings a week. I was quite a proficient swimmer and represented my club and county at provincial and national level. And then also from the cycling background, and running which I had also been doing it with the local club Letterkenny athletics club and my school. It almost made sense to combine three activities. And so I think I’ve did my first triathlon at the age of about 12. Now it wasn’t the full Olympic distance. It was a short one, but I just absolutely loved it. And I think. There’s a really, really amazing community within the triathlon community where they really do encourage everyone to do their opposite best and while it’s competitive it’s also really good network and support of the people involved.

So I did that up to when I was in college and then represented Ireland at an underage level in triathon. When I graduated from college and got my first job, I joined PWC, the accounting firm, and I was studying to become a chartered accountant, at the same time. So that involved a full-time job. Attending college and studying and preparing for exams. So I guess it doesn’t have as much time as I used to have. Anyway, running was the one I couldn’t wait to get off the bikes that I could start running and I knew it was my strongest of the three disciplines. Running. It’s also a very easy sport to do you throw on your runners, you know yourself, so you throw on your runners and your out the door, and you’re already training within minutes of starting. Whereas the others are a little bit more difficult. You have to travel to the pool or you have to get organized for your bike and get all your gear so that you’re not going to get a puncture or whatever. So running is just those simple and time efficient and a ended up just sticking with that. It didn’t start off break any records. I was kind of middle of the road club runner, and just the more I did it, the better I came at it and kind of progressed from there.

Sue: In a way to be able to run effectively and have a job you were focusing on one thing and it kinda leads me into asking about what do you think that your career and all the training you’ve done in the world of sport and athletics brings to your day job?

Caitriona: So I think it has instilled a really strong sense of discipline into me and my timekeeping and how I structure my day. How do I ensure that I’m not wasting time or that I essentially get the most out of the time that I have, but I think the most important learning that I got from running was how to be resilient. I know what’s the word that’s thrown around quite a bit. These days when you’re performing at a high level. People read about the glory days, but there are a lot of difficult times, setbacks injuries, disappointments, you know, sicknesses or just things that happened at the wrong time and that they affect your performance and that you don’t achieve what you had intended or run, in my case, how you’d liked. [00:09:00] And I think it’s just, it’s a really great way to know, but you have to always just pick yourself back up and go for the next one all the time and just continually do that. No matter how many times your setback. And applying that in a workplace, it is also very helpful because in normal times you might be going for a promotion or whatever. You don’t necessarily get it. And you’re disappointed, you know, hard work and setting a clear goals for yourself you’ll ultimately get there. but I think even more so at the moment and go over time. The various restrictions and the number of times that we think we’re coming to the end of it and more step back again, and having to constantly accept and adapt is something that I’ve done all my life in sports. So I can transfer it quite easily to work and to life. And there’s always a positive to everything and try to just constantly focus on that positive. And on a lighter note, I guess it’s, it’s a great stress relief. It’s a great way to shake off the worries of the world. Like throwing on runners and getting out into the countryside and then enjoying that.

Sue: Well, they do say that movement is medicine, and I think that’s quite a true saying, isn’t it for sure. Now I’m just looking at your career highlights here, Caitriona and for the listener to know that as you said, current Irish record holder at a hundred kilometers and the time is what I’m particularly amazed by seven hours, 43 minutes. I want to know how did you keep concentrating in a race for seven hours and 43 minutes?

Caitriona: Well, that was challenging. I won’t lie. I remember starting off, but it was my first 100K so I started off in the morning and think the race started at 9:00 AM. All I thought was I’m going to be running for as long as I spend a day in work in the office and think of all the things I do during that time. And all I’m going to do today is just run. So I kind of tried to not think about it as much as I could, or I was setting myself like small time goals so that I would only focus on a short chunk of it at the time. So it was breaking it down into hours or 90 minutes segments so that I didn’t get overwhelmed by the thought I knew I was probably going to run somewhere between seven hours and eight hours. So just starting with that seems like a huge task, but I was just breaking it down and making it a little bit more, I suppose, less daunting for myself.

Sue: And how do you stop? Self-doubt? That little voice that makes sneak into one’s head that’s well, it does into my head sometimes I think this is too hard or will I do it? Oh, these other people look good. All those things that sometimes can threaten to throw us off, keeping focused.

