HE drops Roy Keane's name, along with Lance Armstrong's and Paula Radcliffe's, as someone who inspires him and it's immediately clear where Cathal Lombard is coming from. In the summer of 2002, when Keane's problems with Mick McCarthy went nuclear, he looked at the facts with a solicitor's cold dispassion and decided the Ireland captain was right. He argued the point until it hurt his larynx.

High achievers like Lombard find it easy to empathise with the vein-throbbing, eyebulging intensity that he brings to his work. Keane would find a soulmate in him if they were the type of people who needed soulmates.

It was that same side of Lombard's personality ? his voracious competitiveness and questing intelligence ? that persuaded Joe Doonan to get involved again. The man who earned his stripes as Catherina McKiernan's coach had just finished up as headmaster of the local national school and retirement stretched out before him like a somnolent, sunny Sunday.

Then on Christmas Eve 2001 he got a call from Gerry McGrath, an athlete he knew well. Gerry said he knew a fella. How many times had Joe heard that?

But as luck had it, Gerry was owed a favour. When McKiernan made an assault on the world record for the marathon in Amsterdam in 1998, it was Gerry who paced her through the first half of the race. Joe told him if there was ever anything he could do. . . Now he was claiming his forfeit.

Cathal Lombard was the athlete's name. Gerry knew him because they both worked as solicitors. Joe knew ofhim. Cathal had been a talented cross-country runner for years but at some point had hit a glass ceiling. As he passed from his mid to late20s he was stuck in that limbo of not knowing just how good he could have been. That autumn he went to Africa to try to find the answer.

"I went out to Kenya, " he says. "Did a four-week block of altitude training, trained like a madman, came back and found that I was running worse than ever. It was very frustrating. I got very disillusioned and I was half thinking of quitting the sport." Then Joe said he'd have a word.

"I was an apprentice solicitor at the time. I wasn't earning an awful lot of money. I didn't have a car so I hired one for the weekend and drove up to Cavan. I sat down with Joe and that was the point that changed everything for me. He went through everything I was doing ? my lifestyle, the way I was thinking about things, the way I was training, the way I was eating and drinking." What it all added up to for Joe was that he was trying too hard, training to the point of exhaustion and leaving the best of himself in the gym.

Joe said he'd advise rather than coach him but very quickly the demarcation line became blurred. When he saw his appetite for work, Joe couldn't help himself.

"He was ultra-professional in the way he applied himself to training, " he says. "He was very self-sufficient and by that I mean that you never had to worry whether he was doing the work you were giving him.

The only thing you had to worry about was whether he was doing too much." He always had that compulsive streak. At school he applied it to his studies. He got 520 points in his Leaving Certificate ? the equivalent of four As and two Bs ? and studied law at UCC. He was too busy building a career for himself to be anything more than a good club runner.

"Unfortunately the exams ? whether it was the Leaving, my law exams or my Blackhall Place ones ? always fell in May or June, just as it was coming into the track season, so I never really prepared well enough to give it a good shot." He joined Leevale at 16, just as Mark Carroll, the club's most famous runner, was setting off for the United States on scholarship. Their paths never looked likely to intersect. His competition was Fiachra, his younger brother, and winning an Irish title was as big as he dared to dream. He was an off-Broadway talent. "Our family was fairly modest and my mum and dad wouldn't be as ambitious as me. In sporting terms I never looked beyond the local scene." He was also cursed by injuries. One summer, just before the Irish track and field championships, he was cycling to the Four Courts when he was knocked off his bike by a jeep. Tough break followed tough break.

Running at the Olympics didn't enter his head until he watched the last games in Sydney. Inspiration came not from Haile Gebrselassie or Paul Tergat but from an athlete from closer to home. "I think the thing that gave me the desire to go to the Olympics was seeing a local guy, Robert Heffernan, the racewalker, doing so well. He's a tough guy with a great work ethic. I remember watching him and in the first 10 kilometres he was up there with the best guys in the world.

And I remember thinking that if he can do it then I can do it." It was what led him in a roundabout way to Joe Doonan's living room in January 2002. He arrived on a Saturday morning and didn't leave until Sunday afternoon. They spent hours talking and Joe deconstructed everything he'd been doing. "He introduced me to numerous things that radically changed the way I trained. Now I do a completely different type of gym work, a lot of biometrics, hopping and bounding exercises, a lot of medicine ball work, sprinting and drills. We moved away from this attitude ? I suppose it's the British and Irish tradition ? that you have to do high mileage, that you have to do a hundred miles a week or whatever. I would have been fixated on that in the past but now I couldn't tell you how many I do in a week. I actually don't count them." The new regime bore almost instant dividends.

Within a year he was hacking lumps off his personal best for 10,000m. Last summer he won the 5,000m at the Irish track and field championships, the national title that was once the summit of his ambition. Now it was his base camp. He'd already run a world class 13:19 for the 5,000m in Heusden, Belgium, then made his major championship debut at the World Championships in Paris.

"By that stage I was very tired. I shouldn't really have come back and run the Irish championships but the AAI put a lot of pressure on me to run. By the time Paris came around I was just trying to hold it all together." Two days after finishing 17th in the 10,000m, he and Joe sat down in a hotel room in Paris and mapped out the 12 months that would take him to Athens. He agreed to put his other career on hold and they targeted the meeting at Stanford University a fortnight ago to get the 10,000m Olympic qualifying time. Five pacemakers helped make it the fastest 10,000m race in the world this year and he crossed the line in fourth place to discover he'd hewn 13 seconds off the Irish record. It took Mark Carroll most of his career to finally prise the record from John Treacy. For the first time in a long time Carroll finally has a serious Irish rival.

"I was actually afraid to call him to tell him about the record because I thought he was going to go mad. But I think he's confident of getting it back again. I spent a bit of time with him during the winter, training in Gainesville in Florida and I got to know him.

There was never any rivalry between us before because he was operating at a different level to me. But I suppose there's rivalry there now. And two Leevale men in the Olympic 10,000m final. That'll be very interesting." He plans to disappear off the radar now for a while.

He'll spend the summer training in a number of glamorous places, none of which he'll have the time to enjoy. Altitude training in Saint Moritz.

A Grand Prix race in Rome.

He'll stay away from the Irish training camp in Cyprus and prepare by himself. The plan is to find a quiet corner of Italy that doesn't have a television set and to try to forget there's an Olympics on.

"I'll hit the Olympic village a day or two before my race.

There'll be no distractions or anything. The 20th of August, the first night of the athletics programme, a straight final.

When it's over, then I can enjoy the experience of being at the Olympics." It's the way it has to be.

He's not playing games.

"When this is all over, I won't have a house, I won't have a car, I won't have a job, and my bank account will be zero.

I'm putting everything into my Olympic preparation.

That's why I have to make this work."