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  • Writer's pictureKarla

Meet the runner - Conán McCaughey

I first met Conán around 2014. We'd both won a competition with Athletics Weekly and Brooks to go the the Armagh 3km/5km race. Unfortunately I had a stress fracture in my foot shortly before so couldn't compete but still went along to join the fun. Conán was racing for Central AC and I was running for Edinburgh so we would bump into each other at cross country races and say hello. Central AC were and are dominant in running in Scotland, producing Olympians and National Champions. I've followed Conán's progress since our days in Scotland so it was lovely to catch and up and ask him some questions about running, racing and his place on the 2024 Marathon Potential Project.

I’m a social researcher and statistician for NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency), with a background in Psychology.Normally I’m based in Belfast, but my family is from Enniskillen, so I’ve been living at home since the first lockdown in March. I’m only the third fastest in the NISRA office after Northern Ireland 5k/10k record holder Dermy Donnelly and 14:11 5k man Ben Branagh so I’ve my work cut out!

I run for two clubs - Central AC in Scotland/GB races and North Belfast Harriers in NI/Irish competitions. I was in Stirling (central Scotland) for three years from 2013, completing a part time MSc in Health Psychology. I loved it over there, especially training and racing with the incredible club that is Central AC. However better career opportunities opened up back in NI rather than in Scotland so I made the move back across the water late in 2016.

My coach is Mark Kirk who is one of the leading endurance coaches on the island of Ireland. He coaches a fantastic group of athletes over disciplines from 800m to the marathon and we all train together in Belfast. A unique and positive aspect of the group is that it’s open to athletes of all clubs – we all pull together to improve and achieve more together than training separately in small club groups. I would always do sessions with the group in normal times but since the pandemic I’ve been doing the group sessions here in Fermanagh - with a couple of local training partners, especially my good pal Stevie Cassidy, but I often have to get them done solo too!

Photo Bobby Gavin

I never ran at all in school, I played football recreationally but that was it! I joined both the Orienteering and Athletics clubs when I started as an undergraduate in UCD (University College Dublin) back in 2008, more for the social side and to make friends. I enjoyed orienteering but was hopeless at navigation over the larger courses! I slowly started running more regularly but wasn’t really training as such. In 2010 I joined my then local running club St Peter’s AC – it was from that point under coach Brian O’Hagan I decided to give running a proper go as I really enjoyed it.

I’ve really benefitted from the Athletics NI/Belfast City Marathon Potential 2024 Project. It’s a fantastic team-focused initiative supporting developing NI/Ulster endurance athletes to progress in the marathon and target major championships. Under Mark’s training I’ve been able to progress well over the last three years over 10k and the half marathon and so hit the times and progression required for selection to the programme. The programme has really benefitted both my training and racing, it’s been fantastic! We’ve collaborated closely and learnt from many leading local figures in the fields of sports psychology, S&C, nutrition and sports physiology - this has enabled us all to implement these improvements in training to get the best from ourselves. We’ve also had the opportunity to get in a professional warm weather training camp with some of the best distance athletes in Ireland and to compete for NI at major road races across the UK. Many of us have ran significant PBs in these races as you get the best from yourself running with the NI/Ulster vest on!

Consistency in training has always been the basic building block for me – I love running so getting out the door for at least one run a day is never a challenge for me unless I’m injured! Over the years my mileage has built up gradually – Tues, Thurs and Sat would be more quality days. Mon and Wed would be easy running 60-70 mins. Friday runs are always really easy and fairly short. The Sunday long run is usually my favourite of the week – usually 90 -110 minutes at a sociable pace, but can pick up sometimes over hills or if I’m feeling good! I would double some days as well, but these are always very easy 4-to-5-mile shuffles at about 7:20 mile pace or slower.

The sessions that Mark sets for us varies throughout the year but there is always a big focus on specific endurance work whilst keeping in touch with speed. Having a knowledgeable coach is great as you can trust their training programme and don’t have to worry about what session to do that evening! One of the biggest changes in my training over the years is not to kill myself in sessions and to run at my own pace rather than someone’s else – it took a long time to learn that one!

