Kevin Seaward: An ordinary man doing extraordinary things

“I consider myself to be like any other club runner in terms of enjoying the challenges – just like their sub-three or sub-four challenge,” explains Kevin Seaward who runs in his second Olympic marathon this weekend.
Kevin Seaward: An ordinary man doing extraordinary things

Kevin Seaward made his Olympics debut in the 2016 Rio Games. He finished 64th in 2:20:06. Picture:  Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There are days when Kevin Seaward scrolls through social media and he is struck, albeit fleetingly, by envy.

In rare moments of respite from his job as the assistant principal of a school with 2,500 pupils in Leicester, the 35-year-old from Belfast opens Instagram and sees picture after picture of friends and rivals at training camps in Flagstaff, Font Romeu, or St Moritz.

“I’ve a romanticised image of what training in those environments would look like,” he says. “Then I think back to reality.”

The marathon is rarely glamorous, almost always exhausting, but Seaward’s reality is that of an elite athlete who prides himself on being just like club runners aiming to run 26.2 miles in three or four hours.

The only difference being he is a little quicker and a routine largely shorn of bells and whistles is leading him to his second Olympics.

Most mornings during term he is out the door before 6am, a necessity to rack up 120+ mile weeks. On some of his easier days he tries to do 10 miles around local estates inside an hour before driving from home in Loughborough to Beauchamp College in south Leicester. Other mornings involve higher-intensity sessions fuelled by nothing more than a strong coffee, with breakfast usually a pot of porridge hounded down before commuting. The long stuff is reserved for Sundays — he covered 34 miles across two runs one day in late May — but the unpredictable nature of his work has a knock on effect to his weekday evening efforts.

Especially in the past few months, when contingency plans must spring into action once a pupil tests positive for coronavirus, lists of close contacts must be devised and parents informed that their child has to spend the next 10 days learning from home.

Teaching is his priority and running will always come second. Yet the need to not waste a minute has enabled him to thrive.

“It’s not the ideal scenario and I’m not saying if you’re very busy you’ll become a better athlete,” he says. “It doesn’t ring true for everybody but the routine works for me and I don’t have a lot of time to be in my own head.”

Being unable to overthink when preparing for an event that can take the mind to dark places is a vital asset. On the rare occasions a session does not go as planned, Seaward has little time to ruminate as his attention immediately switches to dealing with pandemic risk assessments or a problem with a student.

Instead running becomes his release, just like it does for the weekend park plodders.

“I consider myself to be like any other club runner in terms of enjoying the challenges — just like their sub-three or sub-four challenge,” he says. “But I hope they look at what I do and realise it’s possible to work and to enjoy running at this level. Because I do enjoy it, it’s a passion. In terms of my lifestyle and how I approach it, I’d like to think people realise I’m just like them.”

He is not really, though. A talented underage runner, excelling across the middle distances as a pupil at St Malachy’s College in north Belfast, Seaward had taken a step back from the sport when going to university.

The talent never disappeared and he was persuaded by a friend to run the Manchester marathon in 2014 despite having never competed in anything more than 10 miles. That race descended into controversy when it became apparent afterwards that the course measured 380m too short but he finished third in 2:18:46 and the touch paper was lit.

On the recommendation of his friend and fellow Olympic marathoner Paul Pollock, he joined up with coach Andy Hobdell the following year and subsequently went on to run 2:14:52 for 21st place in Berlin.

A four-minute improvement meant he had suddenly qualified for Rio and in the space of two years had gone from three or four lowkey events a year, effectively a high-end fun runner, to an Olympic marathoner. “It was a shock to the system,” he says of mixing it with some of the world’s best for the first time. “It was such a surprise to qualify and everything there, I was in awe of it. It was a whole new experience.”

Seaward had never received a massage at that point and the idea of a strength and conditioning programme seemed alien but he dug in on a wet day to finish 64th in 2:20:06.

Five years on the training and his understanding of what is required beyond putting one foot in front of the other is on a whole new level regardless of the amateur status he continues to embrace. He has converted his garage into a personal gym and has been making frequent visits to a heat chamber that measures his core temperature and tracks the amount he sweats, enabling him to understand fueling needs come race day.

“I hope that’s not what it feels like out there,” he says. “I can barely manage 40 minutes in there at a slow pace so if the conditions out there are as tough as that we’re in for an interesting day.”

Crucially there have been several championship experiences in the five years between Games, including a fourth-place finish at the Commonwealths for Northern Ireland in 2018 before finishing 15th at the European Championships later that summer.

