Loss of his father-figure and coach Kiernan hit hard but he will funnel all his energy into European Indoors
It’s the simple things that catch him: the phone call that doesn’t come, the pre-race pep talk he no longer hears – the absence of a coach, a friend, he will forever miss.
Pushing through the various stages of grief is a 12-round bout against a flurry of firsts, never quite sure which new experience of a life recalibrated is the one that’ll leave you flattened. For John Travers, the first race following the death of Jerry Kiernan was always going to be the toughest.
“On the emotional side I was all over the place,” he says. “I was using the race as a distraction from Jerry’s passing. On the Saturday morning, it got to me. I was so used to getting that call.”
The Saturday morning he speaks of was February 20, day one of the elite micro-meet in Abbotstown, where Travers had his one and only chance to secure qualification for this week’s European Indoor Championships in Poland.
It had been only four weeks since Kiernan died, not nearly enough time for Travers to come to terms with it. On the morning of the race, the call came instead from Alan McCormack, a long-time disciple of Kiernan’s, who has since taken over as Travers’ coach. He told him what he needed to hear, that there was no pressure on him, but Travers felt the opposite.
“I told him it’s the most pressure ever and it’s all from myself,” he says. “I know what Jerry wanted me to do, I know what I can do, and I don’t want to look at it like a waste of his last 10 years coaching me if I go out and run absolutely shite.”
Travers was instead supreme, out-kicking Irish 5000m champion Darragh McElhinney with a blazing last two laps to secure his place on the Irish team, setting a massive 3000m personal best of 7:50.40, a performance of which Kiernan would have been most proud.
To get a handle on what Travers’ career might have been without his long-time coach, why he’d never have the nine Irish senior titles he has to his name, you need to go back to 2012. At the time he was studying at Athlone IT, a gifted but sporadic talent who was in danger of slipping away from the sport. “I was in the process of packing it in, the coach previous decided he was going to stop coaching, and I was in that zone where I didn’t really want to run. It was only thanks to Dermot McDermott and Jerry that I got back.”
McDermott is one of those avid athletics folk who gets maddened by wasted talent, and he coaxed Travers into joining him on a trip to Belfield for one of Kiernan’s sessions. The group were doing a six-mile tempo run that night, and Travers reluctantly joined them, getting halfway through before pulling up and making excuses about a sore calf.
What was Kiernan’s reaction?
“He called me a lazy prick and told me not to come back,” says Travers. “I went home going, ‘what the f*** was he talking about there? Calling me a lazy prick?’ So I came back the next week and he said, ‘What are you back for? I told you not to waste my time.’”
As it turned out, it was just the right spark to light a fire under Travers.
“He knew if he said, ‘Ah don’t worry, come back next week,’ I wouldn’t have bothered. Dermot obviously told him, ‘you need to piss him off a little bit.’”
In the years that followed Kiernan was always there, sometimes calling Travers as much as four times a day – athletics being only one small part of their relationship. He was there for his best days on the track and there on his worst days away from it. In the summer of 2015, Travers’ father became increasingly unwell as he battled cancer and, on the lead-up to the World University Games in South Korea, Travers knew he might not have long left.
It was the biggest event of the year for Travers, but he didn’t want to go, a desire his father and Kiernan overruled. With his mind back on the task, Travers breezed through the heats of the 1500m but the night before the final, his father passed away.
The following day, Travers still toed the line, finishing ninth in the final.
“I said if I fly back now after doing the heats I’m after wasting my whole time here, so I said I’ll run the race and then come home. I couldn’t feel a thing in the race, I was completely numbed, but come the business end I had nothing, I had wasted every bit of emotional energy I had – there was no fight.”
The years that followed brought better times, and in 2018 Travers became a father for the first time, his partner Eimear giving birth to their son, Stevie. Only in recent weeks did Travers learn from Eimear’s mother that Travers’ father had called Kiernan while he was ill, asking him to ensure John was looked after when he wasn’t around.
“Jerry never once said that to me,” says Travers. “But I understand now why he was taking on that extra role.”
For Travers, it was a devastating sense of déjà vu when the call came on the morning of January 21. Kiernan had been unwell for months, but no one had seen it coming. The night before he died, Travers had been shooting the breeze as always, listening to Kiernan making fun of Donald Trump, and the following morning he texted Kiernan to ask if he should enter an upcoming half-marathon.
When he got a call 40 minutes later from Kiernan’s best friend, he assumed it wasn’t good news and that he’d been taken into hospital. Travers was frozen when he found out, and stopped himself going for a run that day, knowing he’d only do something stupid. In the weeks after, though, there were times it felt like the only solution – a different kind of pain, a therapeutic release.
“There was one day I overdid it: I did 12-and-a-half miles in just over 60 minutes. I felt like shit and I had to get it out of my system.”
In truth, he hasn’t come to terms with it yet. He’s been here before and knows how this works, and the grief is still there, deep within, waiting for its full release.
“I know I’m going to break down after the Europeans,” he says. “I’ll hit that wall and I haven’t hit it.”
After the strangest of years, his life is otherwise pivoting back towards normality. Last week Travers resumed his in-school work as a special needs assistant in Sligo, and when he’s not out logging the 80 or so miles he runs each week, his house is a busy place these days with his daughter, Ella, arriving last year.
He’s 29 now, and has competed at the European Indoors four times before, his best result coming at the 2015 edition in Prague where he finished seventh in the 1500m final. This time it’ll feel different, but then again everything feels different since Kiernan passed away. Come what may, he’ll still give it all he’s got.
“My days of experience runs are over so I’m not going out to make up numbers,” he says.
“I want to make the final and then anything can happen.”