Belfast doctor Paul Pollock taking time out from medicine to run marathons at the Rio Olympics
Paul Pollock is on a break from his hospital job and hoping to do Ireland proud as he runs for glory in Rio. He tells Karen Ireland how he has overcome serious injury and parental fury to give his sporting ambitions one last go.
It was a chat over a glass of wine on holidays in Lanzarote which changed 30-year-old Belfast man Paul Pollock's direction in life. The busy doctor, who was working in the Royal Victoria and Belfast City hospitals at the time, was on a triathlon holiday with some colleagues to the Spanish island in 2011, when the conversation turned to the London Olympics, and Paul mentioned that he would like to try out for it.
"Working as a doctor in a hospital you only get holidays at a certain time. My break coincided with some others who were going on the triathlon trip to Lanzarote. While I'm not a great swimmer, I was able to keep up with the running and really enjoyed the experience.
"I don't know if it was the wine or the sun but there and then, I decided if I didn't try it I would always regret it," says Paul. "So when I came home, I decided to ask my boss for a year out to train for the Olympics."
That was in August 2011, and Paul moved to London, found somewhere to live and got a trainer.
"Things were going well but in January, I was out running and turned a corner too quickly and fell and damaged my knee badly. I ended up having surgery which stopped me from running for three and a half months."
This accident dashed Paul's hopes of qualifying for London in 2012 so he decided to return home.
"I was completely gutted," he recalls. "I had pretty much given up everything to move to London to train. Things were getting on track - then it was all over.
"Now, I wanted the security of being back at work, so I returned to Belfast and my previous job working in the hospitals again."
But Paul didn't give up completely on running.
"I was still jogging in my spare time and had stayed in touch with my coach back home so we started to train again and I ended up taking part in the Dublin marathon in 2012. I came ninth and got a world championship qualifying time." The result sparked off Paul's Olympic dream again. And in August 2013 he quit his job "indefinitely" and moved to London to start training and have a second shot at achieving his goal of Olympic glory. Paul says he has always been a runner, having been a junior champion and competed during his time studying at Queen's University, Belfast. It's a passion that has never left him.
Not everyone was happy about his decision, though.
He says: "My parents went ballistic. They thought I was mad to give up the security of a good job to go back to having no money and training all the time."
Despite the risk, Paul was confident he had made the right decision.
"Deep inside I knew this was something I wanted to do. I have many years left in my life, hopefully, when I can be a medic but only a few when I can train to become an Olympic runner. So I decided to go for it. I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't at least try," he adds.
Paul says he was able to subsidise his rent and living expenses with some savings and the odd bit of locum work he picked up in between training.
"I have also been very fortunate to receive some funding from the Mary Peters Trust which helps support athletes from here across a wide variety of sports.
"The help I have received from the trust in recent years has been invaluable. It is a great legacy set up by one of the province's true sporting treasures and I am very grateful for that.
"There are many athletes here, who, like myself, would not be able to follow their sporting dreams if it were not for the assistance of the trust."
Paul says: "There is a selection process for the Olympics but I had got my fitness levels up and then made it into the final eight to be chosen for the Ireland team.
"Having made the final round, I made the team and secured my place in the Rio marathon which I will run on August 21.
"It is a dream come true and all the years of training, knock backs and disappointments have brought me to this point and I couldn't be more excited and ready for Brazil," says Paul, who heads out to the South American city at the end of this month.
"I am obviously nervous to be representing Ireland - it is such a big deal. But they are good, positive nerves. And, of course, now that my parents see what I am doing and how far I have come, all my family and friends are extremely supportive."
Life for Paul now revolves around training and discipline - running twice a day covering up to 140 miles a week.
"My life at the minute is very much eat, sleep, run, repeat. I have no specific diet other than to ensure I eat in moderation with large quantities of carbs every day.
"A dietician is advising me on nutrition and I have cut out the majority of refined sugars, such as cakes, sweets and chocolate - and this has made a huge difference to my energy levels.
"In terms of my regime, my weeks are structured. I have a long run on a Sunday - up to 24 miles - with sessions on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the rest of the days are for recovery."
Paul also goes to the gym three times a week, usually on his recovery days, and fits in a 40-minute nap most lunchtimes to maximise his fitness levels.
So with his medical knowledge how does Paul feel about the hype surrounding the threat of the Zika virus in Brazil?
"I am not concerned about it at all," he says. "It would be mad to turn down this opportunity in light of something that may not happen and the benefits of going far outweigh the negatives."
Commenting on other local competitor Rory McIlroy's decision not to go, Paul adds: "It is a personal decision for every athlete and that is his view - which he is absolutely entitled to have."
Paul is delighted that running alongside him in Brazil will be his training partner Kevin Seaward from Belfast, who has also been selected for the team.
"We will be running together and rooming together, so I am looking forward to sharing the experience with him."
An ecstatic Paul says: "I am ready now. I have been waiting for this for a long time and I've never felt more prepared. I just can't wait to get out there and do my best. I am hoping for a personal best on the day."