Saturday 20 January 2018

Long-distance doctor keen to write his own script

Even though he is 27 now, Paul Pollock feels his athletics career is just starting, as he tells Marie Crowe

Paul Pollock: ‘I know I have what it takes now.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Paul Pollock: ‘I know I have what it takes now.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Paul Pollock's athletics career has been unconventional. Over the last decade he's dipped in and out of the sport but never fully committed. Instead, he chose to focus on his education. Now, at 27, he's a qualified doctor with hospital experience and he's ready to switch his attention back to his sporting ambitions.

His parents had a lot to do with his decision – they always advised him to put medicine first. Their advice has proved beneficial in many ways. As well as having a career to return to, the Co Down man's body is fresh, he hasn't suffered the same wear and tear as many of his counterparts and he is hungry for success.

In fact, many of his former rivals aren't even racing anymore. When Pollock ran at the European Championships in 2005 as a junior, Colin Costello and Danny Darcy won gold and silver in the 1,500m. They were seen as athletes with big futures ahead of them but now eight years on Pollock is the only one competing internationally.

"When I was a junior they were the two big guys," he says. "They had some very successful junior championships; they kept going for a lot more years than I did. Having the break means that I've come back hungry for success and I am a lot stronger now than I ever was as a junior. Having those years away made it easier to come back."

Surprisingly, athletics didn't feature much during his youth, even though his parents were always keen that he become involved in a sport. They told him it builds discipline and cultivates ambition. He tried everything from tennis to golf but didn't really take to any of them. It wasn't until he was 17, when he ran in the Monaghan 5k, that he found his calling.

"My brother forced me to do the race but I was glad I did. I was a junior at the time and I was the first junior home in 17.30. It was a decent time, if I could do that without training I was wondering what I could do with training."

So Pollock trained for six months with Abbey AC under Bobby Rea. Going from zero to full throttle was tough, there was a lot of pain but it was worth it. He managed to make the Ireland team for the junior World and European cross-country championships. He performed well but soon after it was time for his education to take priority.

In 2010, he graduated from Queen's University and slowly eased his way back into athletics. It was like he'd never been away. His ambition returned immediately and so did the desire to test his ability.

In an effort to satisfy his curiosity and that ever-burning ambition, he attempted to qualify for the London Olympics. He took some time out from work and got stuck into hard training. The newly-qualified doctor had big dreams but just six months into training he injured his knee and in turn killed his Olympic hopes.

His only option was to return to work and focus on rehab. It was a hard slog and took longer than expected. But, as soon as he recovered, Pollock started racking up the miles again. He still had big dreams and just over a year ago when he ran a personal best of 2:16.30 in the Dublin marathon, they came true.

"I'd run the IAAF standard for the World Championships of 2:17 in Dublin but then Athletics Ireland announced their standard of 2:13. I was outside it so I went to London to try and get that time but I hit a wall and was resigned to the fact that I wasn't getting picked."

But someone in Athletics Ireland had noticed his potential and one evening after returning from a 13-hour shift in the hospital, Pollock got an email informing him that he was heading to Moscow for the World Championships. "It was a very nice email to get," he says. "They were taking a chance on me; it was nice that someone saw my potential. I don't know who picked me but I was definitely very grateful to get the chance to run the marathon and represent my country."

Although he lacked championship experience, Pollock didn't disappoint, finishing in a very impressive 21st place, the second European home.

"I was hoping for better than 21st but coming away I don't think I disappointed myself which is the main thing. I knew I was in reasonable shape. I was glad I ran a solid race; it shows the selection was a good choice. Looking forward, I know that 21st is where I can come at the very beginning of my athletics career, I can only improve on that. You want to be at the World Championships; they are up there with the Olympics. And while I wasn't challenging for the medals, it was definitely an experience. I know I have what it takes now."

Last August, three days before the Worlds, Pollock again decided to take some time away from medicine to focus on his athletics. He relocated to Teddington in London, where he is coached by Andy Hobdell. He relishes training with world-class athletes and his brother Noel, who is the team doctor for UK Athletics, lives close by.

With a solid confidence Pollock has some big plans for the run-in to the next Olympics. As well as targeting a sub-2.10 marathon, he has eyes on at least making the final of the 3,000m at the World Indoors in March. Then he has the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships.

But first on the agenda is today's European Cross-country Championships in Belgrade. Pollock is in the form of his life. He comfortably claimed the first place a few weeks ago in the Irish National Championships. Although he competed in the race in 2011, finishing 24th, he feels that he will do a whole lot better this time round.

"It's a tough race, it's hard running and you have to respond to everyone else kicking at various points. But I'm going in feeling confident and feeling strong. And hopefully if I have the right race and the right conditions I see no reason why I can't be there with 500 metres to go and if I am then I am in with a fair shot at winning it."

Sunday Independent

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