I find Stephen Scullion in a coffee shop in Teddington. Barely a mile from the same track on which he’s plied his trade for almost 16 years, the same Bushy Park where shoeprints have left their mark from mile after mile of tempos, easy runs and the soul-searching in between.
Scull, as he’s known to many, is an athlete whose achievements very few can hope to emulate but one who’s ambitions will have a familiar feel for all those towing the line.Embed from Getty Images
Chasing a feeling
Only one Irishman in history has ran faster than the Belfast man did running laps of St James Park. A cold and wet October morning leaving some of the world’s best stepping to the side.
2.09.49, three minutes behind a broken Eliud Kipchoge and bettered only by John Treacy’s 2.09.15 on a Boston course many federations regard as record-ineligible.
Yet Scull, sat on a bench drinking his cortado, has every sense of a man with unfinished business.
“I raced three weeks before London in Larne and ran 61.08 for a half. Just how I felt that day. If Larne was 10/10, London was 5. And I ran 2.09 5/10. So London’s just fucked me. If London was 10/10 I could just call it and hang my shoes up and just go f**k it. That was it.
How I felt at Larne, it was one of those days where running just paid you back. It went, you’ve worked really hard, I’m going to help you out today. This is going to be a gift, you’re going to love it and I’m in my home. 20 mile up the road from where I live. My parents are there, I’m running with Mo Farah, who I’ve just trained for a month with in Font Romeu. It was just priceless. It was a gift.
That was special but of course now I’m fucked because I need to get on the startline of a marathon feeling like I did at Larne, so there’s still a better result there. “Embed from Getty Images
Choosing himself in Tokyo
The last 18 months have been tough for Scull. His Olympic dream fulfilled, he made the startline of Tokyo after a tumultuous build-up in which, on occasion, the only option looked like stepping away from the sport:
“A lot of this time I’ve forgot a lot of pain can be purely psychological. It doesn’t present itself in an “ow”. It’s more of just a weight or a bad feeling, a sadness. And then what comes with that is you don’t feel as springy in your step. You’re not as confident. You’re not as sure of yourself. So how on earth could you perform on the biggest stage of all?
It’s really terrible timing to be going through the little things that I was dealing with. I look back now and I’m like wow that was heavy. It’s just a shame it was the Olympics.”
Scull earnt that place in Tokyo, no-one else did and it was as much his right to step to the side miles later:
“I was kind of surprised but in a way it sounds unfair. I was almost proud of myself in that moment for picking me. I didn’t pick people on Twitter. I didn’t pick the people that were going to judge you.
I picked a broken man that was hurting and went today I’m going to stick up for you and if you don’t want to do this, we won’t do it. And I go to the side and I walk off and I didn’t regret that. I still don’t regret that. I’ll never regret that.”
The 33-year-old followed Tokyo with a return to Larne, just less than a year on from finding that magical feeling on the Antrim coast. His performance was over two minutes slower, leaving Scull sat on his Belfast sofa reflecting on what he describes as his worst year as an athlete.
With one mate sat to his side, perhaps tipsy from a stag do he’s just attended and another laughing at him from another sofa, in comes a video call from a former training partner.
Mo Farah had started the race that day in Larne and had been speaking to a listener of Scull’s podcast. An honest and frank portrayal of the often loneliness and vulnerability of life as an elite marathon runner, Scull is often his own worse critic.
“Don’t you know you don’t owe anybody anything Scull.” The four-time Olympic Champion tells him.
And he doesn’t. The bemused faces to the left and right of Scull give him a reminder of just how far he’s come. From a boy riddled with nerves heading to an Irish Schools XC, an adolescent getting in trouble a few years later, to a man who has held his own alongside some of the world’s best.Embed from Getty Images
Laps of the lake
It brought him back to a few months before and his stay at altitude in the Pyrenees:
“There was a moment during that camp in Font Romeu, Sunday morning and I’m doing laps of this lake on a long run and I’m hurting and Mo knows I’m hurting, so madness he actually just told me to sit in.
Two mile into a long run I’m hurting and we’re working.
The next 18 miles he just leads. I think we’re running like 5.15-20 pace at altitude and it’s no wonder I’m hurting.
I got to a moment probably about 16 miles where I just went, can you just open your eyes a minute? You have Mo Farah leading you round this lake. On a long run, he’s helping you. The sun’s shining, you’ve no shirt on.
Do you know how much money people would pay to not only go for a run with Mo but go for a run with Mo at this speed as organic as that was? It wasn’t forced there were no awkward hellos, no ‘nice to meet you, let’s go for a run’. It was a priceless moment.”Embed from Getty Images
2022 has seen Scull approach running differently, no longer will he excuse himself from social occasions and find himself isolated in his flat, instead he is attempting to find some balance.
“I still think I can get better but I need to do it a different way than I’ve been doing because you’re getting a bit miserable by this point. I’ve said no to every social thing that has existed for 15 years and if I did say yes to something it got way out of hand and I retired because I got too drunk and felt guilty. I thought oh my god I’m a bad runner, I’m a bad person. I quit.
This year I thought let’s try something different, balance, moderation. We’ll go to the pub have a couple of pints, we’ll go home, go for a run the next day and not beat ourselves up about it.
I’ve found that the fitness is seemingly good but I’ve found better balance in terms of happiness and maybe those parts of my personality coming back can lead to, if not better results, then it’ll lead to me still being an athlete for three/four years.
If you kept the trajectory you were on, not only were you getting worse, 2021 was my worst year, you were getting very close to a place where you were like no.”Embed from Getty Images
Representing his country
For the first time in years, Scull has avoided altitude and instead returned to south-west London. Partnering with European Indoor finalist Jack Rowe as well former GB junior Dan Jarvis, Scull has embarked on what he describes as good honest hard work. He’s pleased with the progress he’s made.
It sees him head to Rotterdam next weekend with a genuine chance of running quicker than he ever has before. A World Champs qualifier of 2.11.30 one goal but further ambitions await.
“I definitely think there’s still a faster marathon in me and I hope to god one day I can run in an Irish vest or a Northern Ireland vest and actually run well at a championship. I’ve had so many sh**e championships.”
A month or so after Rotterdam Scull will go for the Commonwealth time at the Night of the 10,000m in Highgate, North London. 28.30 is a mark he feels confident of bettering and he flirts with the idea of also running a 5,000 (13.30) ahead of those Games.
A marathon at the European Champs has a nice ring to it and then hopefully a reunion with the best on the planet at Oregon.
20 years in the making, ups and downs along the way but continuing to move forward, Stephen Scullion continues to chase that feeling.
With thanks to Stephen Scullion.
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Featured image “2017 London Marathon – Stephen Scullion (2)” by katieteresachan is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.