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  • Writer's pictureKarla

Meet the runner - Chris Creegan

I ran and trained with Chris regularly when I lived in Edinburgh. Perhaps one of the common things about running is that you consistently learn so more from the people around you than you can offer up. Coming a very conservative background in Northern Ireland I was totally ignorant about the fight for gay rights in the UK, the AIDS crisis, mental health provision (or the lack of it) and the role of government. I learnt a huge amount from Chris and continue to do so. When I think about Chris he is someone who is always striving - for fairness, equality and progress. He's applied that drive to his running too.

East District XC league Broxburn, 2017

Tell us about what you’re up to at the moment from a work and running perspective.

I became self employed six months ago, perhaps not the smartest move just before a global pandemic with a consequential economic lockdown!

I’m doing a mix of consultancy – working with various charities to support policy, communications, governance and leadership - and non-executive work – I chair the board of SAMH, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Scotland’s biggest mental health charity and I sit as a non-executive on the executive advisory body of Social Security Scotland. Challenging times for both organisations.

I continue to write – I’ve been writing a lot about COVID, particularly the parallels with the AIDS crisis which I lived through and lost my first partner and close friends. I’m also an occasional columnist in Holyrood, Scotland’s fortnightly politics and current affairs magazine.

Running wise – I’m just getting back to something that resembles actual training after two years. In 2018 I was discovered I had severe osteoarthritis which had resulted in total loss of the articular cartilage in my left knee. It had obviously been doing its damage for a long time, but the onset of the ‘injury’ was very sudden. One night I was running reps of 3.40 per km round the track, the next day my knee was the size of a melon. I eventually had major knee surgery – a high tibial osteotomy – last June. It’s been a long road back to anything.

How did you start running and what has been your running journey so far?

I started running when I went to secondary school. When I got there it quickly became clear sport had social currency. To be somebody you had to do sport.

I was tall and lanky. Rugby looked interesting but was out of reach for someone of my stature. Football didn’t hold anything for me. In either case, I was amongst the last to be picked when we lined up to chosen by classmates to be in their team.

The saving grace, I discovered, was single PE first thing on a Monday morning. This was cross country. And out of my class of twenty plus, I finished sixth. That was a long way from talented, but it was something.

And so, I joined the school cross country team. The local schools league was a tougher nut to crack than my class and to begin with I regularly finished near the back. But some way through that first year something clicked, and I started to finish further up the field.

By the time I left school seven years later, I was I moderately good runner in a very good team and a member of a great club, Sale Harriers.

University had a heap of distractions which relegated running for a while. And over the next 30 years, its intensity came and went. I had a good spell in my twenties and early thirties including some road racing and a few PBs that were respectable. But mostly it was recreational. Probably jogging, although I was always far too much of a running snob to call it that.

I finally picked up racing again around 2012, after a 20-year absence, and joined Edinburgh AC in 2013. I hadn’t really planned to. It just kind of happened one way or another but I quickly wondered why I’d stayed away so long. The next five years, up to the point of being injured, were the most enjoyable running years of my life.

School cross country team 1978

You’ve been an important LBGT rights advocate - has that influenced your running and vice versa?

Yes, I’m a gay rights veteran I suppose – more a writer and advocate in recent years, but in the 80s and 90s I was an activist – first at university and then in my trade union.

Back in the day, before I even knew I was gay and when I was coming to terms that I might be, running was a resilience tool, I guess. Throughout my secondary school years cross country running was the big constant. It enabled me to be part of the pack rather than outside it, which was a big deal. It made me stronger, more determined as a human being.

In my 20s, when I was still running a fair bit and entering the odd race, my focus was very much on political activism, particularly around gay rights. And those two bits of my life didn’t feel connected at all. Sport, even athletics which was never as toxic as some team sports, wasn’t a safe or inclusive place if you were gay. So, it all felt quite dissonant.

Things have moved on a lot in the intervening years. I introduced Stonewall and its Rainbow Laces campaign to Scottish Athletics a few years ago and was knocking at an open door. but there’s always more to be done to create a really inclusive sporting culture.

And at an elite level, it’s taken just as long for athletes to come out publicly. Whether people talk about their sexuality is their choice, of course, but if they do it can have an enormous impact on young athletes coming to terms with who they are. And, as I discovered, sport can be a lifeline.

You’ve suffered from a serious injury in recent years - how have you dealt with that?

With great difficulty! I’m a runner. I’d always known that running was a huge part of who I was. But I guess I’d also taken it for granted. I knew I was getting older and slower obviously. But it didn’t really occur to me that I wouldn’t always be able to do it. And back in another racing phase, I wanted to continue being competitive for as long as possible. I felt I had a few years decent running in me yet.

And then, bang. It was so sudden and on the back of some really good form and a great cross-country season. So, initially I was just really upset and couldn’t quite believe it might be all over. I didn’t even want to be near running much – it felt too panful.