Caitriona: I have those moments of doubt all the time, the little voice in my head, but I just constantly try and reinforce positivity and I just keep telling myself what it’s easy now it’s comfortable now. Don’t worry about it. Stay in the moment. Don’t worry about what it will feel like if it does the wheels fall off, you can deal with that then. And I knew the pace I was running out. It was a very manageable pace for me. I felt very comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was overstretching. Sometimes it’s difficult because I was conscious that I really wanted to win the race. And I was very aware of everyone that I was running with. And I was kind of starting to think, oh, I wonder, are [00:12:00] they more comfortable than I am? You have this like, impatience, do you want to burn them off, you know, quickly so that you can get that assurance that you’re going to be at the front, but actually what I’ve learned in the past, If you try and burn someone off too fast, you’re actually only destroying your own race. So you just have to be incredibly patient. And I just keep repeating the mantra, patience patience let it just go from there.

Sue: It sounds like it’s that competitive spirit within you that’s dying to get out in that race at that moment. When you want to get in front of the others early on and how you hold yourself back,

Caitriona: you really have to taper your competitive instincts and in a 100k

Sue: to get to a race it requires obviously an incredible amount of training, not to mention nutrition and recovery. I imagine are really important facets of what enable you to be there and perform on the day? How do you pay attention to those things. What do you do in terms of healthy eating and recovering?

Caitriona: It’s actually an area that I’ve tried to focus on a lot more recently because in the past I do have a busy lifestyle, as you know, so I would tend to just try and get the session done and get onto the next thing without really thinking too much about nutrition. And I did realize that it was probably contributing to some of the injuries that I was picking up or, you know, just feeling tired or failing to recover fast enough for my next day. At the start of 2021 actually formed a new partnership with Tailwind nutrition and I find their products really good. It’s a very simple formula that they have two products. They have one for fueling when you’re running, and one for recovery. So for me, it was quite simple and it wasn’t overwhelming when I didn’t use in the past. And I liked the ingredients that they use. They’re all very natural. They don’t tough high sugar quality. So I know that even if I’m in a rush and I need to get something into me after I’ve done a hard session before. You know, I sit at my desk for the day. I can take a recovery drink and that’s been really helpful, but I also do focus on real food as well. So even if it’s just something small, like a snack and that 30 minute window I’ll always have something with me now, whereas before I may have just, as I said, being too busy to kind of even prepare for it, now I know that the five minutes it takes to prepare your recovery snack is just as important as the run itself. I’ll always have a banana or an apple or something that I can eat straight away. And then aside from that, I just try and eat healthy, try and focus on real foods rather than things that come in packets or jars and that like everything that we learned or that people are promoting now, I think it’s really interesting. The amount of research that’s been done and evidence is overwhelming to show the connection between gut health and mental health. And that was a real eye opener for me as well. And that’s probably helped me to make better choices when it comes to the type of food that I eat.

Sue: If you’re enjoying this episode too, you might want to listen to other episodes from people involved in, endurance running.. In episode 29, I spoke to Barry Fudge former head of Endurance at British Athletics who worked closely with Mo Farah. And in episode 27, Nontu Mgabhi explained what it took her to run seven [00:15:00] marathons in seven days on seven continents, go on over to access to inspiration.org. And you can listen there or read all the transcriptions. Now back to this episode.

We had previously a guest on our podcast who is formerly the head of Endurance for the British Athletics team. And one of the things that he had talked about was the growth of technology and sport and how that is really influencing things. And I’m wondering how do you utilize technology to help you train or to help you compete effectively?

Caitriona: So I’m still, probably I’m a novice when it comes to technology. And I know a lot of the benefits that it can provide and you can get lots of gadgets that help various different measurements, but I am a novice, but I’m also quite fundamentalist in that I focus on heart. For me, heart rate shows me so much, an elevated heart rate in the morning, tells me I’m stressed or I’m sick. And I need to watch the training I do that day and training within my zones. I know if I train within my zone, that I’m not going to overtrain or under-train. So I know I be hitting exactly what I want to achieve during that session. For me, it’s as simple as a watch and a heart rate monitor, and that’s kind of the extent of my technology. Now I do get my VO two max and lactate levels tested so that I know that I’m training within the correct zones. I think there’s probably a lot of technology that is out there that I’m not necessarily tapping into at the moment. I will maybe let others tell me, which is the most beneficial and go from there.

