I absolutely loved this interview. John's enthusiasm for ultra-running is so infectious! He told me about his inspirational wife, running Spartathlon and aiming high.
I am a country boy from Aghadowey in Northern Ireland but now live in Antrim. I have spent quite a few years in England working too. I work as an Engineer. I say that to make it sound interesting but actually I just play about in diggers and similar machinery. I’m married to Gillian (another keen runner) and have been for 6 years now. She’s an accountant who works in Ballymena. We have a dog called Maximus, a Hungarian Vizsla. He loves running about in the mountains and forests with us but hates running on roads (the ideal ultra-runner!!)
My coach is Camille Herron. She’s an amazing runner and has a few records under her belt! One of the top ultra-runners in the world. She coaches me along with her husband Conor. They are the ultimate coaching team and have taken me way beyond what I ever thought I was capable of. I have been running under them for 18months now and the runner I was back before them is completely unrecognisable.
I see Shane Benize (Running Reborn) for all things movement and he has helped me get the best out of my body with the least amount of input. His area is trying to get runners to move how we are designed to. He goes all over the world studying different cultures and how they run in their environments and brings that back to the western world. Again, he has transformed my running and helped me get in shape for my biggest race last year.
My wife is to blame for my running!! I was never really interested in running at all. I have always tried to keep fit and played football, Gaelic football and rugby growing up and into my 20s. Then I was a bit of a gym queen and only interested in lifting weights and getting big. At the backend of 2015 I saw a picture of myself and was shocked at how big I was. I had no neck!! That shocked me. I wasn’t fat or anything, just big and I didn’t really like it. I was around 98kgs and I decided that I wanted to have a change. So I went on a 12-week transformation programme incorporating light gym work and a strict diet. That was hard work, but I managed to shift 14kgs and got into fantastic shape. I still hadn’t run a step at this stage though.
Then Gillian talked me into doing one of the Born to Run 10k races. It was the Antrim one in February 2016. Gillian had always tried to talk me into running when I was throwing weights around a gym and I always said, “No way, it’s the quickest way to lose gains, right?”. As I had lost the weight and felt good about it, I thought, why not?! I will do one run with her and get her off my back. I ended up running quite well. Clearly my competitive streak was flying out of me as I flew round (well, quick for me at the time) and ended up running around 38mins something and finished in the top 20. I was over the moon and was instantly hooked. Why did I wait so long?!
At the race was a guy called Gregory Walsh (someone Gillian already knew) who is a running coach and he was there supporting a few of his runners, namely Mark McKinstry (a big legend here in the running world). We said hello and he mentioned we should come and see him as he saw some potential. Well, that was like throwing petrol on a fire to me. I was sucked straight into the world of running.
I am quite an obsessive person when it comes to things like this and I went at it full throttle. Gregory has his own running group called Fit n Running in Ballymena. I would go to him probably 4 times a week to his classes or one on one sessions and then his weekend longer runs too. He really got the ball rolling with me running wise and taught me so much about what I needed to do to be a good runner. I thought it was just all about putting one foot in front of another and just running. But he taught me it all, from strength, to flexibility, to actually running. He really set the foundation to where I am today. I then joined North Belfast Harriers and ran under their colours. I had a ball in the first year and just wanted to get faster and faster.
Along with being a little bit obsessive I don’t have much patience either. I was running all the distances up to and including the half marathon. My first half marathon was the Ards Half back in 2016. I was buzzing to run that in 83mins. I carried on running the short stuff but I could never get under 38mins for 10k or 18mins for 5k and that was really frustrating. But like I say I am not the most patient of people and just wanted the results way quicker than what I was capable of.
I thought that if I can’t get any quicker, I might as well go longer. And that was it, I discovered ultra-running. Gillian’s cousin was training to run a 100mile race in memory of his late wife and he had never run before so I thought if he was doing that, then I can run ultra-marathons. Though I didn’t go straight into 100miles! I started off at the 100km distance and ran the Thames Path Challenge in September 2017. Gregory prepared me for this even though he doesn’t coach ultra-running. He did a fantastic job and got me in great shape. I ended up finishing that race in 5th place with 9hrs 44mins. That was me now hooked on ultra-running. I had jumped from a half marathon straight to a 100km. Just shows that you don’t need to run marathons first.
From there I went my own direction with my training and pretty much just followed online plans that I came across. They were ok. In the early days of my ultra-running I googled ‘The hardest ultra-marathons in the world’. Yep, I was aiming high!!! I came across a race called Spartathlon. I read all about it and the history and story around it and decided that my sole goal in ultra-running now was to qualify for this race and run it one day. My obsession for it just grew and grew. In 2018 I applied for the ballot using my Thames Path time but unfortunately didn’t get a place. Just as well really because I would not have been anywhere near ready for it. I used 2018 as my year to build on experience and get races under my belt. I ran various races building up to my first 100-mile race, the Centurion Autumn 100 in the October. Again, just following plans I found online. I ran that in 20hrs 35mins (rolled ankle at 40miles so the other 60miles wasn’t pleasant) and got another qualifying time to enter the ballot for Spartathlon 2019. I finished top 20 in that race which was a massive confidence booster.
I listening to the British Ultra Running Podcast in January when they interviewed Camille. She was talking about her recent 24hr world record she set. I was in awe of everything she said, her ethos in training and tactics in training. I instantly contacted her and asked if she would coach me and that was it. In February 2019 Camille was my coach so if I manage to get a place in Spartathlon then she would be the ideal person to get me ready. And then it happened, I got a place in one of the most iconic Ultra marathons in the world and would run as part of the British Spartathlon Team in 2019.
