In just four years, Virginia Moloney’s running has taken her from fun runs to the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“How can running be [considered] an individual sport when people are so willing to do things to support you?” asks Virginia Moloney rhetorically while discussing the upcoming Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where she’ll be representing Australia in the marathon event.
We’re discussing Moloney’s running career so far, and her meteoric rise in the sport. Believe it or not, Moloney was never an athletics star in her youth. Sure, she played lots of childhood sports, especially netball, while growing up in Garvoc, a small dairy town in southwest Victoria, but nothing different from what most children who grow up in the country do.
In fact, she only really started running in 2012, when her sister Genevieve suggested they enter the Run for the Kids that year. As things tend to happen in running, one thing led to another, and Moloney entered the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon that May, training three times a week at Princes Park in Melbourne’s inner north.
It was a chance meeting with running coach Liam Delany in 2014 that has brought her to where she is now. Delany runs Vigor Fitness, where he provides coaching, nutrition and massage consultations, and coaches run cycle and kayak sessions. They met at a school where Moloney was a relief teacher, and Delany happened to be taking a stretch class, something he does once a year at this school.
“Liam said I looked like a runner, and I told him I’d wanted to do the Great Ocean Road marathon again in May, so he invited me along to a Vigor run session on a Tuesday night, so I went along. Our first one was the big tree rep session, and you know how he always says you can do the shorter reps if you’re new?” she says with a laugh. Disclaimer: I’m a Vigor member myself, so I know exactly what she means.
“Well, after the first rep, he came back and said ‘I think you can do the longer ones’.”
The marathon has always appealed to Moloney. “The more I run, the more I feel comfortable. I don’t know if any sprinters are ever comfortable. I sort of feel like that’s where I get my biggest high – from running distance, rather than the shorter stuff,” she says.
The year before they met, Moloney completed her first marathon, the 45KM event at Great Ocean Road, completing the distance in 3:27:06 and placing an impressive seventh place – not bad at all for a first time marathoner.
Initially Delany had said it was too early for her to focus on the marathon, because she was so young, and that her focus should be on speed instead. “I had missed those formative years where kids do their real speedwork,” Moloney says.
Since working together, Moloney’s race times have improved significantly. Moloney says Delany even took four minutes off her 10K time in a mere four months. In the beginning she was unsure about the approach, not really understanding the point of speedwork. “I just liked going out for a run, knowing I was going out to do 16K, but then I suddenly had all these sessions where I was going really fast for a short amount of time, and have a bit of a rest, then do it again, and again, and again. But you can see the benefit that it has.”
But the longer distances lured her back – “it just felt right”, she says – and they worked on building mileage: at first it was 80K a week, then 100, then 150. Each increase presents a new challenge as to how the body responds, Moloney says, but she has complete confidence in her coach and her running ‘team’, which also includes Elizabeth Hewett, an exercise physiologist, and her fiance Trent McCormick, who accompanies her on many of her longer runs. Moloney also counts her fellow runners, including Ant Rickards, Sophie Ryan and Kate Smyth as confidantes and mentors.
As one of 11 siblings, Moloney is used to having a strong, close-knit network around her, and that community mentality has spilled over into her running. But she does caution against listening to too many people’s opinions. “You can only control what you can control – you can’t control anyone else’s training. And unless you let them, they can’t control yours.”
She has complete trust in Delany’s coaching and training program. “Look at where his coaching has got us in four years.” The proof is in the results, from her 2016 Melbourne Marathon win and beyond.
Given the amount of training she’s currently doing in the lead up to the Games – not only running, but also the strength work, conditioning, cross-training (swimming is her weapon of choice) and weekly massages – it’s easy to overlook the fact that Moloney spends her weekdays teaching at Elwood College.
Work doesn’t stop when you’re a teacher, not even for elite athletes who are about to represent their country. Moloney was back at school the morning after her momentous Melbourne Marathon win in 2016. She still gets goosebumps every time she drives past the Melbourne Cricket Ground, not far from where she lives. She remembers thinking that she was really going to enjoy that last lap and soak it all in as she took off her sunglasses and entered the MCG. Crossing the finish line, she took a big breath and thought, We did it! We set a goal, we did the work, we got to the start line, we were fit.
Having her coach right there at the finish line, and family and friends watching from the MCG and on television too, made that day all the more special. On the commentary on the TV, they said “Moloney looks like she’s labouring now”, but her mum called her later and said, “You weren’t labouring, you were emotional, weren’t you?”
Earlier this year Moloney attended an altitude training camp in Falls Creek, Victoria, with fellow runners Sophie Ryan and Kate Smyth. There she spent 10 days training hard, and got a chance to observe the lives, and routines, of elite Australian and international athletes. It gave her an insight, and an understanding, of what life of a pro athlete is really like. She left Falls Creek with a deeper level of respect and admiration for these athletes.
“People often say that I have so much to fit in with running and work, but I love running and I love my work, so it doesn’t matter that much. You make it work,” she says. While pro athletes may have the luxury of time to look stretch, recover and look after their bodies, Moloney says it would be incredibly draining – mentally – if injury strikes. “It’s hard enough being injured as a recreational runner, but when it’s your life, your work, it would be tough.”
In the four years she’s been running with Delany, Moloney has been really lucky in that department, with only one major injury. But that injury came at a crucial time – just before she was due to represent Australia for the first time at the World Cross-Country Championships in Uganda last year. “It was really shattering to go to my first international event under an injury cloud,” she says. The race didn’t go as planned, but she remains positive, and says it was a learning curve, one that culminated in her Commonwealth Games qualifying time at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon in July.
“Every time I think of that race, it’s a good memory for me,” Moloney says of last year’s event. And she’s incredibly excited about heading back to the Gold Coast in April.
“There’s no other time that I can think in my running career where there’s going to be another opportunity where all your family, friends and the running community will be out there supporting you,” she says. “You’re representing your country in your own country.” It’s an experience she’s definitely not taking for granted, acknowledging that it’s a very select group of people who get the chance to represent their country.
“I get goosebumps thinking about putting on the uniform,” she says, recalling a recent fitting appointment. “There’s so much reflection that goes on when you get picked for a team, or even when you don’t get picked for a team. Sometimes it’s not being picked for a team that makes you that much more passionate to keep striving for the next one.” Her performance at Uganda was one such experience, and so was missing out on a spot for last year’s World Athletics Championships in London.
But for Moloney, it all really just comes down to doing what she loves: running. “I’m not doing it for the accolades, though we always try to do our best. And if there’s a race to be won, of course we’ll go for it. Ultimately I just love getting out there and putting one foot in front of the other.”
In April, whatever the result, Moloney will be doing just that. The only difference is that she’ll be wearing green and gold, and a bib with her family name. “A number’s great, but when you’ve got your name on a bib, they know where you come from.”