Former Down and Fermanagh footballer Shane King out to master athletics world
IT was his brother’s beaming face that told him it was time for a change. Ronan King may have spent the guts of the past 48 hours cooped up in a plane heading home from Australia, but he couldn’t keep the smile at bay as the arrivals hall neared.
“He made some smart-arse comment about how cold the winters must be over here,” recalls Shane King with a chuckle.
“I was probably just over 15 stone then, and when I met him in the airport he just started laughing. You can imagine what our family’s like - subtlety doesn’t really work very well.”
In the twilight years of a career that saw him represent his native Fermanagh with distinction before wearing the red and black of his adopted county Down, King decided to conduct an experiment.
Quit alcohol for two months, see what happens. The fact his wife Elizabeth is a pioneer made it easier. Suddenly two months became six months. Six months became a year. Seven years on, he still hasn’t touched a drop.
Abstinence has played a huge part in his own physical revolution, one that has transformed King from a chubby aging footballer to a slimmed down, ripped runner with an eye on masters glory in Ireland and, possibly, the international stage.
It’s been a long journey from the sound of his brother’s laughter ringing in his ears.
“At that time I had hurt my back dead lifting and I decided I was going to enjoy three months until my back got better,” said the 42-year-old.
“I went to New York for the weekend and swore that every time I saw someone selling a hot-dog I was going to get one.
“When you’re working in the Odyssey Pavilion, as I was then, you’re hungry, you’re coming out at half one in the morning, nowhere’s open - you’re going to get a kebab with gravy.
“The three months became five months, and before I knew it I was piling weight on.”
Club football with Bryansford had also started to fall by the wayside.
“I was arseing about the lower levels without any real pressure,” he continues.
“You’d make a mad burst then cover back for 10 minutes. I had the recovery rate of a cheetah, just lying in the corner for 10 minutes then you’d make another mad burst up the field before taking another rest...”
King eventually returned to the gym determined to get back in shape.
Through his playing days he had always been working on weights programmes handed out by others but, as a sports science graduate, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
But he suffered a major setback in 2015 when, not long after the devastating death of his father Pat - a former full-back with Tyrone who went on to manage Fermanagh – King developed pneumonia before suffering a collapsed lung.
Tipping away at weights was one thing, but any kind of aerobic exertion was another.
“I could hardly breathe properly. Any time I did any sort of exercise I was getting sharp pains,” recalls the Lisnaskea man, who lives in the seaside resort of Newcastle these days.
“I’d been doing weights and stuff but I hadn’t been able to run until I got back into it last year and I sort of built it up very gradually. I devised my own diet for getting very lean a couple of years ago, I was very strict, so I’m down to under 12-and-a-half stone now.
“The fact I’m alcohol-free too… if only I had conducted my life like this 25 years ago. Some of those Poly tours of the early ‘90s would’ve tightened anybody, and then I was in America as well where we didn’t drink socially, we drank professionally.
“When you choose to go without alcohol, you’re changing much more than just your physical approach – it also has a major bearing on the social side of things too.
“But I would have a very addictive personality so I don’t have any concern about falling off the wagon or whatever. If I’m doing something, I’m doing it.”
Feeling fighting fit, King entered a duathlon last October and it was here he met an old university friend, Denise Toner.
As a veteran of the Irish masters’ circuit, she recommended King join the party, following in the footsteps of former Down team-mate and reigning Irish over-50s 100m record-holder Mickey Linden.
After joining up with Newcastle AC, he was put in touch with running coach Paul O’Neill from Clones and hasn’t looked back since.
Having come from the tough slog of Gaelic football training, preparing for athletics competition was something completely new.
“There’s not mad numbers of repetitions of runs, it’s all about quality.
“For one of my sessions you might be warming up for half an hour and doing two 500 metre runs, then recovery. Other days you might be doing six 300s.
“Stretching out and mobility are probably the main things at my age because if you get a niggle it tends to stay with you.
“But Paul’s a very caring kind of a coach, he’ll always tell you when you need a rest or whatever, whereas I come from a football background where you’re told, even if your leg’s hanging off, you’re good for 10 minutes.
"I've also been getting one session a week from Paul Elliott, every Tuesday evening at the Mary Peters track, and that has made a massive improvement to my fitness levels.
"I'm lucky to be working with two very talented coaches."
Eight sessions a week, including double sessions on Mondays and Fridays (running in the morning, weights in the evening), saw King reach the turn of the year in a good place.
The Irish masters were slated for March 5, so all his preparation was geared towards that. Despite only dipping his toes in a new sporting discipline, King shocked himself by winning silver in the 400 metres.
“I was doing a lot of 400s in training and I always would have fancied myself in terms of acceleration, so I targeted the masters. I had my eye on that since before Christmas.
“To medal in my first national championships was a huge boost. I’m only started at it, but I’m enjoying it.
“This year I’ll probably try a range of events, try and find out what’s my strongest event, and then next year put down a real marker with an eye on the nationals and possibly the Europeans if I’m competitive.
“After you’ve played Championship games, you struggle to get going again. But after the masters, I had to calm myself down, my heart was pumping - it was a new form of adrenaline.
“It’s exciting to have a new challenge like this to focus on.”