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Maher goes back to basics to farm a rich vein of form

MOST athletes pass the days prior to an important race resting up and fretting about hydration and nutrition. Not so Brian Maher.

He spent the day before this month's National Track & Field Championships wielding a pick and shovel to dig a 20-foot trench for a water pipe on the family farm in Conahy, Co Kilkenny. Less than 24 hours later, he donned the Kilkenny City Harriers singlet and ran a personal best to finish second in the National 10,000m final at Santry Stadium.

Maher's training and racing regime goes against the grain of conventional athletics coaching wisdom, but there's method in his maverick approach. Earlier this year he put the heart rate monitor and hi-tech racing watch to one side along with the rigorous training programme that had seen him, in his own words, "burn the candle at both ends and apply a blowtorch in the middle." He had been dogged by illness and experienced fluctuating form for more than 18 months and decided to go back to running basics in an attempt to balance the demands of top-class athletics and full-time farming.

"I'm going on instinct now and listening to my body and it's working out," says Maher, who ran for the Irish senior men's team at the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh.

"My running had become very technical because some of my coaching was heart-rate based so I decided to go it alone and I went back to real basics, running around the fields at home. For example, I would use one of my runs to see what sort of grass was on the farm to do up a grass wedge for the dairy discussion group I am involved in. I would open all the gates when I was spreading fertiliser so instead of walking around wasting an hour I could be working, I was able to do the grass wedge on the run."

Those springtime runs around the farm also helped him to shake off the physical and psychological ill-effects of a debilitating stomach condition -- post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome -- that had lingered in his system since he contacted a particularly nasty strain of food poisoning in August 2008.

"It can take up to two years to go out of the system and it more or less did in my case. It's only in the last four months that it has cleared and it takes about another four months to get back to where you want to be, to get the legs back. In the last two years I hadn't put three months back to back without a breakdown of some sort or loss of energy. Even though I won the Dublin Half Marathon last September, I broke down in training shortly afterwards and I had more or less written myself off as a runner at a serious level.

"That's why I felt I needed to do it my own way. When I was on those runs around the farm, pace didn't bother me. If I felt good I would go hard, if I felt poor I would run handy enough and allow myself come around. Runners can get very obsessive about running and I just dropped all that and it's worked for me. I hadn't intended doing a track season this year, but after doing a few road races I found I was in shape without trying to be in shape."

Maher's running career has been unconventional from the word go. He didn't start training and competing formally until his early 20s. Instead, as the eldest son in a family of five, he was focused on a career in farming and spent a year at Kildalton Agricultural College after doing his Leaving Cert in St Kieran's College in 1996. His sporting energies were diverted towards hurling even though he had no great natural aptitude for it. But growing up in Conahy, the home club of the Brennan brothers -- Kiernan, Nickey (the former GAA president) and Canice, who all played senior with distinction for the county -- he felt he had no real choice but to hurl.

"You would nearly be shunned if you didn't play hurling, it's like not going to Mass," jokes Maher. "I was never really skilful enough to be a good hurler so I spent most of my time on the bench. But when it came to the running I was ahead of the rest of the team. I remember one year Kieran Brennan brought us down to Jenkinstown Woods for pre-season training and I was coming in minutes ahead of the boys on laps of the woods. They were always at me to give the athletics a go so I went into Kilkenny City Harriers for a session in 2001 and it took off from there.

"I was dabbling in running for about six months before I realised I was quite good at it and it took me about a year to realise fully that it was what I wanted and what I was best at and that I should give it a right whack," says Maher. "My second race was a County Novice Cross Country and I won that, competing against fellas who would have been going out and running every day for years. Shortly afterwards I met Anthony Geoghegan at the track in Kilkenny and he put me in touch with my first coach, Ned Kelly in Laois.

"I was with Ned for a few years and then I went to David Burke and finished up with Robert Denmead. I had a chequered year or so with Robert. Like all my coaches he wanted me to ease back on the mileage in training because of the manual work I was doing, but I had this idea that if the top distance runners in the country, like Mark Kenneally, were doing 100 miles per week in training, then I had to be doing 100 miles even though I had a very different lifestyle. I had that obsessive streak that you find in athletes and it's only now that I am learning how to switch it off."

Maher began to make athletics headlines after winning the Leinster Cross Country title in 2007, following that up with a fifth-place finish in the National Championships. He finished sixth at the Nationals in 2008 to win his place on the Irish team for the World Championships in Edinburgh, where he came home in 141st place on his international debut, a creditable finish considering he spent that weekend battling a cold.

While his athletics career took off, Maher was working full-time on the farm with his father Pa. The Mahers farm 130 acres and run a mixed dairy and cattle operation. Pa is also an AI Technician so Brian handles much of the day-to-day running of the farm during the summer months and his father takes the reins during the winter when Brian, who branched out into agricultural contracting when he was a teenager, concentrates mainly on hedge cutting.

"My father always had a hedge cutter and did work for neighbours so there was a small clientele there," he says. "When I was 19 he was concentrating on the farming and more or less left that to me and I am still at it. I used to work for silage contractors during the summer from the age of 16, and two years ago we decided we would cut our own silage.

"We had all the equipment -- the silage wagon was the only thing we were missing out on -- so we bought that between us and it has worked out well."

Maher relishes the physical work, being busy and being out in the open air. It's a real contrast to the rarefied lifestyle of many of his fellow athletes and while he's modest and in no way macho about his farming and athletics tightrope act, he gets an understandable kick from following his own star.

"There are very few athletes doing any manual work. The toughest task any of them have is staying on their feet all day. The main difference between Gary Thornton (the National 10,000m champion) and me is our environment. He starts work at half nine in the morning and finishes at half two. I would be starting into a second day's work at that stage. I am not looking for any medals because of the hours I work or the work that I do because it's the norm for me and what I want to be doing.

"There was three weeks around silage time when I clocked 90 hours a week and cut back on training, but -- and I have learned this the hard way -- I can vouch that less is more sometimes in training.

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"One week I went three days without training and went out and ran 19 minutes in a four-mile road race. When you are working manually, a lot of the time you are training unknown to yourself. Farming is my core training. Sometimes when I am out there swinging a pick or fencing or spraying with a knapsack sprayer, I get a laugh thinking about how many of the other boys I am racing against would be able to do this, let alone want to do it. There's an element of stroking your own ego I suppose, but it's good for the mental strength as well."

Firmly rooted in his own place, Maher and his girlfriend, Emily Conroy from Ballina, have applied for planning permission to build a house next door to his family home. In the meantime, he's taking each day and race as it comes, but holds out an ambition of running for Ireland again, possibly in a marathon.

"I plan to have another shot at the cross country next winter and my long-term ambition would be to get the 2:18 marathon qualification time for a European Championship.

"It would be fantastic to run in a major championships -- it's the Holy Grail for any athlete and it would be lovely to say you did it, especially as someone who is not a groomed, full-time athlete."