Sunday morning in Vienna, October 2019, and Paul Robinson is sitting with friends at an outdoor café, nursing a brain-shredding hangover.
He has come to the Austrian capital to see Eliud Kipchoge run a sub-two-hour marathon, which the Kenyan achieves with 1:59:40. The night before that race, Robinson had been out on the town until late night turned to early morning. The night after, more of the same.
Which leaves him here, perusing the brunch menu, hanging by an absolute thread.
“Will anyone drink wine?” he asks the group. Disgusted groans fly back at him. No one can bear another drop. Robinson shrugs it off, orders his food and, just as the waiter is about to leave, he stops him.
“A bottle of red wine,” he adds. “And five glasses.”
Hours later, somewhere around the fourth or fifth bottle that made its way to the table, Robinson raises a glass and cracks a joke about the road to Tokyo starting here. It’s nine months until the Olympics.
Those of us present know Robinson’s ability: 3:35 for 1500m, 1:45 for 800m, a world-class operator with scorching finishing speed.
We know his approach: ruthlessly professional, as focused on his targets as a highly-trained sniper.
But we also know the reality of athletics: talent, training, and health over time equals peak performance. Robinson hasn’t run in months. He hasn’t strung together a long block of training in years. The hedonistic life is one he long rejected, but with his foot in a protective boot, his plantar fascia torn, and strict instructions from physical therapist Gerard Hartmann to do nothing, nada, for two full months, it’s a green light to finally let rip.
His coach, Nic Bideau, is also in Vienna. A no-nonsense straight shooter, the Australian demands the strictest levels of professionalism. But he knows the headspace Robinson now inhabits. Bideau had been there, four months earlier, when the Kildare native tore his plantar off the bone while pacing a Diamond League race in Oslo.
Unable to stand, Robinson asked for a wheelchair, and medics eventually wheeled him away on a trolley. It was a long time before he set foot on a track again.
That was just the latest episode in a long-running horror show. Since 2014, Robinson had battled osteoarthritis in his toe, sciatica, hip injuries, three tears in his Achilles tendons, two in his plantar.
“A chain reaction of absolute hell,” he says.
Bideau and Hartmann are two of his most trusted confidants, and over the years they retired many an athlete, telling them the harsh truth they were unable to see for themselves. That night in Oslo, Robinson expected Bideau to signal the death knell. But he didn’t.
He expected it again when he hobbled into Hartmann’s clinic in Limerick, but again, it never came.
“You can get back from this,” Hartmann told him.
He was instructed to forget about athletics while his foot healed up and that weekend in Vienna, he was coming towards the end of that spell. Robinson was “the furthest you could be from being an elite athlete,” but Bideau didn’t admonish him for his antics.
He knew what he’d been through. He knew it was an anomaly. Most of all, he knew Robinson would be back.
Before they parted ways in Vienna, Bideau told him he’d see him in Australia in January, where the Melbourne Track Club were holding their first training camp of 2020. Robinson’s road back — a path with which he was all too familiar — would start there.
At one point, it had all come so easy.
In his teens, Robinson trained under the guidance of his father, Gerry, and he ripped his rivals apart to win a horde of national titles at underage level. Realising he needed a world-class coach to take him to the next level, Gerry handed the reins over to Robert Denmead when Robinson was 17.
His 1500m progression in the years that followed was a thing of beauty: 3:46, 3:43, 3:42, 3:37, 3:35.
At 22 he was already world-class.
In 2013 he ran his first World Championships. The following summer, he went to the Europeans in Zurich as one of Ireland’s best medal hopes. Denmead figured he’d need a 52-second final lap to win a medal in the 1500m. Robinson did just that, but it wasn’t enough and he was edged off the podium into fourth by just 0.17 of a second.
He was crushed, but the pain was only just beginning.
Earlier that summer, Robinson had felt some soreness in his big toe, which he ignored for many months. To him, injuries were something that happened to other people, and Robinson thought athletes must be mentally weak if they were stuck on the sidelines.
“I was that ruthless,” he says. “I felt like I was bulletproof.”
