So having quit my job and become a full time athlete based in Teddington, London, I thought I should try to be productive with my time and start a monthly blog. For those of you who have never heard of me before, the article below was recently published in Athletics Weekly and gives my back story of how I got to where I am now. I hope you enjoy the read. Until next time, happy training!!
I imagine you do not know anything about me, not many people outside of Northern Irish athletics do. I have not won any Olympic medals, broken any world records or even competed at a major European championships, not yet at least. My name is Paul Pollock, 27, and I am the current Irish half marathon and marathon champion. I was 14th at this year’s London marathon and as of 2 weeks ago I came 21st overall and 2nd European in the World Athletics Championships for the marathon in Moscow. I achieved all of this while working full time as an A+E doctor in the Royal Hospital, Belfast.
It was a windy Winter night some 10 years ago now when my brother Conor first forced me to race for the first time, and yes forced is the correct word. Having been quite a pudgy kid throughout school I had no real desire to push either my mind or body to its limit. Growing up my parents had always said that everyone needs a sport and so throughout my school years I had tried my hand at most activities but never really excelled in any. That was until that first race. Having never trained or ran any great distance I was as surprised as my brother was when I completed the Monaghan 5k road race as first U20 in a time of 17.30, nothing amazing by anyone’s standard considering most parkruns are won these days in a time sub 16. But still, it was quick enough for my brother to drag me up to his running club Abbey AC the following week. Looking back I remember how much I hated those first few months. There is nothing glamorous about throwing up after a couple of minutes running nor is there anything positive to be taken from being beaten by athletes greater than 3 times my age. Little did I know that those people running past me in those sessions, were shaping me into becoming one of the best distance runners in the country and soon that they would become like a second family to me.
My coach in those early days was a man known as Bobby Rea, an inspiring energetic coach who was quite the statsman when it came to anything athletics related. As coach and founding member of Abbey AC he lived and breathed athletics and it was he who first taught me the joy of running and the happiness that it can bring. Having trained for 6 months I managed to make the World Junior Cross country championships where I finished in the 100s. A number of months later and I had competed at the Commonwealth Youth games in Melbourne where I finished 4th in the 1500. I was starting to believe that anything might be possible. Sadly just as things were beginning to come together and I was getting ready to make the next step, Bobby passed away after a sudden unexpected illness. Things were tough for everyone involved in Abbey AC. Some athletes faded into the distance, others tried to keep training but for whatever reason no one ever reached the heights which they had achieved with Bobby as coach. The sport of running once again drifted out of my life while I concentrated on my studies in medicine at Belfast. Four years passed where I would run occasionally to keep fit but doing nothing serious. However, I always knew that I had never reached my potential and that if ever I had the opportunity I might be able to achieve something special.
I graduated as a doctor in 2010 and by luck in my first year of work I became friends with a triathlete Johnny Boylan. Our 2 week holiday break in the medical rota happened to coincide and when he asked if I wanted to travel to Lanzarote with his triathlete club I jumped at the chance. While running across the volcanic rocks under the scorching sun I fell in love with running all over again. I had decided that if ever I was going to be an athlete, with the London Olympics the following year, this was the time. I had made my mind up. I was to become a runner.
So I had decided, with no coach and still quite unfit, that I would take a year out of medicine to try and get to the Olympic Games, the pinnacle of athletics in this world. I had no doubt in myself that I had the ability and talent, what I was lacking was a coach and group who I trusted in and who believed in me. I emailed tens of universities in America and understandably for a runner with a 15.30 pb the answer was always the same. Thanks for your email but we’re not interested. My older brother Noel, coincidentally the current GB athletics team doctor and previous runner in his own right (3.44 1500m), put me in touch with a UK based coach Andy Hobdell. He was a man I had never heard of and to be honest I was quite dubious that things would work out. However at this stage I had one month of work left before my career break and I still had no plans of who would be coaching me or even in what country I would be based. Andy Hobdell it would have to be. Little did I know that this would be the best decision I could ever make.
