'It’s one of my biggest regrets in running': Olympic pain fuelling Paul Pollock's Tokyo dream

In an effort to break through to the ranks of world-class, Paul Pollock has all too often broken himself. Over the last eight years, the 34-year-old marathoner has spent as much time injured as he has healthy, his bones and his body all too often breaking down as he underwent the trial of miles. But the Belfast man knows, at his best, he can be right up there alongside the world’s best, writes Cathal Dennehy
'It’s one of my biggest regrets in running': Olympic pain fuelling Paul Pollock's Tokyo dream

Paul Pollock during the Men’s Marathon in the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

It's one of the cruel ironies of top-level sport that effort, all too often, does not align with reward, no matter what the inspirational captions say on Instagram. The relationship between the two is one that leaves the best performers — driven, type-A personalities that they typically are — sometimes scratching their heads.

For some, the downfall is not a lack of commitment or a phobia of any hard slog, but a failure to learn the precise location of the line separating supreme fitness and physical failure.

Paul Pollock is 34, and he’s still trying to find that line. The 2016 Olympic marathoner has had 11 stress fractures in his career — it might be 12, now that he thinks of it — along with two labral tears in his hip. Over the past eight years, since he truly committed to athletics, prioritising it over his medical career, he reckons he’s spent an average of five months of each year injured. He has his reasons, things he knows now that he wishes he knew then, things every teenage athlete should know, but we’ll get to that.

Because the flipside of over-training is that easing off the throttle, whether by accident or design, can sometimes be the ticket to the next level.

Ask your average sportsperson about the best day of their career and most will say it was remembered not through the lens of how hard they worked, but that everything flowed in a trance-like state, the biggest effort of all somehow feeling…effortless.

In December 2019, Pollock sat in a hotel in Spain the day before the Valencia Marathon, on the phone to his coach, Andy Hobdell, wondering what exactly his plan should be. The event had drawn many of the world’s top marathoners, along with some of the top brass of the NN Running Team, Pollock’s professional team, which counts marathon king Eliud Kipchoge among its clients.

Paul Pollock in Valencia: I’ve been picked for and missed enough championships that would form a solid athletic career on their own.” Picture: NN Running Team
Paul Pollock in Valencia: I’ve been picked for and missed enough championships that would form a solid athletic career on their own.” Picture: NN Running Team

Pollock was pessimistic. Another stress fracture on the build-up meant he had averaged just 41 miles a week during his four-month preparation which, for an elite marathoner, is like bringing a spoon to a gun fight. He reckoned, at very best, he was in 2:15 shape, but he and his coach agreed there was little value in emptying the tank after such a preparation.

The plan was to run to halfway with the group going at 2:11:30 pace and then drop out, recover and begin a proper build-up for the London Marathon five months later.

Two days before the race, Pollock had gone for a run in a pair of the Nike Vaporfly Next%, his first time trying the line of super-shoes that revolutionised the sport in recent years, combining as they do a carbon-fibre plate embedded in a midsole made of hyper-responsive, ultra-light Pebax foam.

They’d been everywhere on start lines for the previous year, from Parkruns to Marathon Majors, but Pollock was one of the last converts, conscious that the way the thick-soled shoes altered foot mechanics could cause even more injuries. He ran two kilometres at race pace in the shoes, felt no issues, and figured he’d give them a go in the race.

What unfolded on that Sunday morning, he still doesn’t fully understand. Pollock got to halfway on target pace but felt so easy that he didn’t step off the road. When he hit 20, 21 miles and expected a large cement wall to be erected in front of him, the way it usually is, he only saw open road. In fact, he started to speed up.

“That very rarely happens in a marathon,” he says.

He ripped through the final miles and crossed the line in disbelief at his time: 2:10:25, a Northern Irish record, automatic Olympic standard, which at the time made him the second fastest Irishman in history. He thought back on his preparation. Yes, he’d been hitting the bike hard during his injury, but an average of 40-odd miles a week and he’d run that fast? A question formed in his mind.

“If I get into 2:10 shape without the shoes and add in a good day and the shoes,” he says. “What might I do?”

Lifelong journey

To most, the Olympic dream is seen as this vast ideal, a lifelong journey that necessitates athletes to build their lives around their training, the sun around which their whole routine orbits.

They work for years, wear the soles off countless pairs of shoes, survive the trial of miles and invest thousands of their own or their loved ones’ hard-earned in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it’ll pay off.

But they never know what’s around the next corner.

In January 2012, Pollock was chugging down a hill in Richmond Park in London and approaching a 90-degree turn. When he swung around it, he saw a woman with a double-buggy on the path and he jerked to avoid a collision, twisting his knee in a way distance-runners are most certainly not accustomed to.

It was seven months until the London Olympics and Pollock was in the form of his life, believing he was on course for qualification. But the pain was immense, immediate, and as he limped home he knew he was in trouble. He had a plica in his knee and the only solution was surgery. Pollock didn’t run again for four months.

“That was the Olympic dream over,” he says. “It was devastating, knowing you’re in fantastic shape and an injury comes from nowhere.”

