Ben Branagh ready to pass on his years of elite-level running experience

The Belfast man ended a fine career last year at the age of 29

Ben Branagh
Retired runner Ben Branagh

IT is always good to see someone put something back into a sport that has given them so much.

The latest to do so is Ben Branagh, who retired last year after 15 years running at elite level.

He is offering to share his experience and expertise with anyone wishing to improve their running.

Athletics has been good to Ben Branagh. He is a graduate of the St Malachy’s College “running academy” in north Belfast and spent several years on an athletics scholarship at San José State University in California.

His achievements include winning the NI & Ulster 10K Championship and other prestigious road races such as the Seeley 10K, which he did on three occasions.

He also represented Northern Ireland on numerous occasions but decided to retire from competition last year at just 29, with personal bests of 29:32 for 10K and 13:58 for 5K.

“I returned home in 2017 and found full-time employment as a statistician working for the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency,” he explained.

“I didn’t have the luxury of being a full-time athlete, I know the struggle of 6am runs before work or the late-night sessions on a frozen track. Consequently, I know how to help runners balance training with a 9 to 5 and fit running around other commitments and still achieve success.

“I wanted to begin coaching to share the knowledge that I have learned over the past 15 years, from the training principles to the strategies and systems that propelled me to success.

“I’ve been there and done it, from the highs of winning national championships, representing my country and running 13:58 for 5K to the lows of under-performance and injury.”

Both of Branagh’s parents, Pat and Geraldine, were keen runners and both represented Northern Ireland. Geraldine also played soccer for Northern Ireland and Pat, to his credit, ran under 15 minutes for 5km.

He believes having that sporting background instilled in him the commitment and dedication that he can now pass on.

“I couldn’t have asked for more support, all the lifts to training/races, help through the ups and downs and taking my splits in the cold. Having that sporting family instilled me with that work ethic and belief that I could achieve success.

“I will never forget trying to keep up with my dad on his runs over Cavehill in Belfast when I first started. I didn’t enjoy it at the time but it developed that toughness, it wasn’t long until the tables turned thankfully! I’m forever indebted to both for making me the man I am today.”

Branagh also pays tributes to former coach Michael McGreevy from Dromore AC – “a fantastic coach but an even better person and friend. Michael also coached my mum and dad” – Paddy McKillop at St Malachy’s and Brad Wick at San José State.

“The culture and environment of success at St.Malachy’s made such a difference. That environment of competitiveness is what really drove me to improve, there was always someone older and quicker than you.

“The support was unrivalled.  Hearing about other pupils getting out to America planted that seed in my head. It was always a dream, but it slowly became a possibility over the years as I improved. It was amazing to make that dream a reality and live out that American dream.’'

However, he did not have instant success in pursuing that “American Dream” – in fact it could easily have turned into a nightmare describing it himself as a “culture shock.”

“The depth of talent was something I had never experienced before. I really struggled in my first season. I arrived with an injury which didn’t help.

“I went from the muck and wind of Mallusk playing fields to racing in 30 degree heat on manicured golf courses, it was a big change.

“I always laugh when I think about one of my first cross country races at Stanford University, finishing the 8km course in 28:28 and in 196th position.

“The performance resulted in my coach having a very choice conversation with me post-race. I think the coaches thought they got a dud when I arrived, I can’t blame them. I had never done any strength training or stretching, it was all new to me. The strength and conditioning coaches would laugh at how bad I was.

“I will always remember a meeting with my coach where he told me he expected me to run low 14 mins for 5K. Coming from Northern Ireland at that time, I thought sub 15 was the pinnacle, as that was the standard for the top guys in the local scene. I thought he was crazy.

“The easiest option would have been to go home after the first year, but that was never going to happen as I was determined to make it a success.

“I got used to the training and new environment and eventually showed what I was capable of. Getting out there really raised the bar of what I thought was possible as quicker times were just normal/expected. I had such a good time there.”