Andy is a no nonsense coach with quite possibly the best distance training group at least in the UK. Unfortunately in that year out after having placed a disappointing 16th in the European Cross Country, I injured my knee two weeks later. The injury required surgery and rehab meant essentially no proper running for the next 5 months. The dream of competing in London was well and truly over. Back to medicine I went in August of 2012. I clearly remember that instead of competing I was stuck in work during that glorious Saturday evening for UK athletics. This was not how I wanted to hang up my racing shoes. I sat down with my coach and worked out a plan until Rio. My first year plan was to get strong, to do as many miles as I could whilst working the ridiculous hours that junior doctors occasionally have to do. It’s no exaggeration that for days on end I was waking up early, running 5 miles into work, doing a 13 hour shift and then running 10miles home again. Day after day, week after week. Patience and consistency is Andy Hobdell’s motto and as the weeks turned into months I was getting stronger than I ever imagined possible at the beginning of the year.
I’m always asked how do I run so much, do I not get bored. Through running I’ve been fortunate enough to see places and meet people I would never have had a chance to otherwise. From the oxygen deprived heights of Kenya to the rocky beaches of Lanzarote. From being chased by dogs in the Chilean Andes to being cheered at by schoolkids in Malaysia. From the scorching heat of Melbourne to the snow capped mountains of New Zealand. Running has provided me with memories and friends that I will never forget. I may not be able to tell you what I did for the rest of the day but for whatever reason I could tell you every part of a run I did 5 years ago as if it were yesterday.
My first venture into marathon territory was October 2012 in Dublin. I had no idea what to expect. My longest run in the lead up was 20miles. This was definitely going to be the unprofessional way to run a marathon. I was always a bit of an optimistic runner when it came to pace judgement. In my naivety I believed that steady 5 min miling was possible. After leading for the first 10miles I hit a very firm wall at 20miles finishing in 2.16.30. More work was to be done but I had ran the Commonwealth time for Northern Ireland and also the World Championships qualifying time. Unfortunately Athletics Ireland released their own standards a number of months later with a 2.13 qualifying standard required. All of a sudden the London Marathon was on the cards and having had time off after Dublin it would be a rush against time to get to the startline fit and in sub 2.13 shape. Once again in London I went off strong, perhaps foolishly strong but I was chasing 2.13 and it needed to be an all or nothing effort. In the end it comes down to me not being ready or fit enough. I ran 2.17.10 after a fast first half and hitting that wall again at the 20 mile mark. Thankfully Athletics Ireland decided to take a chance and selected me for the World Championships, Moscow. However, like before I was on a break after London having resigned myself to not being selected and with only 11 weeks until the race it was going to be a big ask for me to be fit, especially as I was still working some crazy shift patterns in A+E. It’s a testament to Andy Hobdell that he got me as fit as he did.
There is no feeling like the morning of a marathon, especially when you’re up against the best in the world. The nerves, the dreaming of what you might run, the anticipation. I’ve always said nerves are just a sign of what you believe you can achieve and that morning before Moscow I was nervous.
In 18 days I’m going to be running alongside the 50 best marathoners in the world to see who among us is the best. Who knows where I will place but thanks as always to coach Hobdell for getting me to where I am now. I’m looking forward to getting back and mixing it up with the best training group in Europe, as well as having many fun times with the Station Road crew. Hopefully this is just the beginning….A man once said ‘to live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all’. Through racing I feel alive. There is no bullshit, no time for fake personalities and nowhere to hide. At some point you will crack, either your body or your mind. You accept that, just as every other competitor does, and that’s what unites you. I have much more respect for a 90minute 10k runner than someone who is too afraid to try. The key is to try to time it so that the finish line is the point at which you break. I ended up coming 21st in the marathon, 10 seconds off my pb and taking some good scalps. Taking into account that I ran that whilst working full time on erratic shift patterns, with essentially no support from anyone outside friends and family, it bodes well for the future. I left my job 2 days before I left for Moscow. All being well I won’t be going back until after I see the sights of Rio. This world is a place for your dreams to become reality. Pick your goal. Aim for it relentlessly, unwaveringly and one day you might just be lucky enough for it to come true. The only thing stopping you is yourself.