It took a long time to get to the bottom of what was going on, get the surgery (I got hugely messed about by a private health care company on the way) and then start the long, painful process of recovery. Which initially involved just learning to walk again! I was non weight bearing on the operated leg for six weeks after the operation.

Knee after the osteotomy

So, how have I dealt with it? Patience, taking it one step at a time – even though it’s often felt enormously frustrating with no light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve turned to club mates for emotional support and that’s been hugely sustaining - just the fact that people care and respect me as a runner has been a great comfort and encouragement.

Having stayed away initially because I found it hard to be around running, I gradually got involved again and through last winter helped out with team management during the cross- country season. It was so good just to be around it and part of it and that’s fed my hunger to return to competition if I possibly can.

What does a typical week of training look like (outside lockdown?)

Because of the injury, I haven’t had a typical training week for two years.

Before I was injured it looked something like this in a non-race week. Around 35 to 40 miles.

Sunday – Long run 12 miles. Steady pace.

Monday – Gym session

Tuesday – Track session – around 8-10k’s worth

Wednesday – Mid-week long run 8-10 miles

Thursday – Easy running – 4-6 miles

Friday – Rest

Saturday – Interval session on grass – around 5k’s worth

Because of my age I was gradually reducing my mileage and focussing on quality over quantity. I was about to replace a running day with a second gym day. If only I’d done that earlier…

Now, having learnt to walk, stuck (more or less) with months of monotonous rehab which has gradually strengthened, I’m finally doing something that resembles training again. I get out running three or four days a week. I need at least a day or two in between each run.

It’s not yet settled into the kind of weekly pattern that characterised my training before the injury. But gradually I’m increasing the length of my longest run, up to 10k now. And I’m carefully re-introducing speedwork, 4 x 600m or a mile time trial. It doesn’t amount to much more than 10-15 miles a week yet but it’s fantastic to be doing it at all.

I’m hoping that over the next few months I can get back to something like:

Sunday – Long run 8 miles

Monday – Gym session

Tuesday – Interval session on grass

Wednesday – Easy run 5 miles

Thursday – Rest

Friday – Gym session

Saturday – Interval session on grass

We’ll see!

What have you learnt about yourself during the process of being injured and during rehabilitation?

I guess it’s reinforced things I already knew. That running is enormously important to me. Not being able to do it left a huge hole in my life in lots of ways. I’ve struggled emotionally with its absence from my daily routine – and initially wondered what on earth to do with all the time that I had previously devoted to training. It also left a big social hole – a lot of the everyday sociability and connection which sustained me had suddenly disappeared.

It’s definitely had an impact on my mental health. I had been more aware than ever before since taking up racing again that running was hugely beneficial to my mental well-being, that it provided in effect a daily coping mechanism, a decompressor. But, of course, it took its complete absence to bring that into sharp relief. The one thing that had previously worked, almost without fail, when I was feeling anxious or depressed would be to go out for a run, the longer the better sometimes. And now that option was denied to me which at times was like a vicious circle – can’t run, feel low, can’t run in response to feeling low, feel even lower…

But I’ve also learnt that I’m quite resilient and pretty determined. Okay it’s taken me almost a year to get from the operation, not walking etc to running a 10k some 14 minutes slower than I had done the season before I was injured – but I did it! It’s reinforced how much I don’t like the gym and all that goes with it but also that if I want to be anything like competitive again, I’ve just got to suck that up.

And it’s reinforced how much cross country is the running I love the most. I know that if I’m to take care of myself, road running is pretty much a thing of the past. That’s a shame but I’d be so much more upset if it was the other way around. Cross country – mud, rain, winter, freezing conditions – they are where my heart always was and remains.

How has the lockdown affected you?

I’ve been lucky workwise in that however unsecure self-employment is I can work from home and I’m keeping afloat – just! I’m also blessed to live with my husband who is just the most resourceful person I know – I’ve often described him as my anchor and that’s never been truer.

We have another house – a cottage over in Pittenweem, Fife – right next to the sea. It would have been so good to be there over the last few weeks; not least given the great weather we’ve had and the fact that we’re in a flat in the middle of the city. But, of course, we haven’t been able to go there. Completely right and understandable and we’re so much luckier than the vast majority of people even without that, but I’ve still missed it.

I think the thing I’ve missed most is casual everyday sociability – being able to meet up with friends for a coffee or a bite to eat. I’m on the introverted side of the equation and can spend a lot of time on my own quite happily. I’m not one for big social gatherings. But I’ve been reminded how much everyday connection with friends sustains me. And I’m looking forward to being able to see them again – in person not on Zoom!

From a running perspective it’s actually been good. I’d just about got back to doing some training with the club again in January and February – very tentatively. A bit one step forwards, two steps back. And I was working hard in the gym. Obviously, I’ve not been able to do either. But that’s given me the space to just go out and run – to see what I can do. I had a false start a few weeks back where I overcooked it. But now, touch wood, it’s coming together. And, of course, unlike everyone else I’m not missing racing because I’m not ready yet! But to be able to take part in the virtual challenge in the club is a real boost.

