Feature: Paul Tierney and Sarah McCormack

Paul Tierney and Sarah McCormack

by Paul Halford |

Paul Tierney and Sarah McCormack (pics: DMTWO MEDIA/Inov8)

Somewhere near Windermere is a small shepherd’s hut, outside of which is a tree decorated with old running shoes. It’s a bit of a giveaway to the fact that it’s home to runners.

Two very useful runners, in fact. At around 18ft by 8ft, you’d think it’s barely big enough for all their trophies and medals. Sarah McCormack is the current World Mountain Running World Cup champion, has twice finished in the top 10 for Ireland at the European Mountain Running Championships and is a former winner of the Snowdon International Mountain Race. Paul Tierney holds the speed record for covering all 214 of the Wainwright peaks in the Lake District, is a three-time medallist at the Lakeland 100 ultra and also a former Wicklow Way record-holder.

This high-achieving household lives in the runner’s paradise that is the Lake District. Sarah says: “We usually have to travel a little bit to get to the big fells so we might drive if we want to do a bigger fell run but we’ve got a lot of good trails right out of the front door.”

Paul agrees: “You’d have to go a long way to get bored running around here. Where we live there are plenty of low trails but we’re also 5-10 minutes from Kentmere and Staveley, which I really like because it’s off the tourist trail and a little bit quieter.”

Paul relates the story of how they ended up there. “Our paths crossed at the right time,” he says. They are both sponsored by Inov-8 and it was at a sales conference for the brand in 2012 that the pair met. Paul, who was living in Ireland at the time, was looking to move anyway and so, when they decided to move in together, the Lake District seemed the natural choice, particularly as Sarah had family in the area. Their shepherd’s hut is at the bottom of her grandfather’s garden.

You will read much debate on whether it’s good for couples to run together but Paul and Sarah are happy to do so when their schedules allow. “Also, we have two dogs and sometimes it’s easier if we run with one each,” Paul adds. Given that he tends to train for much longer distances than Sarah, they sometimes have differing types of runs to do.

However, having a partner that shares an interest in running is a big advantage, they both believe.

“You’ve got shared priorities so when you’re making decisions and running is your first priority that’s not questioned at all,” says Sarah. “I know that’s first and foremost for him and vice versa. I think it simplifies things in that sense.

“It’s a little bit harder if one of you is injured or sick and the other one is going out still, and it might be amazing weather and you feel a bit guilty that you’re not both out there enjoying it.”

The duo work together as full-time coaches and operate as Missing Link Coaching. It’s a job that ties in well with their running, although the pandemic restrictions limited one-to-sessions and Paul admitted to concerns. “When the pandemic kicked off I was uncertain but people still needed to train, they still had races that might go ahead, a lot of them have plenty of time to train,” he recalls.

Last year’s restrictions all but obliterated the racing scene but Paul and Sarah weren’t affected as much as some. Paul was glad to rest up after a busy 2019, which included his epic tour of the 214 Lake District peaks listed by the author Alfred Wainwright. He completed them in just six days, six hours and five minutes, breaking the record by nearly seven hours. In doing so, he covered 318 miles with 36,000m of ascent and scaled some of the most of the highest mountains in the national park, such as Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Great Gable and Fairfield.

Sarah had a great year in 2019, too. She won the Snowdon International Mountain Race and was second in high-profile international events such as Smarna Gora, the Salomon Gore-Tex Maxi-Race and the Sudtirol Drei Zinnen on her way to topping the World Mountain Running rankings. She also finished 16th at the European Mountain Running Championships, an event in which she has competed eight times in nine years. Last year was quieter for her but she nevertheless managed wins in Trofeo Nasego and Montserrat Skyrace, as well as a sixth at the Sierre Zinal.

Sarah and Paul come from opposite ends of the running spectrum but they’ve ended up with the same love of the trails. Sarah originated from a more traditional athletics and cross-country setting, while Paul is a former hurler who found a knack for running longer distances.

At the sharp end, Sarah raced on the track at a US university and even competed for Ireland at cross-country. However, the American-born runner had always had an interest in fell running.

“I was familiar with it through my mum because she’s from Cumbria,” she said. “And I always wanted to do it but, because I grew up somewhere flat, it was something that kind of intimidated me as well. I’d never really done any trail running in America, it was just cross-country. Where I lived there weren’t any trails. Until I started to know people who did it and then it immediately became more accessible. Once I was somewhere where it was more feasible I got into it pretty quickly.”

Paul was a top-level hurler in Cork but gave it up in his early 20s and found his way into running through triathlons.

“I loved the idea of being able to train for something for hours at a time. In around 2004, I was living in Australia and triathlon was taking off so I tried that and really enjoyed it. I started trail running a couple of years later. I would run for 90 minutes and it felt like 20 minutes – it was so much more fun than running on the road.”

Ninety minutes of trail running soon turned into hours and hours and he progressed to events like the Lakeland 100 (miles), which he won in 2015, and the 219-mile Tor Des Géants.

Despite the mutual love of trail running, a joint running challenge might not be imminent given the two favour differing distances, but it’s not to be ruled out. “It would be a great test of a relationship,” smiles Paul.

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