Nick Griggs: running into the future yet always remembering brother Josh
It has been a year of unimaginable highs for Nick Griggs since bursting onto the scene – and big brother Josh, who tragically died weeks after his breakthrough race, continues to provide inspiration every step of the way. Neil Loughran talks to the Tyrone teenager taking the running world by storm…
THIS time last year, nobody had heard of Nick Griggs.
Even in an eagle-eyed athletics world where stones are seldom left unturned in the search for future stars, the Tyrone teenager wasn’t remotely near the radar.
That’s not to say the ability and, at times, the ambition weren’t there. But the tale of the tape at schools’ level didn’t mark him out as exceptional, let alone the kind of generational talent that has the Irish athletics community swooning – not least since, just nine days ago, Griggs clocked the world’s fastest indoor mile by an under 20 this year.
But then, the pandemic shifted the ground for all. In the absence of a regular race calendar, and with clubs limited in what they were able to do, some drifted away, fell into bad habits or focused on other things.
Griggs, in contrast, used both lockdowns to maximise the genetic gifts with which he was bestowed.
May 8 2021, and the North Belfast Harriers 5000m race would be his coming out party after over a year’s worth of solid grind behind the scenes - yet it might not have happened at all.
With no verifiable form at the distance, and entries already closed, organisers were understandably wary when this unknown 16-year-old got in touch less than a fortnight before, pleading for a spot in an A race filled with experienced middle distance runners.
Their fear was for him as much as for them; that he could embarrass himself, and subsequently embarrass the event. But Griggs held firm.
Having already explained about a 14:24 5k clocked around Newmills, he asked older brother Josh to film him doing a 3000m time trial.
Although shot on a dank, horrible day in Magherafelt, Griggs blazed around the track in a phenomenal 8:20 – with that footage eventually finding its way to race organiser Seamus McCann.
“Because there were no races, I had nothing to prove I could do it other than this self-made time-trial. I was actually starting to doubt myself, or thinking maybe there was something up with my watch.
“Eventually I got talking to Seamus and I’m telling him: ‘I haven’t had a chance to show myself in a year, I’ve been working every day and night for this, no matter the conditions. This is why I’ve run these times - please, just give me a chance to prove myself’.
“It took some balls to let me go into that race with guys aiming to run sub-14 minutes… I can’t thank them enough, because that was the breakthrough.”
Griggs finished sixth, crossing the line in 14 minutes, 15 seconds. Initial scepticism blown out of the water, all of a sudden his name was on the tip of tongues all around the Mary Peters track.
Mum Royanne, oblivious to the magnitude of what had just occurred, remembers people drifting in her direction during the moments after.
“They were coming over and saying ‘are you Nick’s mum? Here’s my number…’
“I didn’t know what was going on.”
To put that performance into further context, it’s important to rewind a bit here.
Nick Griggs always loved running. Dad Andy recalls him screaming the house down as Usain Bolt crossed the line in the 100m final at London 2012. When school sports day came around, the young man would barely sleep the night before.
“Honestly, that was the biggest day of the year. I just lived for it.
“In P4 I came second to my best friend, and after that me and dad used to drive me down to a wee running track in Coalisland most Sunday mornings. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but I would sprint 100 metres, see how quick I could do it, then do the long jump, using whatever twig we could find as a marker… I wasn’t training for anything, other than to win sports day.”
“It didn’t matter if was running or the egg and spoon race,” smiles Royanne, “he wanted to win them all. That competitiveness, it was in him since he was no age.”
Yet, in terms of anything serious or structured, that was a slow burn.
Griggs went to summer camps at Mid Ulster Athletics Club but, after joining properly during his first year at Cookstown High School, decided it wasn’t for him just three weeks in.
“There was nobody my age, I was in a sprinting group… I just didn’t enjoy it.”
PE teacher Richard Kerr provided a guiding hand, encouraging Griggs to enter district and, eventually, Ulster competitions on the track and cross-country. He rejoined Mid Ulster AC but, with one session a week alongside training at the Owen Roe’s GAA club in nearby Brackaville, there was no drive to step things up. Not yet.