But it is the personal best of 2:10:08 from Seville at the beginning of last year, less than a month before much of the world was locked down, that stands out. He may have been the 26th man across the line but it was more than a minute inside the qualification time for Sapporo.

“Apprehensive” is the first word that comes out of his mouth when asked to sum up how he feels about a Games in which the marathon takes place 680 miles north of Tokyo and neither family nor friends can come to watch.

But everything Seaward can control has been thus far smooth. A couple of weeks ago Hobdell said that Seaward was a little ahead of schedule in terms of training — little wonder when he is smashing out 34-mile days at high intensity.

There have been no injuries to contend with beyond the niggles that are par for the course when clocking 120 miles a week.

The rise of Covid cases across England meant he was growing a little more anxious before schools broke up two weeks ago but he somehow avoided getting the virus when his wife, Heather, tested positive at Christmas.

That Hobdell has a high-calibre pool of athletes, featuring the renowned ultrarunner Tom Evans and sub-3:45 1500m man Frank Baddick, helps immeasurably in terms of training but to also keep that envy of altitude camps and the lifestyle of a professional athlete at bay. Pollock used to be part of the pack too until his wife, a doctor, was offered a job in Belfast and they returned home.

“The training group we have replaces the training venues,” Seaward says. “We don’t go anywhere glamorous — it’s a lot of housing estates, 2k loops. But the group and the guys I train with replace the scenery.”

Based on the qualifying standard alone, it is easy to frame this marathon as the highest quality in Olympic history.

World record holder Eliud Kipchoge is the overwhelming favourite, despite a rare failure to win in last autumn’s elite-only London marathon, and the stacked field means Seaward’s goals are more process focused than the hard currency of times and finishing places.

An improvement on Rio is the primary objective but it will be as much about executing his race plan and feeling good in an event that history indicates will be more tactical and slower than your average big city marathon.

“Even in the build up a lot of goals are processed based,” he says. “We tick them off as we go. Things like running my highest ever mileage and doing more of the things I’ve neglected in the past — strength and conditioning, physiotherapy. So all of those smaller things that are really important based around recovery, it’s been about the process of actually engaging with those.

“Then through to outcomes. I was 64th in Rio and it wasn’t a fair reflection of the training we’d done. A few things had gone wrong and I’d been a little ill. So it’s about improving on the performance from last time.

“The field quality and depth, everything about it, has improved on 2016. So my main goal is to improve myself and hopefully run well enough to do ourselves some justice.”

Note the use of ourselves. It may come down to Seaward alone on August 7 but without Hobdell, his training partners, wife, and the backing of colleagues at school there would be no Olympics.

Still, the technology lingers like a dark cloud.

Pre-pandemic there was a feeling that anyone not in Nike’s carbon-plated shoes, which engineers of the initial models boasted would improve performance by 4%, were at a significant disadvantage.

Many athletes endorsed by other brands sought permission to wear the Nike shoes once they painted over the logos — including the other member of the Ireland men’s marathon team, Stephen Scullion, when he was represented by Under Armor last year. But now the playing field has been almost levelled because most of the other brands have caught up to produce their own models.

So while times have gotten significantly faster and any comparison with previous eras is distorted, at least there is no longer as uneven a playing field based on which shoe company an athlete is committed to.

Seaward does most of his training in one of Adidas’ budget shoes, the SL20, but will almost certainly race in a carbon-plated model and is a bit more relaxed about technological advancements than many within the sport.

Does he not feel the focus on kit is doing a disservice to the athletes?

“It can be a little frustrating,” he says. “We’re still talking about it now but it’s not going away. The IAAF made that quite clear. They maybe didn’t put their foot down as quickly as they should have done but the technology is here and we need to learn to embrace it. A lot of sports embrace innovation really well but in athletics we’re not so good at that.

“I remind myself that of the guys qualifying for Tokyo I was still the fastest in a non-carbon shoe last year. The hard work I’m putting in hasn’t changed. I’m still working as hard as ever. I don’t train in a carbon shoe so when I put it on on race day it puts you on more of a level playing field.

“The biggest concern for athletes is the potential variance and that’s hard to overcome. I’m not sure there’s enough scientific studies into whether it benefits some more than others yet. But we’ve moved forward, we’re ready to accept this is where we are. It’s not going anywhere.”

After Japan there will be a short break before returning to school and settling back into his routine.

Pacing his wife to a sub-2:40 marathon is a future goal, so too eventually moving home to teach if the right job became available.

But for now it is all about 26.2 miles that prove ordinary men can do extraordinary things.

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