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Armagh dad and ex-hard drinker Stevie McGeown to tackle 100 marathons in 100 days

Armagh gym owner and dad Stevie McGeown tells Declan Bogue about the chance remark that put him on the road to sobriety and romance

By Declan Bogue

Published 25/08/2015

Born to run: Stevie McGeown uses the power of positive thinking when he’s clocking up the miles
Born to run: Stevie McGeown uses the power of positive thinking when he’s clocking up the miles
Born to run: Stevie McGeown uses the power of positive thinking when he’s clocking up the miles
Big inspiration: Stevie with his wife Catherine and children (from left) Katie, Ben and Harry

You get wind of a man, Stevie McGeown of Armagh, who is attempting to run 100 marathons in 100 days. Who wouldn't be immediately fascinated?

What about the mechanics of it all, like how he avoids injuries, how many rest days he has worked into the schedule, what back-up of masseurs, nutritionists and psychologists he has.

In your research, you unearth the 'Bamber Exercise Addiction Questionnaire'. It consists of 29 questions, an answer of one being that you strongly disagree with an assertion, seven that you strongly agree with sentiments such as 'If I cannot exercise I feel agitated', and 'After an exercise session I feel like I am a better person'.

116 is the magic number of addiction. Sitting in front of you with his hair and beard in the style of a bible-belt rocker, McGeown laughs through the exercise he has to complete before the interview gets underway.

He scores 106.

The runs are all consecutive. No rest days.

You are convinced that he is a gym rat that has led the good life, all his life.

But then he starts talking and… well…

"I fell down a rabbit hole for a few years out in America," he reveals. "For about three years. I was caught in a cycle of drinking-working, drinking-working.

"When you are in America, it is kind of like a University for us, the tradesmen! Your first time away from home, a bit of money in your pocket and a bit of craic. Good times.

"I was caught with heavy drinking. Talking Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and then Monday. And you weren't considered a drinker really, because you didn't drink seven days a week."

He was in Philadelphia, an undocumented Irishman working on the lump, living for weekends that wrapped themselves round the rest of the week. One time, his crew all took themselves off to live in San Francisco but then they couldn't find work and drank all their money.

They ended up back in Philly, in the middle of a six-week snow blizzard that meant a complete close-down of all building sites, surviving on bread and cheese. Nothing teaches like experience.

He enjoyed going to the gym to lift weights, but while he could pass his friends sitting in the pub on his way to it, he couldn't achieve the same on his way back.

He had no girlfriend. Social interaction was painful without the help of a loosener.

Some context, perhaps. The back story.

He was born in Bradford, to parents Geraldine and Niall. His mother, Geraldine Rice of Keady, came from a family of 17. Her mother died when she was a mere 13 years of age but left her with the wish that one of her children might go on to university.

So it was Geraldine who went to study Physiotherapy. She married Niall McGeown of Ballymacnab when she was just 19, he 20, and after a spell in Belfast, headed for Bradford University.

The family never forgot their grandmother's wishes. Stevie has 64 first cousins on his mother's side, and he reckons "95%" of them went through third-level education.

Stevie? Well, he was more of an outdoor child. Geraldine coached his older brother Gary through the 11+ and got a tutor for Stevie.

She was young, nice and pretty. He liked her and from his first test papers when he would register a sub-20 score, he would go on to produce almost flawless papers.

Right now he could tell you all about the other side of him; the results coaching that he does for business people and the psychology work, his interest in quantum physics. But St Pat's Armagh held no real charms for him.

He left school early and became a painter and decorator with some neighbours, the Smyth brothers. The discipline of working hard suited him and they paid well.

He played a bit of Gaelic football for Ballymacnab, put out a shoulder, then broke the other one. When he then shattered his leg, he vowed he was gone to America as soon as it healed.

Boston was the first port of call. After a while he needed an adventure so he brought all he had in holdalls to the train station. The next train, he would jump on. One came up, bound for Philadelphia and he recalled the Brian Friel play he studied in school, 'Philadelphia Here I Come.' And so he went.

"People say to me, 'Aw these marathons, it's amazing what you are doing. How do you keep going?'" he mentions.

"But I remember when I was painting out in America, we used 18-inch rollers and we were painting block filler - real heavy stuff and going hell for leather. We were doing that every day, nobody was giving you a medal for it or saying you were great. That was your life. In relative terms that's the way I would break these things down into, the cracked reference points."

One day, a contemporary asked where he was going that night, including the word 'lush' in the sentence.

"Even though I drank a lot, I would never have identified myself as that," the 37-year-old smiles.

Stevie argued his point until a bet was struck that he couldn't abstain for thirty days.

It put him on a period of intense self-reflection.

"Before that, I wouldn't have went into my thoughts or thought about anything. I realised that I wanted to have somebody in my life, that I could share my life with them and they could know me for who I was. I didn't have to be drunk to be with them, because I had that kind of shyness," he reveals.

He put that thought out into the world and six weeks later, met Catherine McCann from Trillick, Co Tyrone, who was out there on a fortnight's holiday.

Within two months, she had left behind her life in Dublin and moved to America, taking up a job in Irish Immigration.

"After I met Catherine I settled and steadied, started to think of changing things, began saving a bit of money for the first time," he recalls. 

"I was reading this book by Robert Kiyosaki; 'Retire Young, Retire Rich' and it started opening up my mind to different ideas. It's just about what people can do better and different things. It attracted me and I was interested in improving things in my life."

The Big Idea arrived when a workmate announced he would not be present the following week, as he was opening up a men-only gym.

He was basing it on the 'Curves' for women model, which was 30-minutes workouts for women on the go with precious spare time.

The concept intrigued him. He thought of his 14 aunties. Why wouldn't something like that work back home?

In his mind's eye, he saw himself as the gym instructor, on the floor. But during a meeting with the President of Curves at a tutorial he was told, "Definitely not!"

"I was 25, probably looked about 16, and he said, 'It will not work, you putting a measuring tape around women's butts!'"

Instead, he would be the bean counter and Catherine would be the face of the company, using her potential and people skills. Stevie painted the premises in Newry and geared everything up for the big launch.

He explains, "The thing that appealed to me about a franchise is that in any franchise, there is a way to do it and way not to do it.

"At that time, Curves had a manual, and I said 'right, we are going to take the very first page, and we are going to do exactly what it says on the first page. We are not moving on to the second page until we got it right.'"

Slavish dedication to their business model proved to be a sound choice. In the first week they recruited 50 members. Within a couple of months the membership was up to 600.

He soon opened another franchise in Armagh and his working life became about standing orders and recruitment. Getting the money together and opening another one.

After two years, he had 13 gyms, although he wished they had stopped at eight.

"But all we were doing," he explains, "was exactly how we were meant to do it. Whereas a lot of people were trying to put their own ideas and stamp on it. The concept was good enough rather than messing it up."

He continues, "If you call up Curves now in Newry, the girls will say on the phone, 'It's great to be at Curves, how may I help you?' And they would be standing up smiling as they said it. Projecting their voice. If you were judging it you would say to yourself, that person has just said that, ten out of ten.

"People thought it was cheesy at the time, of course it was."

The craziness of the 100 hour working weeks soon settled down when Catherine and Stevie became parents to Ben (8), Katie, (7) Harry (5).

Small problems were giving him too much trouble and so he dived into another period of self-improvement, devouring the books and audio tapes of the likes of Anthony Robbins, who has worked extensively with Serena and Venus Williams, Oprah Winfrey among others. Then there was Zig Ziglar, Bob Proctor, Michael Beckwith…

He consumed them all and went on retreats and courses in Switzerland, America, The Bahamas among others.

Now, he shares the stage with some of those motivational speakers. He is a leader of the Anthony Robbins philosophy. He is part of a High Achievers Club that meets every so often for people to bounce ideas off.