Photo - Sportsfile

I do some strength and conditioning work – mostly core work and using kettlebells to focus on hips, glutes, calves and arm drive. Dynamic stretching and drills are important as I’m naturally very tight and quickly fall apart when I don’t keep on top of range of motion work! Throwing in some easy strides over the last mile of easy runs is something else I’ve always done over the years that has helped improve speed and form when running fast.

There’s nothing special about my diet at all really…but it seems to work well for me! I was brought up on good old-fashioned principles – protein with every meal, always have veg in there, enjoy a sweet treat or two in moderation and keep off the fizzy juice! I’m quite tolerant across food groups however I would avoid dairy before hard sessions or races and keep to plain carbohydrate sources that are easy to digest. A few examples of favourite dishes would be porridge with blueberries, bananas and peanut better, a fish finger butty with a nice side salad, and salmon risotto. I love my coffee and would have a cuppa usually before a run, two before a session or a race – I’m lucky that my system can tolerate caffeine well.

I take a high strength Vitamin D supplement when it’s not mild and sunny (most of the year here in Ireland) and a standard multivitamin with iron. Otherwise, I focus on getting plenty of nutrients through natural sources with a varied diet. In my experience nothing beats natural sunlight for replenishing Vitamin D – it’s incredible how revitalised you can feel mentally and physically after a few days training in warm sunny conditions!

It’s really difficult to pinpoint one favourite place to run. I’ve had the pleasure of running along so many incredible routes. I really miss the Central AC long runs where we regularly ran up the Ochill hills and to North Third reservoir where the views over Stirling and the Forth Valley are stunning. Locally there’s a shoreline forest track hugging along Lough Melvin starting from Glenfarne (15 miles from Enniskillen) that on a summer’s evening has heavenly panoramic views. Northern Spain is spectacular as well – you could run thousands of miles around Cantabria and Galicia and the scenery would still take your breath away.

Photo Bobby Gavin

My running highlight has to be winning five consecutive team Scottish National XC titles with Central AC and contributing to our unprecedented 10 triumphs in a row. It has been an incredible journey. We are a really close knit and supportive group led by coach Derek Easton. We all give everything we have, preparing for the battle in Falkirk each February and celebrate together big style as a team! It’s always a massive motivator throughout the winter slog to be ready for the big day and do my best to support the lads and keep our run going.

My motivation in the sport has always been championship races and pulling together as a team. Individual success and running PBs are pleasing but it’s achieving something special as a group that you remember the most. So, for myself the Scottish National XC championship and the Ulster Novice and Junior XC championships would be my favourites as they have given me my most memorable, toughest and happiest days in the sport. On the roads I would recommend Armagh 5k, Stirling 10k and the Antrim Coast Half as unmissable races- flat, fast, beautiful scenery and incredible competition, they’ve got it all! I love racing abroad and plan to do the Valencia marathon when the opportunity allows. I think it’ll be my favourite international race if all goes well on the day...the course and city are both stunning.

I once “raced” a Scottish East XC League race having had food poisoning the night before, don’t know what I was thinking! When you even keep coffee down before a race…you probably should be in bed. I just about managed to jog around the course falling three times and then spent about an hour hugged beside a radiator in the prizegiving hall, devoid of energy and trying to stave off hypothermia. Don’t race when sick, it’ll go even worse than you think!

I don’t have an explicit running or life philosophy as such – but I do believe that you have to enjoy the process and look at the big picture even when things aren’t going well. I sometimes train at odd times but I always get it done as long as I’m healthy – mostly because I enjoy running ,but that stubbornness to get a run in each day probably explains my relative success in the sport! I don’t have much “raw talent” as such but that is an ambiguous term anyway. The best athletes I’ve seen first-hand do the work everyday and love running for what it is. If you’re doing it only for ego or glory good luck to you, because the good times don’t last!

