Saturday 22 September 2018

'I was walking home from a nightclub thinking: I was candidate for the Olympics, and here I am, p**sed out of my mind drunk'

After a career of many ups and downs, Belfast runner is hoping to make qualifying time for Europeans in tomorrow's Dublin Marathon

Now... Stephen Scullion takes a breather during a training session in Flagstaff
Now... Stephen Scullion takes a breather during a training session in Flagstaff

Cathal Dennehy

An emotional spoilt brat, a cocky f***er, unbelievably fat - Stephen Scullion has many ways of describing the way he once was, but few of them are positive.

Five-thousand miles from his home in Belfast, the 28-year-old is slouched on a couch in Flagstaff, Arizona at the end of a 20-mile day, when he starts to offload his story.

An hour later, he turns to his friend and says, with more than a hint of relief, "I've been waiting to get that out for a very long time."

Like why he retired from running five times already, or why he once bawled his eyes out in front of Sonia O'Sullivan, or why, as recently as January, he was still smoking and boozing his talent away with a series of all-night benders.

For much of the last decade, Scullion had been a talented but frustrated distance runner, one of Ireland's best, who was dedicated to the point of obsessive.

He thinks back to 2014, how he bet all his chips on running and after failing to see a return, decided to walk away. "I remember thinking if I keep going now for the next Olympic cycle, I'll be living in London at 28 in a loft room, no job, nothing."

And so he quit.

The original plan was to take two months off to clear his head while he learned website design - his intended new career - but that break ended up lasting 18 months.

Then...Stephen Scullion at a warm-weather camp in Tenerife back in February when he weighed in at 83kg compared to his current 68kg
Then...Stephen Scullion at a warm-weather camp in Tenerife back in February when he weighed in at 83kg compared to his current 68kg

Only in late 2015, when his friend Paul Pollock told him the Olympic marathon qualifying time was an enticingly soft 2:19:00, did he reconsider.

Scullion always had a big engine - lab tests showed a freakishly good combination of running economy and VO2 Max, two chief predictors of marathon success - and the Olympics was a big enough reward to make him roll the dice again.

Under the guidance of Nic Bideau, the renowned Australian coach and husband of Sonia O'Sullivan, Scullion averaged 120 miles a week on the build-up to the London Marathon last year, but 10 days before the race he picked up a tear in his quadriceps. Instead of following his physio's advice and resting, he ploughed on, only to stagger home in 2:20:39, five minutes outside his goal.

When he met O'Sullivan afterwards, the dam burst on his emotions.

"Sonia asked me if I was okay, and I was like: no. Next thing I'm crying my eyes out, thinking: I really, really wanted to do well."

That hurt too much to handle, so Scullion quit… again.

Like so many times before, his attitude to failure was less Samuel Beckett and more Homer Simpson: 'You tried your best and you failed miserably; the lesson is: never try.'

"I would go through all sorts of mental trauma after bad races," he says. "'F*** running. This crap's not worth it. Why do I bother? My friends are off doing amazing things and I'm stuck doing this.'"

He moved from London back to Belfast, stopped running, started drinking, and gained almost three stone. One drunken Saturday night, he agreed with friends to take up rugby, and the following Tuesday got concussed at his first training session.

"All I could see was stars and for two weeks I got these sore heads," he says, "but I kept playing."

In November last year he felt himself sliding into a dark hole, going wild on weekends then barely lifting a finger until midweek as he wandered aimlessly in the meadow of the recently retired.

"I was walking home from a nightclub at 5am thinking: five months ago you were a candidate for the Olympics, and here I am, p**sed out of my mind drunk, not knowing what I'm doing with myself."

Something had to change, so in January Scullion moved back to London, where many of his friends were high-level runners. In the beginning he ran with them just to socialise, but like a reunion with an ex, he soon realised what made him fall in love with the sport all those years ago.

"I realised I miss running for more than performance," he says. "I was healthier, happier, and didn't get depressed."

On January 23, the deadline to enter the London Marathon, he signed up on a whim and hauled his 85kg body out the door for a 13-mile run, averaging 6:21 per mile.

At that stage Scullion was still smoking daily, and in truth it wasn't running that caused him to throw his two vaping devices in the bin; it was because he saw a picture of someone who had one blow up in their face.

After he kicked that habit, he soon ramped his weekly mileage up to 100 and his flab began to melt away. Three months later, he went to the line in London at 77kg and clocked 2:17:59. The following week, he asked Alan Storey, who guided the careers of Sonia O'Sullivan and Mo Farah, to coach him, and he has been getting faster - and lighter - ever since.

In the spring he joined his friend Scott Overall on a training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, and fell in love with the place. It's where he also met Stephen Haas, a retired American runner who manages many of the world's best athletes, who has helped Scullion immeasurably ever since. As a freelance website designer, Scullion can base himself anywhere, so all summer he chose Flagstaff, which with its altitude and endless miles of trails is considered a distance runner's paradise.

On the build-up to tomorrow's Dublin Marathon, Scullion logged a more conservative 90-100 miles a week to ensure he reaches the start line healthy.

He now tips the scales at a shredded 68kg, and his goal is simple: to be the first Irishman and run under 2:18, which would qualify him for next year's European Championships.

"I've done a lot to make it a good day and from start to finish, I'll give it my all," he says.

No matter how it goes, though, Scullion won't be quitting. He's already booked his flight back to America in December, where he'll get another training block beneath him to see how high he can climb in 2018.

"I got tired of telling great stories about these comebacks, where in four months I was able to do this or that," he says.

"How about having a story where I stuck it out, through the good days and bad, and was able to change from being a really talented guy to a really persistent guy with a bit of talent?

"I want to see how good I can be."

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport