I never really dreamt of running in the Olympics. No more than any other young athlete growing up in Belfast did. I was going to be a footballer. Play professionally and drive a sports car. Why not?
The lure of football waned shortly after joining St Malachy’s College and I found myself attracted to running. I say attracted; this loosely describes how it all began. Following in the footsteps of some of Ireland’s greatest schoolboy athletes but 500 metres behind wasn’t always attractive. I would be exaggerating grossly if I said I took to running like a duck to water. It wasn’t that romantic. It was, however, a part of me. Something that I can’t explain. For many who knew me as a young athlete, it probably came as a surprise to hear that I a) had run a marathon and b) had run a time that qualified me for the Olympics. St Malachy’s first distance runner to do so. Running had a grip on me and it wouldn’t let go.
Rewind 15 years and I can remember running up over the hills of North Belfast. The Cave Hill was my second home. I ran over the ‘nose’ two to three times a week and never really stopped to take in the view. The Waterworks was visible in the distance and that marked where the run began and would end. Now when I run up the hill I always take a second to appreciate how lucky we are to have such a place on our doorstep, with the athletics track and the Waterworks close by, the future of distance running is in safe hands in North Belfast. Add in the fact that now parkrun has really taken off in the region.
My first parkrun was in England in 2009, and right away I called some fellow runners in Belfast. I couldn’t sing its praises enough – I had gone to Braunstone parkrun and run around with 300 other people of all abilities. The common thread that joined everyone that morning was the enjoyment in a non-competitive and extremely friendly environment.
A few years later, Waterworks parkrun in Belfast was up and running. I was delighted to hear that runners in Belfast could now experience the same friendliness and enjoyment I did in 2009. Every weekend a friend or family member texts and says ”I did the parkrun; it was great craic. Everyone was really friendly.” Even my sister is quickly becoming a regular. That’s the joy of parkrun – it really is for everyone.
Waterworks parkrun in Belfast had existed a few years before I finally made it back to run there in 2015, having recently run the Berlin Marathon and run the qualifying time needed for the Rio Olympics. I had prepared well over the previous sixteen weeks and my coach Andy Hobdell had a plan. Only thing was, even as late into the preparation as the start line I still had doubts. I had to run 2 hours 15 minutes, and my personal best at that time was a full five minutes slower. The race started and those doubts disappeared. 26.2 miles later I crossed the finish line in 2:14:52.
Andy and his family are really enthusiastic parkrunners at Panshanger parkrun in Hertfordshire, and it was he who had the bright idea to kick start my Olympic marathon training with two or three parkrun 5ks in one morning. So on St Stephens Day I joined the jovial Christmas spirit at Waterworks parkrun and ran what turned out to be a course record. A few mince pies later I was able to jog the very short distance home.
Securing the Olympic qualifying time relatively early in the qualifying window had its pros. Equally so, it had its cons. It was nine months before selection would be confirmed. Life went on for me in between. I work as an assistant head teacher at a local high school, so at times it was easy to forget that I was waiting for ‘the call’ – the call that seemed like a dream months before.
Selection was confirmed in May 2016, just three months before the Olympics. I remember waiting for the phone to ring. Drinking my fourth Americano of the afternoon, the high performance director called to say I was “on the plane”. No sooner had school broken up, I was on a flight to São Paulo and onwards to the training camp in Uberlandia. That was the start of an incredible four weeks.
The athletics Ireland staff along with the Irish Olympic council team made sure we had everything we needed. Training was supported by coaches on bikes and the nutrition at the hotel was very similar to what we would experience at home. Getting used to the temperature and conditions was important and the camp worked really well for acclimatisation.
After three weeks we departed Uberlandia for the Olympic Village. It was surreal. How has a lad from North Belfast found himself picking up his accreditation for the greatest sporting event in the world? I had to pinch myself on a few occasions – the atmosphere, the environment, the people…it really was everything I had dreamt of and more.
The race itself didn’t go to plan. A bit of illness took hold and coupled with the humidity and heat I struggled. But I was incredibly grateful. Grateful to my coach for believing that I belonged there, grateful to my family for supporting me, and grateful to my girlfriend who’d travelled half way round the world to be there for me (and chase Andy around Rio – but that’s a story for another day!).
Running is strange. We all have our own ‘Olympics’. For some of us, it is completing our first 5k, for others it’s a marathon. A few things are constant – you need to dream big and enjoy every step. I have made some fantastic friends in running, and seen some incredible places. For me, my dream became a reality and yours can too.
The iconic Cave Hill, which towers above Waterworks parkrun, is inspiring; it always will be. As long as I can run I will enjoy going over the nose and the middle path. The Waterworks will always be the start point. I never really dreamt of running in the Olympics. No more than any other young athlete growing up in Belfast did. But why not? Dreaming is where we learn how good we can be: the roads, the track, the hills is where we make that dream a reality. So dream, and run. Like me, the Waterworks could be your starting point…
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