It’s a really exciting time for my Irish club North Belfast Harriers – over the last couple of years we’ve gone from strength to strength with a brilliant and growing training squad under the expert tutelage of Jim McGuinness and Seamus McCann. I’m really motivated to make a major contribution in the years ahead as we aim to not only reclaim the Ulster/NI Senior XC title, but to become Irish Senior XC champions and be recognised as the leading athletics club in Ireland. Long term I would like to give back to the sport and assist with coaching and mentoring athletes in the years ahead as well as getting more involved in the organisational side of things to help grow the sport.

Some folk swear by certain kit but I always like to try out different training gear and shoes – more expensive isn’t always better! The new carbon-plated “supershoes” have probably been the biggest game changer since I started running – I’ve trained and raced in both Nike’s and Adidas offerings in this category and have been very impressed by both but feel uncomfortable at the extraordinary price tag of such trainers. Is running still an accessible sport when you need to pay £170 minimum on such footwear every 12 months to be competitive in road races?

I don’t have any sponsors which is grand - there’s so many far better athletes than myself who are deserving of sponsorship. I’ve received brilliant support from the Athletics NI Marathon Potential 2024 programme which I’m very fortunate and grateful for. That said I would always be happy to explore opportunities as I know there’s some fantastic brands giving back to the sport and helping local athletes achieve their potential.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to be very durable. I rarely have muscle strains - when I break down it’s usually a pretty serious injury!The worst period was winter 2017 and summer 2018 where I had two suspected stress fractures – the first in my right thigh and the second in my left thigh. I could hardly walk never mind attempt running for weeks and at this stage you start to question if you’ll ever get back. I saw a great physio Adrian (Fuzion Physio in Stranmillis) who helped get me back and kept me patient and motivated to do brutal cross training sessions on the bike – they were tougher than any running session! I had a stressful job during that period with irregular shift patterns which probably contributed – I couldn’t train with Mark’s group and was doing sessions solo and far too hard. The second time it happened I was chasing a race series with a car for the winner and did a twisty hilly 5k in Meath which finished me off. So yeah, don’t race with an injury, it’ll go even worse than you think!

My biggest influence in the early days was probably Sonia O’Sullivan – she was the one Irish distance runner everyone knew growing up. A favourite childhood memory is our P7 teacher stopping class and us all screaming her on as she battled the diminutive Szabo for Olympic gold! As regards my own running journey - moving to Stirling and training with true international level athletes at Central AC was a game changer. It was incredible to run with and learn every day from such an incredible training group led by Ali Hay, Andy Butchart, Robert Russell and Morag Millar - all of whom have won everything in Scotland and has or had the ability to compete in Commonwealth finals (and Olympic finals in Butchy’s case). Each of them has their own unique personalities and philosophies which has brought them sustained success in the sport. However, what shone through was their collective humility, their consistency, their desire to train and race together for Central, and their belief in their ability. Their high standards and hunger really inspired every one of us to put in the work required even make a Central AC “A” team. It’s really exciting now to see a brilliant new group of young athletes come through at Central under the guidance of coaches Derek Easton and Michael Wright and being inspired by Morag, Ali, Butchy and now Jamie Crowe competing at a truly international level.

My short term the focus is to keep my training sustainable and be ready for when races inevitably do return! Longer term, I have three major goals – run under 2:20 for the marathon, win an individual senior Ulster/NI title, and represent Ireland in competition. I’ve always felt that the longer distances would suit me best – I was delighted to run 66:38 in the Antrim Coast Half Marathon last Sept and would hope that with marathon specific training and all going well in the day that I can break that 2:20 barrier. I’ve won individual Ulster/NI Novice and Junior XC titles but have never won a senior Ulster/NI championship individually – I have got close especially on the roads but there’s always been someone better! Likewise, I’ve been honoured to represent NI/Ulster on 10 occasions now, but to wear the Ireland vest even once would mean so much to me and my family. Making track teams realistically is beyond me but I will do all I can to earn a vest on the roads, over cross-country or even over the hills and trails. I may not get there but I’ll try my best over the next few years and see what happens!

You can follow Conán on Instagram @conanmccaughey

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