Everything last year just built towards Spartathlon. I won my first 100mile race in May. The GB Ultra Chester 100. That just proved to me that everything Camille had me doing was working. I then went straight into my first 24hr race in Belfast 4 weeks later (Energia 24). This wasn’t ideal with little recovery time but I really wanted to run for 24hrs as I had never done that before and would be running for much longer in Greece during Spartathlon. I ended up running 198km and placed 14th I think. I was in the top 10 runners in Ireland though which was my big take away. I was buzzing about this but was told afterwards that if I had run 2kms more I would have run a qualifying distance to have a chance of making the Ireland 24hr team. Bummer!! A fantastic learning experience nonetheless and it really prepared me for Spartathlon.
Then the big one last year. Spartathlon. Words won’t be able to describe how special this race is and everything surrounding it. The journey from Athens to Sparta is something I will never forget. It was fantastic. I could talk all day about this race but I think I’ve talked enough already!! I managed to placed 28th in the world and the 6th British runner over the finish line. Amazing for me but all the hard work allowed me to place well. My big claim is that I beat the 100mile world record holder, Zach Bitter. Well I only beat him as he pulled out 80miles in. But a DNF is a DNF and I’m claiming the win. This race attracts some big, big names in the ultra-world including Dean Karnazes. It was great running among so of the greats!
My typical training week would be Mon-Sun.
Mon - Recovery run (from previous Sunday long run)
Tues – Easy run with strides at the end.
Wed – Speed session/Hill session (depending where I am on the 4-week cycle)
Thu – Recovery run
Fri – Easy run
Sat – Easy run with strides at the end
Sun – Long run
My total mileage would be between 70-80 miles a week dropping back to around 60 on my recovery week. My training has changed massively over the last 2years. I was just guessing at the start and Camille brought in proper structure to my training. I don’t do any strength or conditioning training. Stretching…. what’s that??
My diet is not structured at all. I am an ultra-runner after all. Isn’t this just free rein to eat whatever I want?? I do eat generally quite healthy but don’t really think about it. I take Glucosamine Sulphate, multivitamins, and fish oils. Your basics really.
My favourite pre-race meal is pizza the night before and just a bowl of cereal in the morning. During a race, potatoes (would you expect anything else from an Irishman?) or wraps with peanut butter and jam. Watermelon. Chocolate milk and my secret weapon, a beer half way through. It actually does work.
After the race, no real favourite, I can’t really eat after a race. I take Tailwind Rebuild as a recovery shake but I don’t really crave any food.
My favourite place to run is the Divis Mountain trail route. I absolutely love it up there. It’s up in the hills, great scenery and decent rolling terrain. You can usually catch me doing loops and loops up there on a weekend.
Overall my running highlight has to be Spartathlon and making the British Team. You have to run it to understand it and everything that surrounds it. My favourite domestic race was the Centurion Autumn 100. It was my first hundred and a qualifier for Spartathlon so it will always hold that spot. My favourite international race – do I have to say it again- Spartathlon, obviously. I placed 28th in the world and represented GB so can’t really beat that.
My worst performance was at the Shanes Castle Ultra – Atlas Running (sorry Adrian and Sammy). Nothing to do with the race organising or anything like that. It’s a fantastic event but I went into it injured and told myself that 39 miles is easy. Big mistake. I screwed up my ITB and had to limp half of the second loop to the start/finish line. Only because I was too stubborn to get a lift in the medical vehicle. Big lessons learnt – listen to your body. Live to race another day and respect every race, no matter the distance.
My running philosophy is ‘The body will achieve what the mind believes’. Clearly you still need to be injury free and fit but if you are you can and will achieve anything you set out to do. Ultra-running is a mental battle more than a physical one. That philosophy has definitely changed throughout the years. I have so much more respect now for races and athletes. Never judge a book by its cover. There are some amazing runners out there that leave it all out there and always surprise me with their performance. Especially the older runners.
Running has given me purpose and drive to achieve more than I think I am capable of.
It’s given Gillian and I a common interest and we share a lot of miles together. Goals, Goals, Goals and smashing the life out of them!!
My favourite bit of kit is my Truckers Cap – you’ll very rarely see me running without it. And I won’t ever race without wearing it. It’s my lucky charm. I am not sponsored but I am an ambassador for Precision Hydration. They are an absolutely fantastic nutrition aid and without doubt is a huge factor in my performance. For me, a game changer. www.precisionhydration.com
I’ve been very lucky with not really having any injures worth talking about. Although I have probably jinxed myself now. No niggles at moment. I just ran the Centurion One Community 100-mile event – virtual at the end of May. I have recovered really well from that. A massive 2.5hr PB of 16hrs 38mins placing second. Unofficial time, unfortunately, but I can take that forward to the end of the year when we are hopefully racing again.
My wife, Gillian, is my biggest running influence. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
My top running book is The rise of Ultra runners: A journey to the edge of human endurance by Adharanand Finn. It is an absolutely fantastic book and really insightful. A great read to inspire someone to take up ultra-running.
You can find John @john_thenonrunner_runner on Instagram.
Precision hydration can be found @precisionhydration.
John is an ambassador for KomFuel - ww.komfuel.co.uk - you can use john_thenonrunner_runner as a discount code.