Sue: I’m also thinking about clothing and shoes. Do they play a role in how you prepare for a race?

Caitriona: Shoes? Amazing. Yeah. I mean, gosh, the amount of advancements in shoes since I started running is just mind boggling and particularly more so in the last couple of years. But now I race in carbon plated shoes, which is definitely beneficial. And I think you’d struggle to find anyone that disagrees with that statement, but I I’m sponsored by Hoka One One, and they have two amazing carbon plated shoes the Rocket X, which is kind of marathon shoe or the Carbon X 2 which would be more the longer distance shoe that I would have run the hundred kilometer race. And. And it’s amazing that we have that technology now that we can race in and we’re very fortunate as well. I think they’re great, obviously for obvious reasons, the carbon fiber is so light, you know, and that does help a lot when you’re monitoring all the various grams of the shoes you wear. But I think the carbon fiber plate also helps stabilize the ankle, which puts less stress on the calves. And a lot of the injuries that I had, like maybe five, 10 years ago, were all relating to my calves and my ankles and my feet. So. I think that the fact that I can race now in those, the rocket X or the Carbon X 2 I know that I recover faster from the race and I don’t pick up as many niggles from the hard sessions. I would also wear those shoes during my interval sessions as well. And I think that those helped me to, to recover faster.

Sue: So looking at those points that some have described as the marginal gains, the small things that one [00:18:00] pays attention to in order to improve. I’m thinking about your training sessions. Do you have a coach that you work with Caitriona are you developing and designing? your own training program?

Caitriona: I do. I just recently started working with a coach, Nick Vester in South Africa. So he just coached me remotely but it’s amazing. It’s very beneficial. Because up until recently I was in a phase where I was kind of self-coaching and I find that quite difficult to, because you’re not accountable to anyone. So you tend to maybe on days where you don’t feel like doing a very tough session decide, or maybe I’ll change it that morning and realistically you shouldn’t be doing that. And also you have a tendency to overtrain. I know that the two are actually, they kind of conflict with each other, but I would have a tendency to just run too many miles like miles equals speed. But actually they don’t always depends on the type of miles here. And I think having a coach is really beneficial for that reason as well, because they’ll make sure you’re focused on the correct, mileage as opposed to just mileage. And also then hold you back. If you’re tempted to push on or attempt to train harder than you should be doing based on how you’re performing at the time.

Sue: So having that accountability sounds like it’s quite helpful to you,

Caitriona: for sure. Yeah. Yeah.

Sue: So in your career to date Katrina, what’s been the highlights.

Caitriona: So the highlight for me has to be the race that I run the marathon in Rotterdam where I achieved the Olympic qualifying standards for the marathon. And I was selected then to represent Ireland in the London Olympic games as a result. Yeah, that was probably one of the most, perfectly executed races that I’ve run. And you can’t beat the feeling of actually stepping on the line and executing perfectly and stepping away of having achieved what you’d hoped. But I would say a very close second was running comrades, ultra marathon in 2019 where I finished third. And for me, I had a very disappointing experience in the Olympics, but I think finishing third in Comrades was my day of retribution where I realized that, yeah, I, I’m still a decent runner and I can still perform and podium in a major event. So yeah, that was really good.

Sue: You’re eloquently describing tests are those highs and lows of one’s running career and it’s not always plain sailing.

Caitriona: No and to say that there were seven years between the two races just shows you the number of those that you can have and how long it can go on.

Sue: So what does the future hold for you? Caitriona How do you keep yourself motivated into the future?

