Stephen Scullion running for redemption in London Marathon

Stephen Scullion's running career has turned around since a spell playing rugby
Malcolm McCausland

PEOPLE are running the London Marathon on Sunday for a multitude of reasons, but probably nobody other than Irish international Stephen Scullion is looking for “redemption”.

A very promising career went off the rails, some would say, after a very successful 2013, during which the Belfast man represented Ireland at the European Indoor Championships.

He also started the following year brightly with good runs in Edinburgh and Antrim, but since then has rarely pulled on his racing shoes. Lacking any consistency in his training on account of recurring injuries and frequent changes of training regime, it looked like the end of the road for the one-time teenage star.

Aside from the Euro Indoors, Scullion had also represented his country at the World and European Cross Country championships.

He attempted a comeback last year and prepared for the London Marathon with Nic Bideau’s elite training group in Australia. A last-minute injury forced a withdrawal from the race after just two miles.

It was then that the sporting career of the former Wellington College student took an unusual twist when he joined CIYMS rugby club. But despite a superior level of underlying fitness compared to the average rugby player, it was not plain sailing.

“It’s funny within two-three weeks of training with the team, I tore both hamstrings, and realised I hadn’t ran fast, or worked on agility for a very long time,” said Scullion.

“That said, I found speed in my legs again that I forgot I even had. I started for the seconds and managed to get one cap for the firsts and scored against Donaghadee, although in that same game I over-rotated my shoulder and found myself hurt for a few weeks.”

However, the 28-year-old’s heart was still in the running game and he hankered after a return to his first love. Unfortunately, his flirtation with rugby had left its legacies. Nevertheless, he entered the London Marathon on the final day for registrations.

“I had tried a few comebacks in September/ October, and because I was so heavy due to doing weights for rugby, running was hard, and I’d make it to about day five of 45-60 minute runs, and just give up,” he said.

“The London Marathon for me provided a big enough goal that when the going got tough, I had to persevere. I also made it public, that I would be making this comeback. Another reason to persevere.”

With renewed conviction, the former North Belfast Harrier returned to training at the start of the year. On January 23, he went out and ran 90 minutes around Richmond Park and has not looked back from then. He tackled the Reading Half Marathon in the eighth week back in training although the first three were, by his own admission “not up to much trying to lose some weight”. Reading went surprisingly well with a 16th spot in 68:17.

“I just wanted to get back on the racing circuit, and again it provided a goal that would ensure I lost the weight more than anything. It’s difficult to stand on a start line 4-5kg heavier, than usual, but it kept me focused, and made sure I lost as much as possible beforehand. I had done nothing in training that suggested I’d be able to run 13 miles at that kind of pace, and I mean nothing.”

After Reading he made the bold decision to go to Arizona for altitude training along with British marathon international Scott Overall. The thin air at 7000ft meant he thought he was starting all over again despite the bolstered confidence from his half-marathon.

However, he was soon able to match his training partner, including a 20-miler at around 5:30 pace which would equate to around 5:10-5:15 at sea level, meaning the Commonwealth Games consideration standard of 2:16:30 would be well within his compass

“Taking a longer break after last year’s London [Marathon], and playing rugby, just changed so much about me, changed how I look at running, changed what pain really is, and I missed running. I’m hoping this is a big turning point in my career, from an ok international runner to one that races and rises to occasions better than others. But I’ve nothing to lose, and redemption to gain.”

THERE is no marathon quite like London. Nowhere else matches the spectacle of the runners passing the Cutty Sark, crossing Tower Bridge and the finish along the Mall.

This year, there is unparalleled local interest, with four northern athletes going into the race with genuine hopes of qualification for the World Athletics Championships in August and/or the Commonwealth Games in Australia next spring.

Kevin Seaward is the form athlete with Olympic, World and European Championship experience, while it is all new for Laura Graham.

Scott Rankin has proven himself to be a top club runner but can he qualify for the Commonwealth Games?

Many believe Stephen Scullion can be world class, but will he finally come good on Sunday?

The Loughborough-based teacher has appropriately had a textbook preparation. “Spectacularly unspectacular” is how he describes it. He goes to the start on Sunday with no pressure as he has no plans to run the World Championships and if he comes up short on the Commonwealth standard, he can have another go in September. That could be the recipe for something special from the from the former St Malachy’s College, Belfast star.

It could also be a special day for Laura Graham (below), who only took up running to get back in shape after the birth of her fourth child. The Kilkeel woman has been advised astutely by Ryan Maxwell to the point that she enters the race as national half-marathon and marathon champion.

From running 3:19:16 in 2015 Belfast City Marathon, she improved to 2:56:21 at Dublin six months later. Further progress followed with 2:48:03 in London and 2:48:55 in Belfast within eight days of each other last spring. But the gymnastics teacher was speechless when she crossed the line in Dublin in the autumn with the clock showing 2:41:54 and discovering that she was the new Irish champion.

That time is inside the 2:45 standard for the World Championships but now she comes back to the well looking for the Games consideration mark of 2:37:00.

This could be another chapter in what has already been a fairytale for the Mourne Runners club-woman with Australia’s Gold Coast beckoning next April.

Claudy man Scott Rankin, like Graham, challenges our preconceptions of top athletes in today’s professional world of sport.

No lottery funding, carding, shoe company contracts, Sports Council funding or warm weather training for Rankin, who works a 10-hour day as a porter in Altnagelvin Hospital. Against this background, he fits in his 80-100 miles per week of training.

However, there can be a price to pay for a lack of professional support with Rankin suffering from high hamstring tendinopathy since late December and missing key sessions.

Nevertheless, he has maintained decent mileage and will hope to maintain 5:30-mile (2:25 pace) throughout the race.

The entry also includes top Irish marathoners Mick Clohisey, Claire McCarthy and Sean Hehir who have World Championships aspirations.


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