He took a month off after the track season, but the pain loitered like a belligerent drunk. He was two years out from the Rio Olympics and, despite the warning lights flashing, he refused to pull the emergency stop.
“I take personal responsibility for that because I just wanted it so bad. I messed it all up because I didn't respect the injury.”
In 2015 he had hoped to make the world 1500m final, but the toe problem made him miss the entire year. In 2016, in a last, desperate bid to make the Rio Olympics, he dropped down to 800m, hoping his natural speed would compensate for the lack of fitness. It didn’t, and his best of 1:49 was four seconds off what was needed.
In 2016, with his degree complete at DCU, he began spending more time in Australia, with Bideau taking over his coaching from Denmead.
When he first went there in 2012, Robinson thought of himself as a professional, but living alongside world-class athletes like Ryan Gregson, Collis Birmingham and Brett Robinson changed his mind.
“I was so far away from being what a professional athlete was, and just the mentality: it takes you out of Ireland where you get so transfixed in beating one another that you don't think of the overall picture. Those guys don't care about beating one another; they're trying to make it at the top level.”
In 2017 things began to click while on a training camp with the Melbourne Track Club in California, after which he opened his season with a 3:39 1500m. But in a workout a few days later, his Achilles tendon flared up and he carried that niggle into a race in Holland, where he clocked 3:38 for 1500m.
The result delighted his teammates, but the raging fire in his Achilles had spiralled out of control.
Robinson couldn’t manage a cool-down jog.
Still, his old habits lived on.
Robinson ran through it. At a race in Sweden, he felt such piercing pain on his warm-up that he had to stop after two minutes. As everyone else jogged around Robinson just lay on the ground. He did a couple of 200-metre strides just before the start and somehow clocked 3:40 for 1500, the equivalent of a 3:57 mile.
When Gerard Hartmann saw the state of his Achilles, he forced him to take a prolonged period off running, Robinson patiently rehabbing under the famed therapist’s guidance.
Perhaps the toughest battle of all was to accept his own fragility. Robinson had always prided himself on his grit, that innate capacity to work hard and endure pain. He remembers the inspiration drawn from Rob Heffernan at the Moscow World Championships in 2013, shortly before the Cork race walker won gold over 50km.
“I was like, ‘this guy is machine. This guy has built up a Rocky story in his head and he's going to war. I took that from him.’”
Years later they met at a wedding, and Heffernan could see what had once made Robinson great was now making him crumble.
“Stop trying to be so tough,” he told him.
That struck a chord.
“I had always been brought up with an old-school mentality to training,” says Robinson. “But I needed to really be smart to get back this time.”
By February 2018, Robinson was finally back to health after six months of rehab for his right Achilles.
With the European Championships in Berlin six months away, he arrived in Santry for his first track session of the year — then he tore his left Achilles.
“And that was it,” he says. “That was 2018 gone.”
Rinse and repeat. Rehab and return. The cruel cycle repeated for years. Robinson was so fed up that summer that he went back playing Gaelic football, lining out for Kilcock alongside his friends.
“I felt like I had a lot of anger pent up and nothing to release it. I was like, f*** it, I’ll go back and have a bit of craic. It was class, but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Is this me now?’”
He spent most of the time warming the bench, but after one particularly violent game against a team of “brutes”, he called his brother Joe and said he was done with it. As much as athletics had hurt him, he couldn’t resist its allure. For all the punches he took, he just kept coming back to the ring.
“I was pretty resilient, I never went off the rails. I always cross-trained. I always did everything you could do.”
How did he manage it? Robinson recites a line from Steve Peters, a renowned British psychiatrist who works with various high-level sportspeople.
“He said, ‘When it comes to an athlete trying to achieve what they want, I couldn't really care about motivation. What I care about is commitment.’ For me that meant: it doesn’t matter if I wake up in the morning and feel like I don’t want to run. I’m allowed feel like I can’t be arsed. But what I am is committed. I’m going to go for the run.”
But that night in Oslo last June, the night he tore his plantar, pushed him to breaking point.
