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Neil Featherby: Why Tommy Hughes should be mentioned alongside Eliud Kipchoge

Tommy Hughes at the Belfast half marathon Picture: Tommy Hughes

Tommy Hughes at the Belfast half marathon Picture: Tommy Hughes

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As I write this, I am still getting over the excitement of my old mate Tommy Hughes who has not only became the first 59 year old to run under 2:30 for a marathon, but also along with his son Eoin set a new Father and Son combined marathon World record of 4:59:22, in last Sunday's Frankfurt Marathon.

Having written about Tommy's challenge and his pretty amazing life for last Friday's Run Anglia, supplement, the response I received was pretty immense.

However, and as we now know, not only did he break the 2:30 barrier, but he well and truly smashed it with a 2:27:52 clocking, made even more remarkable due to him being just 73 days short of his 60th birthday.

If the response prior to his run was not amazing enough beforehand though, it has been overwhelming this week with him being called up by newspapers and media outlets from all over the world.

He did actually tell me last week that he was actually going for 2:25 which scared me as I had visions of him blowing up, but on the day he just settled for a steady pace (did I say steady pace?) going through half way in 74:12 and then picking it up in the second half to produce a negative split of 73:40.

Tommy really is still very much old school and didn't even wear a watch until recently and really only knows one way how to run and that is by running to feel whilst at the same time also not being scared to fail.

If he does fail, then he just picks himself up and get ready to go again such is his mindset and belief.

As I have said on many occasions, a winner never fails always believing that if they didn't succeed last time out, then they will next time.

Whereas most people reduce their training to the bear minimum during the final week before attempting to run a marathon, prior to flying out to Frankfurt, Tommy's final week preparations consisted of a cross country race for Ireland Masters seven days before where he not only won his 55 to 59 class, but also beat all those in the class below (50 to 54).

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He then followed that up with a 20 miler on the Monday morning prior to doing what is known as the carbohydrate loading diet made famous by the great Ron Hill during the late 1960s where just one week before a marathon, a runner would run approx 20 miles at a decent pace so as to greatly lower the glycogen levels which is stored in the liver and muscle cells and then converted to glucose during exercise, and then eat minimal carbohydrates whilst following a diet which consisted mainly of just protein and fats while still training for the following three days so as to further deplete.

The final three days would then consist of just very easy running whilst consuming lots of carbohydrates and reducing protein and fat to minimum levels so as to stimulate the body to absorb and maximise liver and glycogen storage to help maintain run efficiency during those last painful few miles.

While the very top athletes nowadays run close to two hours and have no issues with what has always been known as hitting the wall, those of us who are just mere mortals, will know exactly what it is like to hang on mentally and physically during the latter stages of running 26.2 miles when the glycogen levels become very low and our body becomes more reliant upon fat as an energy source.

Fat oxidation at pace is far less efficient than glycogen hence why it becomes that much harder to maintain the given pace which more than likely felt quite comfortable early on.

At the same time also very important to run at the correct pace as the harder we run the quicker we will deplete our reserves of glycogen.

However, and while runners know the benefits of eating more carbohydrates in the build up to running a marathon, I am pretty sure that the full loading diet is used far less frequently nowadays.

Having to run 20 miles just a week beforehand and then still putting the miles in for the next three days was always open to debate as to how effective it was.

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More often than not, by the time you got to the high carbohydrate phase, you would feel pretty weak for which I have to say on the occasions I tried it, I still felt pretty jaded come race day and therefore found a modified version which worked best for me.

I even gave it to Paul Evans, who used it for the first time when running in the New York marathon for which he told me he continued to use it for all his marathons after that.

Anyway, and going back to Tommy, by my reckoning he had clocked up at least 57 miles by the time he had completed his Thursday morning run before hitting the carbs for which he did say he was feeling pretty rough, but was still very confident that he was going to run well and was looking forward to standing on the start line.

Whilst Eliud Kipchoge's recent sub 2 hour marathon was pretty mind blowing, when you take into consideration that he is now at the very peak of his career and had weeks and months of funding and sports science support from an absolutely amazing team behind him, when you look back at the unbelievable rollercoaster ride which Tommy has been on, I honestly believe that his effort last Sunday is almost equal to Eliud's run.

Also take in to consideration that Tommy was almost at death's door just a couple of years ago, never mind the fact that most of his 120 miles a week training is done all on his own around the country roads of his home town of Maghera in Northern Ireland.

If not equal, then most certainly close.

Another reason why I am writing about Tommy Hughes this week, is because his story really is such a human one after all what he has gone through and of course now achieved.

Whilst it is so very inspiring to all runners of all ages I hasten to add, it can also be so very inspiring to people from all walks of life.

I have written on a number of occasions about how running can help people in so many ways for which he has not only demonstrated just how important running is to him and his life, but also demonstrated that when all may seem lost and you might feel that you have gone as low as you can go, you can still pick yourself up and even if it does not mean running a sub two hour thirty minute marathon aged nearly 60 like he has, it still demonstrates just how precious life is and that we should never ever give up.

At the same time it can also help to put things into perspective particularly when getting frustrated just because things aren't always going the way we want them to.

For those who might not have read my column last week, Tommy, in a nutshell fell from being an Olympian in 1992, to someone who then struggled to keep his life on track due to severe bouts of depression mixed with heavy alcohol consumption and smoking.

Whist there were still some very good running results mixed in intermittingly with these low periods, his partner Ann, in 2016 said enough is enough forcing him to go to the doctor's. After blood tests it was confirmed that he was suffering with a condition called para-thyroidism.

After a period of hospital rest and then an operation to remove a gland in 2018, he has not looked back since and has his sights so very firmly fixed on 2020 where he not only hopes to run an even quicker marathon, but also set world best times at other distances too.

None other than Paul Evans, called me up on Monday to say that he can only stand in awe of what Tommy has achieved and went on to further say: "Tommy has run over 100 marathons at a very high standard and I first became aware of him at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when he represented Ireland. However, to be able to still have the mental strength to motivate himself after all these years day after day and still run at such a high level is quite unbelievable to say the least."

I personally think that on the back of Tommy's rough few years and all what he went through, he now has a new lease of life and is most certainly not now going to let go of it.

Yes, truly inspirational……

One final quick footnote…. I must say a very big well done to City of Norwich athlete, Nick Earl, who finished 16th in the Toronto Marathon, two weeks ago, in 2:18:03. That's the third time under 2:20 for Nick, within the last year.

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