The seed of his vision had been sown the previous year. After graduating from Queen’s University in 2010 he did a year of full-time work in a Belfast hospital, keeping up some running but never taking it all that seriously. While on holidays in Lanzarote in 2011, over a pint with a triathlete friend, he got chatting about the London Olympics, the growing mania around it, the sense that everyone wanted to be a part of it. “Just go for it,” his friend told him, and so Pollock did.

When he returned to Belfast he asked his dean of medicine for a year off and he then went looking for a coach, with Hobdell telling him he was welcome to train with his group in Teddington if he could keep up. It turns out, Pollock could, and Hobdell has guided his career ever since.

With his Olympic dream deferred to 2016, Pollock picked out the 2012 Dublin Marathon as a new target where, coming off his knee surgery and an abbreviated preparation, he clocked 2:16:30 to finish ninth. He moved to London to train full-time with Hobdell, and in 2013 his ability began to blossom. That summer, he went to the World Championships in Moscow and looked around in amazement, with Usain Bolt and other stars sharing the same accommodation.

“These were people you’d see on TV, superstars, but in the hotel they’re normal people,” he says. “The realisation was, actually, you can do amazing things (too) and some people do take notice.”

On a hot, sunny day, Pollock finished 21st in 2:16:42 in the World Championship Marathon.

“I remember finishing it and being like, ‘okay, that’s the starting place,’” he says. “Unfortunately injuries got in the way since then, but I know that if I have a good run on a good day, anything is possible. That’s what keeps me going.”

Pollock grew up in Holywood, Co. Down – he went to the same primary school as Rory McIlroy, a potential colleague on the Irish team in Tokyo — and through his childhood his parents made sure he tried every sport under the sun.

“I was always not great at them,” says Pollock. “Decent, but never amazing.” In his mid-teens, at a time when he was getting “a bit pudgy,” his older brother Conor dragged him along to a 5K road race in Monaghan. Pollock had done zero training before toeing the line, but clocked 17:30 to win the junior event. It seemed he had some talent. After that, he was brought along to Abbey AC twice a week, but the grind of hard sessions was a taste that took some time to acquire.

“I absolutely hated it,” he says. “The cold, the wet, the hard work.” Slowly, steadily, he began to improve, and when the rewards showed up in races he started to immerse himself fully. Eighteen months after taking up the sport he competed at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Australia, but when his coach at Abbey AC passed away shortly after, he again drifted away from the sport. While studying at Queen’s University in Belfast, Pollock continued to run but it was never his prime focus, more a way to hang out with those who weren’t just his classmates.

“It was great to get out and clear the head,” he says. “With medicine, you can get caught up in reading and studying and the fresh air does wonders.”

Only in 2013, after that enlightenment about his ability in Moscow, did he truly commit, doing ad locum work in the years since to keep the bills paid as he chases the running dream. Since then, however, the graph of his health, his fitness, has looked like a jagged series of shark teeth, or one of those sadistic stage profiles in the mountain stages of the Tour de France.

“I’ve been picked for and missed enough championships that would form a solid athletic career on their own,” he says. “I think I’ve broken every metatarsal at least once. It’s been no consistency at all, but it reaffirms if I get a solid nine or 12 months then anything is possible.”

An especially agonising dagger was delivered at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Pollock had once again got himself into supreme shape and was confident he could challenge for a medal in the marathon.

Six days before the race, he finished a run and felt fine. But the next morning, he woke up and couldn’t put weight on one leg. He had a stress fracture in his talus bone, and he ended up watching the race on the sidelines — again — with crutches in hand.

If two dots make a trend, then a dozen stress fractures fairly screams that something more sinister is going on. Years ago, Pollock had his bone density checked and it came as no surprise to learn it was lower than it should have been. For many in distance running, such issues can arise due to under-fuelling, particularly the formative years, and thinking back Pollock knows that was likely the case.

“As a junior athlete I was not taking enough energy. I was very skinny back then and in my head, maybe subconsciously, I thought ‘the lighter you are the faster you go.’ But the first thing someone should tell (young athletes) is it doesn’t equate like that. You need the energy to run.” Back then he had little contact with Athletics Ireland or Athletics Northern Ireland, two governing bodies that he notes have improved their educational and athlete support systems immeasurably in the years since.

At times, the key to running faster has been to slow the hell down.

“The big thing every runner does at some stage is going too fast. I sometimes go faster than I should, especially on recovery runs, and it’s very easy to get caught up in thinking ‘if I go faster I’ll be fitter’ and that’s not the case — far from it. You have to learn to go easy when you need to and go hard when you need to.”

It was an art he began to learn in the years building up to the Rio Olympics, and in 2015 Pollock secured the qualifying time with his 2:15:38 in Berlin.

But his selection for the Games provoked controversy, with Athletics Ireland choosing Pollock over Sergiu Ciobanu, who had run 24 seconds faster than him in Berlin. Pollock, however, had a superior championship record and finished almost four minutes ahead of Ciobanu at the World Half Marathon Championships less than five months before the Games.