The problem was: Robinson always defined himself as an athlete. But more and more that narrow- minded focus — necessary as he deemed it — became destructive. He needed another outlet, and one came his way via Johnny Nevin and Siobhán McCauley, the principals at Maynooth Community College, who offered him work experience.
He went in every day and got a feel for life as a teacher, hobbling around the school on crutches.
“That was absolutely brilliant for me because it gave me an out,” he says. “Niall Moyna and Enda Fitzpatrick brought me back into DCU (for) a master’s. It showed me there was stuff outside running.
"I was accepting of the fact I might not get back.”
For the two weeks leading up to last weekend’s national championships, Robinson didn’t dare return home to Kilcock. With any resident of Kildare ineligible due to the lockdown, he trained in Sligo before re-locating to Dublin to stay with his friend, Feidhlim Kelly.
It had been six years since he ran nationals, nine since he won the 1500m title, but he knew he had a genuine shot. Eight months earlier, he had packed his bags for a three-month spell in Australia alongside Irish athletes Seán Tobin and Michelle Finn.
He went there in dire shape, and after a couple of months of training things weren’t much better. He clocked a mediocre 3:48 for 1500m in February followed by a bang-average 1:54 for 800m in March.
Bideau was undeterred, telling him after the race to do 10 laps of threshold running.
With the pandemic putting the Olympics on hold, Robinson took a more conservative approach in training, piecing together a prolonged block without pushing his body beyond its limits.
In late July, he lined up alongside Tobin for an unofficial 3000m race in Santry, wearing thick, protective running shoes instead of spikes — unwilling to take any chances. He finished four seconds behind Tobin in a lifetime best of 7:54.
At long last, his ability was simmering back to the surface.
But to make it to nationals he had to endure one last scare. The morning of the 1500m final Robinson was strolling through Malahide, distracted as he spoke to Kelly, when he walked straight into a stop sign, his head clattering it so hard that both initially thought it was game over for the race.
“This is me, now, concussed or something,” he recalls thinking.
His head, as it turned out, was fine. Later that evening, as he warmed up in a deserted Morton Stadium — no spectators were allowed due to Covid-19 restrictions — all the old feelings came flooding back: the nerves, the excitement, the fear.
“The pressure,” he says. “That’s what I live for.”
He had two real rivals in the race for gold: Tobin and Andrew Coscoran. Both were coached by Kelly, and Robinson spent extensive time training with them at the Dublin Track Club.
He knew Tobin was a strength runner, one with intimidating endurance but not the same turn of speed that he possessed. Coscoran had the fastest times of the year, with a 3:37 1500m and 3:56 mile, so he knew he’d be a threat in any kind of race.
After the gun fired, Tobin coasted through the first 70 metres, lulling the field into a false sense of security, before injecting a vicious surge that carried him clear. Catch me if you can.
Robinson bided his time in the pack, forcing Coscoran to pick up the chase. As Tobin scorched through 400m in 58 seconds and 800m in 1:58, he had a 25-metre lead over the pack and it looked for all the world like a race for silver.
But then Robinson started chasing.
The two were good friends, regular training partners, and Tobin had lent Robinson his spikes for the race, a new pair of Nike Dragonflys. Robinson knew all about Tobin’s class, his courage. As he set off in pursuit, he knew getting back to his shoulder would only be the start of it.
“He’s going to bring you 12 rounds. You know he’s going to make you hurt.”
With 250 metres to run, Robinson got back to Tobin’s slipstream and he tracked him around the last bend, feeling super confident as he turned for home. What was he thinking then?
“All the money's on me here. I'm home and hosed.”
That thought proved premature. Robinson changed gears and edged past, but as he sprinted into the teeth of a gale he found his legs becoming bankrupt. Tobin would not lie down.
As they approached the line they were locked together, both trying desperately to hold form and get over it in front. Robinson had never dived for the finish before, but he did this time, crashing to the track, the impact leaving him with sore ribs for days after. Then the two just lay there, utterly spent, awaiting the photo finish.
Robinson had regained the title — by a whisker.