“I was getting a bit better. I won a few Ulster titles, an All-Ireland bronze in third year in the 800 – I was proud as punch that day. Third in Ireland, I thought that might be as good as it would get.”
Yet when the pandemic struck these shores, Griggs seized opportunity amid the mayhem.
“I was 15, middle of fourth year, first year of GCSEs but then they were cancelled. Outside of school stuff, there was really nothing else to do - remember how strict that all was? Everyone was scared to death.
“So I’d go down to Newmills pitch, do laps. I don’t even have a watch at this point, I’m literally counting laps in my head and timing them on my phone. I remember making a plan for myself, thinking ‘right I’m going to start taking this seriously, I’ve got talent, I can go somewhere with this’.”
The training schedule he devised was rudimentary at best, “clueless” at worst. Within a matter of weeks, he had gone from one running session a week to every single day – from five, maybe 10 miles to 50.
“Bear in mind I didn’t even do a warm up for any of this,” he says, head shaking, “there was nothing scientific about any of it – it was insane. You wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
“I’d be coming home from some sessions and just sleeping on the sofa for hours, maybe missing lunch and waking up in the middle of the afternoon… I knew I was overtraining, but I couldn’t stop myself.”
A grade two hamstring tear sustained early on in a game for Brackaville, and the month of recovery that followed, “sort of wised me up”.
“I knew I had to dial it back.
“By the time the second lockdown came at the start of last year I’d learnt a lot, even just having a basic understanding of what I should be doing. I was doing warm-ups and cool downs, my tempo runs were a bit easier, my easy runs were a bit easier – everything was a bit more smart. Not perfect, but better.
“In the space of that year, that’s where all the improvements were really made. Most people think lockdown was the worst thing but, from a purely selfish perspective, it changed things completely for me.
“If Covid never happened, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. I probably would’ve just faded out of running eventually.”
Less than two months after the Belfast Harriers race, Griggs obliterated the best Irish teenagers to win the national U20 3000m title in Santry, clocking an Irish U18 record time of 8:11.15 in the process.
That rapid rise from relative obscurity was complete when he announced his arrival on the international stage in mid-July, the youngest athlete in the field annihilating the rest to land the European U20 3000m title in Estonia. It was breathtaking to behold.
Hours later, coaches from some of the top US colleges were sending Griggs private messages on Instagram, while his parents were peppered with calls, promising the world to try and secure their son’s services with lucrative scholarship offers before he had even received his GCSE results.
“It was relentless, honestly,” says Andy, “between that and people phoning about interviews, the phone hardly stopped for days after.”
Griggs, though, insists his path will be paved at home, with UCD his intended destination once he finishes school next year.
Watching his protégé blitz all before him in Estonia, Barrie Holmes - head coach at Mid Ulster AC - knew he had taken Griggs as far as he could, recommending he hook up with Belfast-based Mark Kirk, a top 800m runner in his time.
With each passing month it feels as though new ground is being broken, another layer of intrigue and astonishment added to the Nick Griggs phenomenon. The man of the moment, and not yet a man.
But perspective, at least inside the four walls of the family home, is never hard to find.
“At the minute you’re just enjoying it,” says Andy, turning towards his son, “there’s no pressure, there really isn’t.
“With what’s happened in the last year, none of us really worry about stuff any more. The worst that could have happened to us has happened, so with Nick, just enjoy it. Don’t feel you have to be this or that, just be happy.
“That’s what life’s about.”
THIS time last year, Josh Griggs had everything to look forward to. A diligent student at school and then Ulster University, he loved spending time with friends and family, loved gaming – but sport was always Josh’s thing.
Physiology, physical fitness, the whole area surrounding strength and conditioning fascinated him. Above all, though, he loved to train and he loved to play.
It was as a young kid, tagging along with a friend bound for Brackaville less than a mile out the road, that he was first introduced to Gaelic football. Coming from a Protestant background, and attending a Protestant school, there were times he worried how his participation would be received – on all sides.
Mum and dad soon put his mind to ease.
And, after being drafted into county development squads, Josh harboured ambitions of going all the way with Tyrone until a hamstring injury put that dream on hold.
Still the fire remained undimmed, and in 2020 he was proud as punch when named Brackaville’s reserve player of the year.