Caitriona: More recently started focusing a bit on the ultra distance as we’ve just discussed around the 100k during summer. And I’ve run a few 50 Ks and the 90 K race and comrades. I think that’s a kind of a new focus for me. It’s a new interest. I find it exciting to see where I can go. As I said, I am motivated to reduce the records for both the 50 K and the 100 K. And I think that motivation is just what’s keeping me going. And also just knowing that I think the human body is fascinating. And I think if you really set your mind on something and you have a goal and you do everything it takes that’s necessary to achieve it. I actually find it really [00:21:00] interesting to see it come to fruition. And I look at the end of the day, I love running. I don’t think I could really live without it and I think my husband would agree with that. He’s happy as long as I’m running and getting those endorphins and staying mentally. Happy and healthy. So yeah, that’s, my motivation is difficult at the moment. I’m based here in Hong Kong. We have very restrictive quarantine routes for traveling. So when you return you to spend three weeks in a hotel, which is definitely challenging and has been throughout the last year, but I eyeing up a couple of races this year, which I’m hoping I can get to. There’s a race inside South Africa 50 K in March, that’s the Nedbank Runified race. And also then there’s the Lakes Sonoma race in California in April. So I’m hoping to make either or both of those. At the moment that’s, what’s encouraging me to put my runners on and getting out there and running

Sue: and do you get on the phone to your sister and tell her what you’re up to so that you can have a bit of competition from her too?

Caitriona: Oh, my sister has a new theory. That’s where she too old to train hard she’s four years older than me. And shes one of these people that doesn’t necessarily have to train, but she can go out and perform amazingly. She’s living in Australia at the moment. And she did the sunshine coast half Ironman and finished 10th among all the pros, and I said to her. Gosh, I didn’t think you were training that hard. And she said, no, I wasn’t. It’s wasted on me or that’s for young people. We don’t need to train hard anymore.

Sue: So you just hope she doesn’t take up the ultra running like you do.

Caitriona: We have quite a few running races head to head over the years, which have never been had that. And for me, because I’ve always felt the pressure of having to win when I’m the runner. ive not had to face that so far. So let’s see what she gets interested in from now on

Sue: and if there was a listener that was hearing you speak Caitriona and thinking about starting, running, who maybe who’d never done it before, what would you advice to them?

Caitriona: I’d say amazing. embrace it just make sure not to put too much pressure on yourself, try and enjoy it as much as you can take it at your own pace. And don’t feel like you have to sprint. I think a lot of people that are starting running think they have to run fast all the time. Running slow is equally as enjoyable and beneficial is running fast, especially at the start. And I would say if you can find a group of people that are around your pace that you can meet up with and to join in with and just have a few chats over the miles, that it will make it easier. Or if you’re in a more isolated area where you can’t find a group, even if you had one person that you meet, as I said, being accountable to someone is actually huge, especially when you know, it’s cold and dark in the mornings and you don’t necessarily want to get up at six, or even earlier, if you’re meeting someone, you go get up easier to let yourself down than to that someone else done.

Sue: Well, those are wise words from your Caitriona it’s been fantastic speaking to you today. I’ve loved what you’ve had to see about running. As a runner myself in the past, and still going out occasionally. I know what joy it brings and the simplicity of doing it. As you said, just get on those training shoes and the clothes and go out there with nothing much else. No more equipment. [00:24:00]

Caitriona: Exactly. Yeah, no, it’s been a pleasure Sue and let’s hope that we can both continue to run for many years to come.

Sue: Absolutely. Now, if anybody that’s listening wants to find out what about you Caitriona and what you’ve done? How might they do that on the internet?

Caitriona: So you can check me out at my website, Caitriona jennings.com, Caitriona spelled C A I T R I O N A jennings.com and I’m on Instagram Jennings, Caitriona and Twitter. CJennings1X

Sue: brilliant. Well, we’ll put links to all of those things on the show notes to accompany this podcast again, thank you for your time today, Caitriona and enjoy your run tomorrow or whenever the next one is that you’re going to be doing.

Caitriona: We’ll do.

Sue: I hope you enjoyed listening to Caitriona Jennings and maybe, you know, feel inspired to put on your training shoes and go out for a run. Remember, you can help us to spread awareness about this podcast with other people. So have a think, who do you know that needs a bit of inspiration today? Go on, send them the link to this episode or write us a review on apple podcasts so that others can know the value youve gained from. Next week I will be talking to Sanzar Kakar chairman of Afghanistan, Holding Group operating a number of different businesses in Afghanistan. I hope you will join me then.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)