“I don't think you could write it any better,” he says. “It was fairytale stuff.”
In a sport poisoned by scepticism, a race like that was a reason to believe. No pacemakers or obsession over times; no chatter about doping or complaints about shoe technology. Just two guys, going to war, giving it their all.
It reminded Robinson why he fell in love with athletics.
“It is an unbelievable sport. Yeah, we have our highs and our lows, but I'm completely addicted. I said to Sean after: ‘It doesn’t matter (who won). That’s like a 12-round heavyweight boxing match, two lads lashing themselves out of it. Sport is the winner. Athletics is the winner.’”
Robinson is a fan of the sport as much as a participant, and he feels the negativity in athletics is causing its death by a thousand cuts.
“Listen, doping is a problem,” he says. “It is a massive problem and I'm not saying for a second we forget about it. It has ruined our sport in some respects. But there's an onus on us to be aware of how cynical we are.
"We like just shitting on performances and saying, ‘oh, he's filthy, he’s on drugs.’
“But for the world record, the 12:35 (5000m by Joshua Cheptegei), you’ve got to assume people are clean because you’ll tear yourself asunder if you don’t. We see these unbelievable performances and we (say), ‘it’s the shoes (or) he’s on drugs.’
"How is it that soccer is the most economical, highly financial sport in the world and there’s no appetite to be saying someone’s on drugs? It’s not our job to be cynical about our sport. Our job is to show how good our sport is.”
More than 75,000 people watched the 1500m final live on RTÉ 2, while the clip of the last lap has garnered almost 100,000 views on Twitter.
Amid the flood of messages Robinson received this week, one stood out. It was from a coach who had a group of teenage athletes who were considering giving up the sport due to the lack of competitions this summer. He told Robinson his race, his comeback, had inspired a U-turn.
“If one guy decides, ‘nah, I’m going to keep running.’ That’s my job done.” …
It’s a clichéd question, but given nine years have passed since his last 1500m title, I ask Robinson what he would say if he could go back and talk to his 20-year-old self.
“Live in the present,” he says. “Take the opportunities.”
Back then he took his health for granted, figuring no matter how a race went there would always be another just up ahead. He doesn’t do that now. Bideau has a phrase he tells his athletes that describes the fine line they walk between extreme fitness and physical failure.
“You’re always living next door to being absolutely f***ed.” There are some things he’d do differently — running on that sore toe is one of them — but Robinson knows the thing that got him injured is exactly what made him good.
“I’m willing to train hard, I’m willing to take risks, and elite sport isn’t healthy,” he says. “So I don’t think I’m ever going to be 100 per cent injury-free. But you have to be logical, smart and think about what you’re doing.”
For an athlete of his calibre, he knows a national title is the first rung on the ladder.
To make the Tokyo Olympics he’ll have to run around 3:35 for 1500m. Last weekend he clocked 3:43.90 in strong winds. He expects better weather next Wednesday in Marseilles, where he hopes to go much quicker.
He’s 29 now, and if his health holds up he should have many years left in the game. Although he hasn’t been funded by Athletics Ireland for years — which he has no complaints about given his lack of performances — the financial burden is eased by support from Richard Donovan of Global Running Adventures, who agreed to back him until Tokyo.
When things were grim, support like that made all the difference — and it came in many forms.
Maybe it was a phone call from David Campbell, his mentor and St. Coca’s clubmate who endured similar injury struggles that eventually forced him to retire; maybe it was some key advice from his brother Joe or his father Gerry; maybe it was Feidhlim Kelly driving down to Dunboyne to pace him in a session; or maybe it was Nic Bideau and Gerard Hartmann letting him know he still had a future.
Small gestures, but they meant the world to him.
What advice does he have for others caught in that dark web of injury?
“You’ve got to keep fighting,” he says. “There were times motivation was absolutely rock-bottom and I said ‘I can’t do this anymore’ but if you keep hanging around long enough, you’re going to get something.
“You can’t be guaranteed it, you’ve got to accept you might not, but if there’s a little one per cent chance and that’s what you want to do, you have to keep going. You have to keep fighting.”