Aodhán Connolly: I took up running because I didn't want to have a heart attack in my 40s

Having piled on weight in his pressurised job, concern for his health finally prompted Aodhán Connolly to get fit and lose it. He hasn't looked back

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly shed five and a half stone in the past 18 months, having taken up running
Maureen Coleman

WHEN Aodhán Connolly took up running in April 2019 he could barely manage 50 metres without struggling for breath.

Weighing in at 21 and a half stone, it was the heaviest the Portadown man had ever been. As director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán 's frequent Brexit-related travels played havoc with his health. Unsociable hours, hotel dining and a lack of exercise led to his weight ballooning and with his family and friends expressing concern, Aodhán knew the time had come to make huge changes to his lifestyle, slim down and get fit.

Over the past 18 months, the 44-year-old – a familiar face on our television screens through his high profile business role – has shed five and a half stone, dropping to around 16 stone.

And he's now gearing up to run the second of two half marathons, the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal on October 25, having completed a Causeway Coast one on September 25. All proceeds raised are going to the charity Aware, with mental health being another cause that's close to his heart.

It's a remarkable achievement for a man whose earlier attempts at road running were often met with derision and abuse from passers-by in cars. Hurtful comments such as 'run fat boy, run' only served to make Aodhán all the more determined and these days, he manages to run two to three 10ks every week, sometimes in just over an hour.

Recalling the wake-up call to tackle his weight, Aodhán says: “I was with a group of friends and fellow businessmen at Westminster, where we were giving evidence at a committee meeting on Brexit.

“There were five flights of stairs to climb and by the time I'd reached the top, I had broken out in a cold sweat. It took me a good 20 minutes to get my breath back. One of the men with me took me aside and said he'd been worried that I was going to have a heart attack.

“The weight had started to pile on in my 30s. I wasn't exercising, I was eating on the go and dining out several times a week. My job can be very stressful, particularly given the subject matter, and I guess I turned to comfort eating.

“I'd told myself I would lose weight before I hit 40. After all, I'd given up smoking and drinking for health reasons, so my weight was another thing I had to tackle. I'd heard stories of people my age having heart attacks and I didn't want that to be me. I didn't want to be another statistic.”

In April, during lockdown, Aodhán ran his first 10k in south Belfast, accompanied by his teenage son Thomas 

Aodhán, who lives in Belfast, joined a local gym and began to do more cardio. In the past he'd always focused on weights, squeezing in a bit of cardio towards the end of a session, and had seen running as a chore. But this time, his mindset was different and the more he stuck at it, the quicker his pace became.

He did a few Park-runs but completed his first 5k on his own, in 51 minutes. The second he did in just under 45 minutes. The more he ran, the more ground he covered in decreasing times. Running was no longer a chore, but an 'escape' and he realised it was not just benefiting him physically, but mentally as well.

“I've had anxiety and clinical depression from the age of 18,” explains Aodhán . “It comes and goes and I never really knew how to handle it until my mid-30s. Now I know what my triggers are and I've learnt that saying no, exercising and talking about it, which I was never able to do in the past, can really help.

“People see me on television and hear me on radio and presume that because I can stand up in front of a crowd and talk, I must be hugely confident. But I get nervous too. I've come to accept that anxiety is a part of me; it will happen, I'll deal with it and it will pass.

“Running very much helps me. There's that immediate effect of dopamine, serotonin and sense of achievement when finished. And it gives me something to look forward to now.

“I've learned how to cope so much better too, when I start to feel overwhelmed. If I've a problem or a policy paper to write, I'll take a break, then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. That half an hour break helps me to focus better on work.”

Aodhán has also cleaned up his diet; eating four healthy meals a day and cooking everything from scratch. Takeaways have been replaced by 'fakeaways' while he counts his daily calorie intake. He's still running three times a week at present though will reduce that over the winter months and put in more hours instead at the gym.

Having started and faltered before due to training too hard and too obsessively, he says he now has achieved the right balance. Moderation is key, he says.

A chest infection last December put paid to his training but he didn't beat himself up, as he might have done in the past. When he was better and able to run again, he set himself the challenge of running a 10k. In April, during lockdown, he ran his first 10k in south Belfast, accompanied by his teenage son. Now they're become part of his regular routine.

Having finished a 10k in one hour, four minutes, Aodhán decided to set himself the target of running two half marathons to raise money for Aware. He had three months to prepare and last month, completed the first one, running on sand. Aodhán had wanted to do it in less than three hours and was thrilled with the end result; two hours, 43 minutes and seven seconds. The second one will take place in Donegal later this month.

To date, he's raised over £3,000 and the donations continue to pour in, along with words of encouragement and support from across the north.

“If you'd told me this time last year that I'd be running two half marathons, I would never have believed you, not in a million years. Yet here we are now,” Aodhán says.

“So much has happened since last year. I've dropped five and a half stone, I'm a lot more sprightly on my feet and I'm sleeping much better. I still have bad days with my mental health but thanks to running, I'm able to handle stress so much better. Running really has made such a big difference to my life.”

Lesley Wright, community and events fundraising officer at Aware, says, “We are delighted to hear that Aodhán has chosen Aware as the beneficiary for his half marathon challenge, a fantastic fundraising idea and a great way for Aodhán to get active whilst raising awareness of mental health, particularly at this difficult time.

"Aodhán has raised an incredible amount so far and we are very grateful for the support. All funds raised will enable Aware to continue to provide vital services to those in Northern Ireland who are struggling with their mental health.”

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