'I was scared s***less...You can think some scary thoughts' - David Gillick on his battle with depression
Irish athlete tells Cathal Dennehy about his second coming on the track
Published 05/07/2016 | 02:30
The car journeys were the worst. Trapped in that box, alone with his thoughts, David Gillick couldn't escape the cloud of darkness that would descend.
It was late last year, and the retired Irish sprinter appeared to be adjusting well to life after track. On the inside, though, he was falling apart.
"I was lost," says Gillick. "If someone asked me what I wanted to do, I'd feel obliged to give them an answer so they'd think I'm doing well, but in actual fact I was scared s***less."
Gillick had one of the great careers in Irish athletics: two European indoor 400m titles, sixth in a world 400m final and a national record of 44.77 that will likely stand for decades.
But it ended with a whimper. In May 2013, having missed out on the Olympics the previous year, Gillick injured his achilles tendon and decided it no longer made sense to swim against the tide.
"That's when I said, 'you know what, I've had enough.' I was so frustrated with athletics, so p***ed off and angry. I wanted nothing to do with it."
In those first few months, he would avoid athletics all costs, unfollowing athletes on social media and changing the channel when it came on TV.
"I missed it and was angry; asking why this happened to me? That was a tough period."
Gillick was first diagnosed with depression in 2011, shortly after returning home from America, where a venture to train with the world's best had pushed his body and mind past breaking point. At least then he had an injury to blame for how he felt, but now it was more like a void, a black hole of emptiness into which he sank deeper and deeper.
He took a job distributing running shoes, which saw him traversing the country from Monday to Friday, the long journeys allowing him to replay in his head the decisions he made and the regrets he harboured.
"Being in the car drove me mad because I had time to think, and the frustration, the anxiety, got really, really bad," he says.
"I'd resent everything, resent athletics, thinking if I didn't do it then I wouldn't be in this position. I was in that ditch of desperation where you just can't get out. You can think some scary thoughts."
It came to a head last December. With his wife Charlotte expecting their first child, Gillick knew he needed to act: "Things were quite bad, and I thought: 'f***, I need to do something here'."
With the familiar sense of dread rising one Sunday afternoon, Gillick called a friend who dealt with similar problems, went round to his house and unloaded everything.
"Before I had that alpha male approach," he says. "You're a sportsperson, opening up is seen as weakness, but when I did it was like this weight had been lifted."
He underwent counselling, initially wondering what he was doing there but knowing that choosing that route was a sign of strength, not weakness.
Around the same time, a friend cajoled him into doing a track session, an invitation he initially shot down but soon accepted. That's how, on a freezing day last December, he found himself back at his oval office, running 200m repetitions and feeling the familiar fire of fatigue spread through his legs and lungs.
For so long this was the thing that exacerbated his depression, but now it had the opposite effect. The following evening Gillick went to his local track in Tallaght, which was locked, but he was determined to get his fix so jumped the gate to do his session.
A text later arrived from local coach Daniel Kilgallon, who noticed him training and told Gillick that if he ever needed to use the track or wanted to join their sessions, he was always welcome. Initially he had no plans to race, but after a few months an idea took hold - one 400m race, just for old time's sake.
"I threw the watch away, didn't measure myself off what I did in the past," he says. "I just started running free."
He chose a low-key meeting in Pavia, Italy, and though he came out of the blocks like a bear in hibernation, his animal instincts soon took over and Gillick finished in a solid 48.05. The following weekend he went to Belfast, and found there was still life in his 32-year-old legs, clocking 47.24.
"For the first time in a couple of years I felt myself," he says. "It's an amazing experience when you run free. I realised that this is what I love doing. This is my office."
Last week Gillick returned to the national championships for the first time since 2010, finishing third in 46.44, a run which secured him a spot at this week's European Championships in Amsterdam.
On Saturday he'll be part of the Irish 4x400m team which is ranked 17th in the world, and they'll need a run of 3:04.25 - which looks feasible - to get in the top 16 and book their spot at the Olympics.
Rio was never his intention when he decided to return, but it could happen all the same. If it does, it would prove be improbable sequel to a story he thought ended long ago.
"I was spat out of the sport before," he says. "The sport retired me and I thought that was it, but now that I'm back I want to continue to run as long as I can. This is a nice way to say goodbye to the sport."