Belfast Telegraph

Athletics: Time to forget about drinking and modelling and qualify for a place in Olympic marathon

Our sporting lives and times

Running man: Stephen Scullion celebrates as first Irish finisher in October’s Dublin Marathon
Running man: Stephen Scullion celebrates as first Irish finisher in October’s Dublin Marathon
Lean and athletic: Stephen also does some modelling work for the Under Armour website
Stephen with the trophy
Stephen after last year’s European 10,000m final in Berlin
Running man: Stephen Scullion
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Stephen Scullion must sacrifice Christmas at home in Belfast if he is to achieve a personal best time and earn a trip to Tokyo next year.

Most mornings of his life, Stephen Scullion awakes in Arizona and reaches for his phone. He will scour the airlines, torturing himself, looking for the cheapest flight home.

To Belfast, to his old life in Forestside and his family, his group of friends, Friday nights in the Albany, watching Ulster Rugby on the big screen and hammering in pints.

And then he checks himself. Remembers Sunday, January 19 and the Houston Marathon. He hauls himself out of bed and begins the process of putting miles and miles and miles up for the day.

Houston is where he is going to hit his Olympic target time for the marathon. Two hours and 11 minutes. Last year at Houston, even allowing for running in the wrong direction for a stretch, slamming on the brakes and turning back again, he still posted his personal best time of two hours, 14 minutes 34 seconds, despite being so cold in the minus four Celsius temperatures that his hands were unable to grab a bottle for the last two water stops.

In October, he took more than two and a half minutes off that in finishing second at the Dublin Marathon behind the Moroccan Othmane el Gourmi, who was just back in the sport nine months after serving a two-year doping ban.

If Scullion keeps on that graph, he will qualify to run for Ireland at the Tokyo Olympics next year. But with a mind this active, and a nature this restless, there are no guarantees.

Growing up the second eldest in a family of four children to Mark and Gillian, Mark's table tennis pedigree (he competed in the Youth Commonwealth Games) led him to ensure his son stayed out of trouble.

"My parents probably saw the value of running to keep you out of trouble a little bit, give yourself something to aim for. I imagine if my dad had had the same influence when he was younger, then he could have been pretty good, from what I hear," the 30-year-old says.

"I guarantee if I didn't have them as an influence, I would have done the exact same. I would have quit and become a plumber or a joiner, something along those lines."

Instead, he's a runner. He endures the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and battles with his mind every day. This will be the third consecutive Christmas he has been away from his home, and little sister Katie has started to give him a tough time.

He does a podcast, sometimes three times a day, dishing out advice and help to other athletes and still, he's not present for those closest.

"Maybe I have calloused myself," he wonders.

"I became a person where I thought that's what I needed to do. It's only until I go home and spend time with them that I'm kind of like, 'OK, it's a bit too much of that', because I start to get emotional. There's just no room for it."

Last year, after the European Championships, he sat down with his sports psychologist, the former Ulster and Ireland rugby player Gary Longwell, and went through his pillars of happiness.

By the time they went through his home and family life, they scored it 1.5 out of 10.

"And I found that amazing. Wow! These things in life that you think should just exist and you don't need to make an effort. That is incorrect. Sometimes you need to make an effort and it is something I have worked on and tried to improve," he explains.

"But the requirement and the commitment doesn't allow everything to be in a perfect symphony and balance. Sometimes, something will suffer. That's just part of it."

In his defence, he is busy. He bases himself in a running camp in the nondescript city of Flagstaff, Arizona. The altitude there works for him with many trails meandering past the shotgun shacks and onto the mountain trails.

And it's working too, as evidenced by the minutes he is chopping off his personal best times.

"With the money I earned from running this year I could go home and rent a really nice place and get myself Sky. I tried to do it after Dublin," he states.

"I rented a place and I got all the cable channels, bought myself a car and dolled it all up. I thought it was everything I wanted that I haven't been able to have. And five days later I flew back to Flagstaff. I said to myself, 'You can't. You're so close, you are doing so good. But to be really good you need to be uncomfortable, and not just in the day to day training but also in the lifestyle.'

"I am pretty proud of what I have achieved over the last couple of years. Everyone always thinks there is more to come and I can see why. But there is definitely places my training can go to."

He admits to a carelessness when it comes to his psychology. Running is something he has given up on 10 times, gone back to play a bit of rugby with CIYMS, piled back on the pounds and hit the pub and kebab house.

Still, it was always able to reel him back in, although his lungs can still burn occasionally since he only gave up his vape habit two years ago.

"What I realised a lot about endurance training and endurance running was how your gear is structured. The great professionals just don't mess around with that. If they plan six weeks at altitude, four weeks at sea level, six weeks back at altitude, they just do it. It becomes a requirement, they see it in professional terms."

But just look at the volume of work he does.

"(Yesterday morning), I leave the house at 8.30 and go for a run for eight or 10 miles," he begins.

"I have 30 minutes to shower and go to the gym, I am there for an hour. After lunch you go for yoga for an hour and a half and then I have a massage.

"I got home at 4.30, and stopped there for an espresso. And at 4.35 I was out for another five miles."

But Scullion is two sides of the same coin. Take the triumphant evening after the Dublin marathon.

"I went out and must have had 15 double Jamesons with ice, I was pounding these home," he recalls.

"And I really felt it the next day. I was throwing up all over the place and dying.

"What I don't love is that our way of socialising is drinking. I wish there was an alternative. I wish that if I go home for a couple of weeks around Christmas period, it annoys me that our way of socialising is drinking and getting p****d."

With running, he has purpose.

"I did a talk for Wellington College (his former school) about two years ago. I am stood up there and they are asking things.

"'Why do you do what you do?' What is your 'why' and all this nonsense. And I was just answering them that... I just like committing myself. There's something more.

"I was one of the kids in school who could have been a doctor, could have been this and that. 'If Stephen would only apply himself' was the most familiar phrase.

"And this... Nobody, if I retired tomorrow, nobody could argue that in the last three years I haven't applied myself. You are unbeatable if that's all you are looking for.

"It doesn't matter if somebody runs faster than you, it doesn't matter if you don't win. You just pick yourself up and move on.

"Even if I don't run well, and I have raced and not run well, but I can ask myself, 'In that build-up, did I apply myself as best as I possibly could? Yes? Awesome! Life goes on.'

"I did this thing on Instagram the other day, this guy David Goggins you call him (a retired Navy Seal who is an ultramarathon runner and cyclist) and he said, 'if you can't do what it takes, create a motherf****r that can'.

"I love that. Because for three years that's what I have done. I have morphed a kid that gave up at the first sign of struggle. From a kid that after a race that didn't go perfect, I would say, 'I am going to retire'.

"I moved from this kid brought up spoiled in so many elements. Everything needed to go his own way, wouldn't listen to authority people telling him what to do, to becoming a pretty good human who is just doing really well at something. There is a much happier person now, a much more dedicated person."

His focus is good. He knows the next steps, just has to walk the line.

The sidelines are healthy, but some have faded into the background. A while back he was doing some web-design work on the side. For a time, he was signed up to a modelling agency and still gets asked if he would stand in for shoots.

"I model for the Under Armour website and that's a different type of modelling, it's because you are lean and athletic," he says.

"But I leave the modelling up to people who still have a full head of hair."

He finishes: "I came to Flagstaff four weeks ago and I told my coach 'If I can stay in Flag between now and the Houston Marathon, I will run the Olympic qualifying time'. That's all I have to do. I just have to stay in Flag."

Now that you know him, you'll be rooting for him.

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