Neil Featherby: The amazing story of Tommy Hughes, a true inspiration

Neil Featherby, left, with Tommy Hughes Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby, left, with Tommy Hughes Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Neil Featherby

Those who regularly read my column will know that every now and again I like to write about those I feel really are an inspiration.

Tommy Hughes at the Belfast half marathon Picture: Tommy Hughes

Tommy Hughes at the Belfast half marathon Picture: Tommy Hughes - Credit: Archant

For those who might regularly read my weekly column, they will also know that I like to write every now and again about those who I feel really are an inspiration. One such old friend of mine most certainly epitomises the word inspiration of the very highest order.

Tommy Hughes, a very proud Irishman from Maghera, took up running aged 21, in 1981, but only due to wanting get fit so as to try and further his chances of breaking into the first team for his local Gaelic Football Club and to put it bluntly, lose some weight at the same time.

Although he didn't break into the first team, he did indeed discover that running came natural to him for which he then decided to train for and run in the Belfast marathon the following year, finishing in a time of 3 hours, 1 minute and 26 seconds.

Whist this may have not set the world alight, what it did do was further ignite the fire in Tommy, to see just how fast he really could run.

Needless to say, he very soon discovered that it was running and not Gaelic Football, where his true natural talents lay whilst bringing his marathon time down in large chunks with a 2:35 clocking the following year, before going on to run 2:24 when winning the Derry Marathon in 1984 and then even more amazingly breaking the sub 2:20 barrier for the first time (2:19) when defending his title a further 12 months later.

Ironically, this race was then omitted from the Northern Ireland Road Race calendar for a full 28 years until being resurrected in 2013, where Tommy at the age 53, astonishingly defended his title in a time of 2:30:32.

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If this was made into a film, people would say it could not happen in real life.

Nevertheless, there is so much more to this story for which I am pretty sure it could be made into a film or it most certainly would if it was a story about any other major sport.

Going back to 1985 and having now broken through the sub 2:20 barrier, races were coming with regularity and of course invitational trips overseas for the first time where in 1988, he really did see a major break through when winning the Marrakech Marathon in 2:15 followed up with further victories in Belfast in 2:19 and Melbourne in 2:18.

He was also now really pushing the training load up to well over 100 miles per week whilst also holding down a physical job, but that is the only way Tommy knows.

His nature was and always has been, that if you are going to have a go at something, then there is only one way to do it and that is to give it your all.

Needless to say this is not for everyone, but it certainly is what made him the very tough character which he most certainly is.

Races came and went and more often than not were met with success for which his thoughts had by now even turned to making the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona representing Ireland.

This was further enhanced with a win in the Dublin marathon in 1991, when producing yet another new PB of 2:14:46, albeit unfortunately just short of the qualifying time required for the Games.

Not to be undeterred though, he carried on with full focus for an all-out effort in the Marrakech marathon in January 92, where he finished second, in 2:13:59 and just one second under the qualifying mark securing him that coveted place in the Irish team and of course now becoming an Olympian too.

Unfortunately, the luck of the Irish was not quite on Tommy's side though, because as he started to push the mileage up once again in his quest to be the very best he could be at what was likely to be the very highlight of his career, he went down with a stress fracture.

Despite several opinions from the medical experts who said he would have to miss out, there was no way Tommy was going to do this and whilst I think it is fair to say he did not stand on the start line in the shape he could have been in if all had of gone to plan, he still made it and I am very proud to say that he included part of his preparations with a few days of training and staying at my place in Norwich along with a win in the City of Norwich Half Marathon, before flying out with the Irish Team.

This is also where another big part of what is the Tommy Hughes story starts.

After returning from the Olympics, I think the best way to describe it is by saying that everything felt flat and anti-climaxed for him, for which he turned to drink and even took up smoking.

As said earlier he will give his all to anything he puts his mind to. But that also means if his mind is not on it, then his focus will go towards other things.

At this point in my column, I just know I am not going to be able to do this story full justice what with space limitation, but let's just say amongst fits and starts, he got his act together to once again win the Belfast marathon in 1998, aged 38 which of course was a full ten years on from his first victory in Northern Ireland's capital city.

The early 2000s, also saw long periods of inactivity and low motivation mixed with one or two half hearted attempts to get his running back on track where he produced a 2:28, 6th placing in the Belfast marathon of 2008, but it was upon turning 50, in 2010, when he really got his head down again winning the Nottingham marathon in 2:29, along with a 70:31 clocking at the Peterborough Half Marathon just one month later.

Due to work commitments, he then moved to Leicester for three years in 2011 and by his own admission, his lifestyle wasn't the best (booze, cigarettes and kebabs), the training was very much full on as he enjoyed the company of the Leicester Coritanians, who he had now joined.

During this period, not only did he produce many good race results including a couple of 2:29 finishes in the space of three weeks in the 2012 London and Belfast marathons (8th place), but of course the win mentioned earlier in the Derry Marathon in 2013.

However it was soon after this win that things started to go downhill again feeling constantly fatigued all the time whereby not only was his race performances becoming affected, but also his general feelings and enthusiasm towards life, which resulted in him hitting the booze again.

So much so that he was drinking a full bottle of vodka every day.

In a nutshell, he didn't feel good about himself for which he almost hit rock bottom before his partner Ann, said enough is enough and forced him to go to the Dr's for a blood check where he was diagnosed with para-thyroidism, a condition which is where a thyroid gland produces an excessive amount of parathyroid hormone causing the blood calcium levels to rise, leading to low bone density and excessive fatigue and weakness.

He was very quickly rushed off to hospital where treatment was immediately administered and whilst he was given a number of drugs to help resolve the problem, he was also told that he would have to stay on the medication for the rest of his life or alternatively have an operation to remove the faulty gland.

It was a no brainer for Tommy, plumping for surgery which took place last year in 2018.

Astoundingly, and less than two months after the operation there he was back racing again in the Malaga Half Marathon where he helped the Irish Masters team win bronze medals.

As said earlier, trying to do Tommy's story full justice is impossible, but having turned 59 in January, his training and racing really has been one of success, whilst not only winning races, but setting new records along the way for his age group.

He regularly bangs out 120 miles of running each week in training and amongst lots of success this year, he finished 67th overall in the Rotterdam marathon in a new world best for a 59 year old by over four minutes, finishing in 2 hours, 30 mins and just 15 secs, before following that up with a win outright in the Newry half marathon in 71:57.

This Sunday, he lines up with his son Eoin, aged 35, in the Frankfurt marathon where not only is Tommy aiming to become the first 59 year old albeit less than three months short of his 60th birthday, to run under 2 hours 30 mins, but also set a new father and son world record which currently stands at 5 hours, 2 mins and 11secs.

With regards to new world records, I have a feeling that not only will they do this, but 2020 is most certainly going to be a year where Tommy Hughes re-writes the record books when it comes to running and racing at 60 plus years of age.

He is such an awesome guy for which I cannot praise him enough. I asked him if he was happy for me to write about his personal issues for which he in true Tommy Hughes fashion, quite simply said: "Yes of course. If my story helps just one person, then it is job done."

There is no two ways about it, what you see is most certainly what you get which of course is complete honesty.

Having an addictive personality, can be awkward at times, but and as proved by Tommy, if you have the determination you can not only turn your life around during any dark periods, whilst at the same time also proving that if you can retain your drive belief and determination right into later life, then even the unthinkable is possible just as proved by a certain Kenyan athlete a couple of weeks ago when breaking the two hour marathon barrier.

As for just inspiring one person as Tommy put it, I am pretty sure that the Tommy Hughes story could be an inspiration to so many people from so many walks of life. Me for one!