And that's where the running comes in.

Larry Maguire was sitting in a bar one evening in 2010 when the idea of running 100 marathons on 100 days struck him. He thought it was a fantastic concept, but then buried it in his sub-conscious.

At a weekend retreat in Dublin in 2012, he took part in a visioning exercise, designed to dredge up ideas from the past or lead to the birth of a new one.

He recalled his idea from a couple of years previous, and how he might do it and set up the Laura Maguire Foundation, in honour of the sister he lost when she was only seven years old and how it threw his family into such turmoil.

While talking to McGeown at the seminar, he told him about it. The two men sparked off each other.

They arranged a further meeting in Armagh to tease out the idea.

"I was inspired by the idea and had a vision of myself running," smiles Stevie.

"I said I would do it with him. I hadn't ran any marathons at that time, I had done a few bits and pieces, maybe three and a half mile once or twice a week.

"I ran five mile every day for the next thirty days, starting on the 17th of December, 2012."

His first marathon was in Connemara, the 'Connemarathon', in County Galway, in 2013. 

What does he put his ambition down to?

"I would say to somebody, what is the aim of life? For a lot of people the aim of life is to crawl towards their grave. Is life about that?

"Living a good life, going for things you want to do, being yourself, I would have a thousand reasons why I couldn't run these marathons. Loads of reasons. Really good excuses.

"But the thing is, do you think about something, not do it and regret it?"

And so he is out on the road, pounding the tar every day for two charities; the Laura Maguire Foundation and Cash for Kids. 

Larry was running with him, but he has suffered injury, restricting him to almost 60 marathons in the last 85 days. Some going all the same.

They have hooked up with marathons in Clonakilty in west Cork, Portsalon in Donegal, Galway, Ballina in Mayo. If there is no marathon close by, he just straps on his Garmin watch and gets out on the road, all without any sort of a support team, masseurs or nutritionists.

I know what you're thinking. How has he not succumbed to injury?

He answer, "I would be very into mind technology, how to use the power of your mind, how to relax and allow your body to heal itself properly.

"There is a programme, the Twelve Habits of the High Achiever. Within that there is the Power of Rejuvenation. I have helped a lot of people who are 50 plus, slow down the aging process and become fitter and healthier in their latter years.

"It's about using the proper mindset, nutrition and exercise, rest and relax."

So what do you think about when you think about running?

"Puddles!" He laughs with a burst. 

Never look at the window in the morning and think, 'Jeez, I dunno if I can face this…'?

"You can't allow yourself to think that. See the odd time there, you are out and it's on. Say out loud, 'I am doing this!' I have never had an intense resistance since I started. One of the reasons for that is I have told myself how it is going to be. It's going to be an adventure, I am going to enjoy this, you want to keep it light-hearted.

"If you were saying to yourself, 'Jeez, this is hard, I have another 600 mile to run' then you are expanding and giving your energy to the wrong things."

On 29 August, Stevie will finish his Quixotic ambition at Gosford Park in Armagh. There will be a hog on the roast. He will enjoy a couple of beers. His kids will play on the bouncy castle.

He will accomplish something on a scale that very few of us even dare to imagine let alone attempt. And the following day he will check on his little allotment out the road where he keeps hens and grows vegetables, before going for a swim and dreaming it all up again.

Underpinning it all is a young man who was "down the rabbit hole" and decided to do something about it.

And this is how he did it; "One of the most amazing things I ever discovered was how you think of yourself, and what picture comes to your mind. That's your self-image and that's what controls all the results in your life.

"Your self-image has been more or less made up of ideas, opinions of other people. You have chosen your self-image.

"Once you change that, everything changes. I used to see myself in a coffin. Somebody was putting the lid down and I was like, 'Thank God that's all over.' I lived like that for a long time."

What does he see now?

"Expansion. Embracing life. Going out there and going with what you feel."

Belfast Telegraph

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