Scottish National short course XC championships Renfrew 2016

What was your best performance?

I think the two I’m most proud of are at either end of my running career so far. Both cross country races because that was my first and remains my best love. So, neither involve PBs, times, watches. Both, however, involve adverse weather conditions. That’s how I’ve always liked it.

In 1973, in my second term at secondary school, on a freezing cold snowy day at Stand Grammar School I finished 17th out of 31. It was the first time I’d finished in the middle of the pack and – almost – nearer the front than the back. It was huge day for me. I can still remember it and the encouragement I had from Mr Whaite, my school coach, on the day. Later that year, I won the most improved runner prize – Mr Pippin’s Book of Puzzles. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.

In 2018, not longer before everything came to a grinding halt, on a day when mud was king, I finished 9th in my age category at the Scottish Veterans Cross Country Championships at Kilmarnock. The mud wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea that day, and that suited me just fine.

What is your happiest running memory?

So many to choose from. But I’ll pick two, both from the last few years.

In October 2016, my husband and I were staying on the Mull of Kintyre for a week. I went out for a training run in the hills one evening. It was a dreich day and I’d left it a tad late, so the light was falling. But I found myself climbing higher and higher. I didn’t see a soul, accompanied only by sound the babbling steams and the squelch of my feet in the boggy ground beneath me.

I wasn’t running fast – it was far too steep and technical for that – but as I went on and on, I became aware that I was completely at one with my running. Just wonderful. I didn’t want it to end.

The other is my last race – or at least the last one I ran. I hope it won’t be, but I’ve said a lot in the last two years that if it is, it was a good way to go out! It was the Scottish Road Running relays at Livingston, March 2018. I was in the V50 first team and we won Bronze.

It was especially satisfying as the we’d missed out the previous year. I’d gone off on the last leg in 2nd and come home in 4th. It wasn’t a bad run – the race went to form. But it was crushing, and I felt responsible even though the numbers were only ever going to add up the way they did.

And it was almost a relief to be part of the team and win the medal, because after a really good season on the country, I’d had a problem with my right knee (with hindsight a clue about the problem with my left knee, which had still to reveal itself) coming into the race and ran with it taped. But it all came good. A few weeks before we’d unexpectedly come away with a Silver team medal in the British Masters cross country championships. But this was the real deal – a national medal for the first time at the age of 57. Pride doesn’t begin to describe it really.

Scottish Road Relays Bronze Medal winning team 2018

Who or what has influenced you most as a runner?

I grew up as a runner in the era of Coe, Ovett and Cram. The strength in depth in British men’s middle and long distance running was staggering. Cram is the same age as me and it was exciting to watch him develop as an athlete. More recently I’ve been an attendee at his training camps where he’s very hands on.

But the elite athlete from that era who influenced me the most – my favourite if you like – was Peter Elliot. I’m not sure he ever quite got the recognition he deserved. But he was a class act. And among Scottish runners, Graham Williamson, also of my generation – hugely talented but wasn’t able to fulfil his youthful promise.

David Whaite was my school running coach. Without his support and encouragement, I wouldn’t still be running today. I owe him a lot. And my other exceptionally talented school teammates. Nick Peach, who was in the year above me at school, won the Northern Schools Cross Country Championships in 1979 and went on to run 3000m steeplechase for England in the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

Alex MacEwen has been my coach, mentor, and friend since I joined Edinburgh Athletic Club in 2013 after a long absence from racing. He reeled me in – and I couldn’t be more grateful. His support and influence have been immense.

I’m indebted to Gary Robertson at Edinburgh AC for coaching too. He and Alex have different approaches, but I’ve been lucky enough to borrow the best of both.

And finally, a brilliant set of clubmates at Edinburgh AC – too many great people to name but those early days of my return when you, Hannah Waugh, Karen Dobbie, and others who trained at Meadowbank were incredibly special. I should mention Cath Ferry who has been my sports masseur and conditioning advisor since 2016 and who has seen me through a lot!

And finally, finally, a special mention for Rob Turner and the Pyllon Endeavour team of ultra-runners who have taken on the most immense challenges to raise money for SAMH over the last couple of years.

Do you have a running philosophy? A life philosophy? Are the two different?

I do – and they are the same.

It’s not how good you are, it’s how hard you try.

I’m not a naturally gifted athlete. Everything I’ve achieved has been through effort and perseverance. And I’d say that applies to everything else about my life too.

Are you passionate about other sports?

Absolutely – pretty much everything, with the exception of combat sports and motor sports.

I’ve always loved sport – it’s the endeavour at the heart of it and that word, ‘endeavour’ has been my favourite word since I was a teenager.

I played tennis when I was younger and was lucky enough to do a bit of horse riding and sailing too, as well as a lot of walking.

As a spectator, apart from athletics – I especially enjoy tennis, rugby, swimming (though I can’t abide swimming myself because I’m so bad at it).

How can readers find you online?

@Chris_Creegan on Twitter and @chris.creegan on Instagram.

Some blogs which relate to the above:

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