Tokyo Olympics: Is the Northern Ireland Marathon Success By Accident or Intention?

Stephen Scullion, Paul Pollock and Kevin Seaward all broke the Northern Ireland record in a remarkable 10-month stretch between December 2019 and last October

Paul Pollock is not convinced that the presence of an all-Northern Irish trio in the Irish Olympic men’s marathon roster can necessarily be attributed to the provincial system.

But he thinks the selection can “positively illuminate” sport in this part of the world.

After winning his first Olympic vest in Rio when he was the best Irishman in 32nd place, the doctor, 35, became his country’s first men’s marathon to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

It followed a personal best of five minutes and a Northern Ireland record of two hours 10 minutes 25 seconds in Valencia on December 1, 2019.

Seven weeks later, Stephen Scullion qualified with fifth place in the gold event of the Houston Marathon.

The Northern Ireland playoff rush, with a little help from their shoes, was completed a month later when Kevin Seaward, 35 – who also made his Olympic bow in Brazil five years ago – improved Pollock’s time with a time of 2: 10.08 in Sevilla.

Not that the record feats were concluded as Scullion, 32, regained the Northern Irish mark he briefly owned in the fall of 2019.

Scullion became the second fastest Irishman behind John Treacy with his 2: 09.49 at last year’s London Marathon and he will compete on the last day of the Games on August 8 after rowing on his July 10 announcement that he had stepped down due to concerns about his mental health.

But was it by accident or should we have seen it coming?

“We have all been scattered all over the world”

Not wanting to openly downplay the role of Northern Ireland Athletics, Pollock, who through the local governing body can use the back-up facilities of the Northern Ireland Sports Institute in Jordanstown, is measured as he assesses the reasons for the trio’s qualification.

“I was based in London for eight or nine years and Kevin has been at Loughborough for as long as if not longer, and Stephen has been in America a good chunk of his time and that’s where he saw his big wins, added the man from Holywood, who – along with his two teammates – received € 12,000 in funding from Sport Ireland this year to help them in their preparations for the Games.

“We have all been scattered around the world, but you always know that there is a good support network here. And certainly in recent years Athletics Ireland and Athletics Northern Ireland have made great strides in organizing events. where they were at the start of my career.

“They’re a lot more professional and there’s a lot more communication involved. They have policies and guidelines in place to help athletes perform at their best.

“Hopefully this will highlight the fact that three guys from Belfast are going to the Olympics, which is fantastic for the sport in Northern Ireland.”

Indeed, as Railroad Man Scullion pounded the track, roads and dusty tracks of his regular training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, Pollock insists Belfast has done a very good job of preparing for the marathon. Olympic, which will take place in Sapporo. , some 500 miles from Tokyo.

“In terms of setup, Belfast is perfect for me,” said Pollock. “I have a two year old son now [Theo] with Sophie, my partner, and there is SINI, the Institute of Sport, so all I need is here.

“I don’t need to uproot and try to find a place where the grass is greener.”

Unlike his two teammates, who are indeed professional athletes – although Pollock worked part-time in an accident and emergency department in Yorkshire during the first 10 months of the pandemic – Seaward built his Olympic dreams around his work as Deputy Director near Loughborough.

Seaward’s school year ended on July 9 and he is now in a training camp in Fukuroi with the other marathoners and walkers as they completely avoid Tokyo before heading to Sapporo on August 1.

The former St Malachy’s College student’s warm-weather training took place in a warm room in Loughborough as he combined his work with an international track and field career that began at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich.

“We installed the thermal chamber under the most severe conditions we are likely to encounter in Sapporo, which is around 30 degrees and 80 to 90% humidity,” added Seaward, who finished 64th in Rio.

“We’ve had three or four sessions in the thermal chamber over three weeks, so that should be enough to start the process – and we’re going to stay there for almost three weeks.

“I went from the snow in the UK to the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018, which were very hot when I finished fourth, and a similar amount of time proved to be sufficient.”

Paul Pollock ran his Olympic qualifying time in December 2019 despite a training injury
Paul Pollock ran his first major championship marathon for Ireland at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow

Pollock’s career plagued with injuries

Pollock, whose career has been plagued by stress fractures, believes he can go faster than the time he ran at Valencia, provided his body and his confidence can hold up next month.

Pollock was amazed by this performance in Spain after an injury forced him to run around 40 miles a week for much of his build, allied to work on the gym bike. This led to something of a light bulb moment.

He added: “To be honest I can be very fit on the bike and that has proven the case in Valencia that you don’t have to run 100 miles every week. You can get by with a lot, much less .

“And while, it’s kinda funny for a Northern Irishman, I really like running in the heat.

“From my point of view, that makes a race fairer, where mentality comes into play rather than physical and it slows down these marathoners by 2:02 and 2:03. The tactics come in a bit more.”

Seaward’s cautious tactics in the Gold Coast heat nearly earned him a Commonwealth Games medal and he and his coach Andy Hobdell – who also guides Pollock’s career – will most likely adopt a similar game plan in Sapporo.

“Andy will say ‘top 25’ and we will work out a race plan together and have the confidence to execute it and hopefully that will be enough to see me play in the field in the second half – and anything is really possible after that. , ” he added.

Kevin Seaward in action at the Rio Olympic Marathon
Kevin Seaward believes his overtraining after arriving in Rio five years ago affected his performance at the Olympics

“I’m a teacher, what am I doing here?” “

Five years ago, Seaward says he came to Rio barely believing he was close to becoming an Olympian. A desire for justice drove him to over-training in the fortnight leading up to the Games, which he said contributed to the bug that plagued him on race day.

He said: “I was thinking ‘I’m a teacher… .. what am I doing here?’ I got caught up in the hype and buzz around this a lot.

“Maybe in a way I worked too hard and maybe pushed myself too hard, especially when we were there.

“This time around I’m a lot more relaxed about it and the training is going well.

“When I get there, it’s going to take almost three weeks and you’re not going to gain much in your fitness three weeks later, especially in marathon training.

“It’s about being reasonable in what you do, respecting the terms and enjoying the environment and atmosphere you find yourself in – and remembering that this is the greatest spectacle in the world. world and that you have the privilege of being there. “

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