On the Sunday of Nick’s breakthrough race in Belfast, Josh played in a delayed championship final for the Owen Roe’s against Stewartstown. Had he not been otherwise engaged, Nick would have been involved too.
Having lost after extra-time the journey home was a quiet one until, scrolling through his phone, a huge grin took over Josh’s face.
“The mood was horrendous, and his coach was asking him what he was smiling about,” says Royanne, “but when Josh told them about Nick, the whole atmosphere changed. He was so delighted for him. They all were.”
Exactly a month later - June 8, 2021 – the Griggs family’s lives were altered forever when 19-year-old Josh died following an accident at his summer job in Banbridge.
His funeral service took place at Owen Roe’s, Brackaville, attended by people of all ages from all walks of life.
“It’s the shock,” says Royanne, “I left him that morning, he’s standing there in the hi-viz vest… ‘see you tonight mum, love you’ - never saw him again.
“But Josh knew how much he was loved, because we told him every single day. Josh’s friends have helped us so much, they’ve been there the whole time, and talking about Josh has got us through it.
“Unfortunately we’ve had to adapt to live our lives without him but Josh is very much a part of our family and our lives still, and he always will be.
“But over the last 12 months, Nick has given us so many lifts.”
The brothers were “chalk and cheese” in some ways, yet startlingly similar in others – an unbreakable bond forged, one rarely seen without the other.
“Two years and 11 months between us,” says Nick.
“For as long as I can remember, we were just a family; us four together, going on trips, going to Newcastle… you don’t realise because you’re so young how special those days were.
“Going to the park and playing football with your brother, or playing shark in the swimming pool with Josh and dad, we always had that really close bond. As we got older, we just loved the same things – Gaelic, football, running.
“He was my best friend, someone I did everything with - the one person who always believed in me more that anybody.
“Like, I was picked to go to a mini-marathon in London a few years ago and when I came back I told him I didn’t think I would ever be as good as some of the guys there, but he said ‘keep training and you will be’. He always had my back that way.
“We were as close as brothers could be… we literally grew up doing everything together. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t there every single day of my life.
“When you think about that, it’s hard to wrap your head around. You go from spending every waking moment with someone, then one day they’re not there…”
It makes it all the more difficult to comprehend the incredible resilience that drove Nick Griggs to that stellar showing in Santry just 19 days later, and the remarkable out-of-the-blue triumph in Tallinn less than six weeks after bidding his brother farewell.
On April 23 he will run in the Belfast Harriers 5000m race again, no longer an unknown, while a childhood dream of running at the Olympic Games remains the ultimate goal.
Los Angeles in 2028 was provisionally pencilled in but, with each event he illuminates, Paris 2024 looks less of a pipe dream. And after watching Griggs – who only turned 17 in December - smash the European U20 mile record last week, the same question has been on everybody’s lips: just how far can he go?
“Honestly, he is a freak, and I mean that in the nicest possible way,” says experienced athletics coach and Irish News columnist Malcolm McCausland.
“There have been comparisons made with [21-year-old Olympic champion] Jakob Ingebrigtsen, but Ingebritsen has trained like a professional since before he was 10 or 11. Nick Griggs is a genuine rough diamond – this lad just seems to be one in about 10 million, in terms of the natural talent he’s got.
“Heaven only knows what he can go on to achieve...”
There will always be huge sadness that Josh isn’t here to see how far he has come, or how far he might go. But, having encouraged and cajoled his younger brother from the earliest of days, solace can be sought in the journey they embarked upon together - long before the eyes of the athletics world fell upon him.
“When Josh died, I cried non-stop for days… weeks. There was nothing else I could do. I’ve never lost anyone, so any time you saw a new person, you’d just start crying. You can’t describe it.
“But after those initial few weeks, you start to think ‘there is nothing I can do to change what has happened’. Nothing can bring Josh back, the only thing I can do is change my future and make it as bright as it possibly can be, and to do that with him in my memory, always there with me.
“I know he would’ve been so proud of me. He was there through lockdown, through everything, it’s crazy to think he wasn’t there for any of what has happened in the last year. All I can do is look to the future and try and make him as proud as possible.
“I want him to be looking down with a smile. Hopefully he is.”