The late Jerry Kiernan – coach to Ciobanu at the time – described Athletics Ireland’s selection policy as “bullshit.” The furore meant Pollock went to Rio with a heavy burden, feeling he had to beat the other Irishmen – Mick Clohisey and Kevin Seaward – to justify his selection. In the race itself he played it safe, conscious that he couldn’t risk a blow-up, and finished a fine 32nd in 2:16:24 but, looking back, he wonders what might have been.

“It’s one of my biggest regrets in running. I was going into that race and just wanted to finish top Irish rather than go in and absolutely smash it.” It left him with an itch that has yet to be scratched.

“My hope for Tokyo, if I get selected, is to run the race I want,” he says. “If I do that, I won’t have any regrets.”

Family man

These days, life is a whole lot different, ever since the day in June 2019 when his partner, Sophie, gave birth to their son, Theo. Clichéd and all as it is, Pollock quickly realised nothing would ever quite be the same again.

“It’s life-changing, completely life-changing,” he says. “You have to accept your goals and priorities are different.” 

For athletes, sleep is the most effective performance-enhancing tool there is, and in the months that followed his son’s arrival the lack of it often took a toll. Pollock would sometimes head out running at 2am or 3am, “getting the run done when you can,” and occasionally the house of cards came crumbling down.

He remembers doing a ParkRun in Belfast four weeks before the Valencia Marathon, using it as a hard 5K workout, but he blew a gasket and struggled to the finish in a pedestrian 17:20.

“I walked back home, absolutely knackered, and there was nothing I could do,” he says. “It’s crazy what a lack of sleep can do. But the whole past year has shown everyone: you have to be flexible in your training. A lot have found it difficult. I’m quite adaptable, flexible, and dealing with uncertainty is part and parcel of the sport.”

Just before the pandemic took hold, Pollock and his partner relocated from London to Yorkshire to be closer to Sophie’s parents. They spent nine months there, with Pollock working part-time in Harrogate Hospital, bearing witness to the chronic, cumulative strain on the full-time staff. In the autumn, they moved to Belfast, with childcare being far more affordable and ample career opportunities for both in his native city.

“Belfast is also a fantastic place to run,” he says. “It’s no surprise Sebastian Coe came here regularly to train.

I actually quite like the bad weather, it makes you mentally tough, and it’s nice to prove to the next generation you don’t have to travel to be a full-time runner.

In recent years Pollock has also begun coaching, taking part in the Dream Run Dublin initiative, during which he coaches 10 runners to break three hours at the Dublin Marathon. Whether the event happens or not this year he’ll do it again, with applications opening in the coming weeks.

“I wanted to give back to the running community, to give people a focus, to help improve mental health and say to the wider community: all of them are targeting the marathon and training hard, why don’t you? I get great enjoyment out of it.”

Given his Valencia experience, I ask him where he stands on the hot topic in distance-running these past few years: super-shoes.

“If you’re one of the first to wear them then you have an unfair advantage, but now it’s so common and accepted, they’re legal so why wouldn’t you run in them? I think at this stage at the elite end it’s accepted if you don’t wear them you’re at a disadvantage, at least mentally. When they came out I did races in my normal flats and other people were wearing the (Nike Vaporfly) 4% and it affected me in the last few miles, (thinking) ‘they’ll have that extra push.’”

Pollock never wears them in training, preferring to save them for race day.

“Mentally, (if) I’m going to a race and putting on these magic shoes, I’m going to run well. That’s partly the reason people run well: you believe you’re going to run faster.” He’ll pull them on again at his next race, the NN Mission Marathon in Hamburg on April 11, where Pollock is pacing many of his NN Running teammates to halfway. After that he hopes to find a fast half-marathon in May, and Pollock is currently one of three Irishmen with the marathon standard for Tokyo (along with Stephen Scullion and Kevin Seaward).

The men’s Olympic marathon will actually be held in Sapporo, about 800 kilometres north of Tokyo, the change made by the International Olympic Committee following the gruelling temperatures and grisly scenes that unfolded during the marathons at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.

Beyond the shoes, there’s no doubt that doping has also skewed the landscape at the top of the marathon world, and while Pollock is conscious of its prevalence, he refuses to engage a defeated mentality.

“In the past year very few drug tests happened which is a worry. It’s important to remember it’s not just in America or an African thing, every country has people who would at least think about it if not actively do it. It’s very hard to catch them and it always will be.

You do question what other people are doing but once you change your mindset to ‘other people are doing drugs,’ you become very cynical and lose the enjoyment of the sport.

"Yes, it might be hard if you’re beaten by a drug cheat but at the end of the day, you have to do the best you can, look yourself in the mirror and know you’re doing the right thing.”

With less than five months until the Olympics, he knows the key thing is to get to that start line healthy, to run his body close to that line but not to stray beyond it. These days cross training is a regular part of his routine, Pollock reaping its benefits on his build-up to Valencia.

His great wish between now and August 8, the day of the men’s Olympic marathon, is for a clean bill of health and, if his selection is indeed secured, that chance to finally show his true potential.

“I sat down with my coach last February, March and we were very clear what we wanted to achieve,” he says. “If I’m fit, healthy and on that start line, anything is possible.”

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