Rahan native Garrett O’Brien with his daughter Aoife at last year’s Colin Dunne Memorial 5k in Mucklagh.

Offaly's Garrett talks about his varied running journey

Offaly native Garrett O’Brien always enjoyed participating in sport but as time rolled on he found himself, like many others, focusing on work and family commitments and gradually his fitness levels dropped.

Then everything changed when his family introduced him to triathlon and to Midland Tri Club and from there he found himself joining up with Mullingar Harriers AC.

Many monumental marathons and some knee surgery later, Garrett (53) has a huge amount of running experience. He also offers great advice for anyone looking to start off on their own running journey. Whenever the latest lockdown subsides, his dog Pippa may lose out on her regular run down the canal line, but Garrett will be a face you can count on at many races and events.

Q: When did you start running and what motivated you to take it up?

A: I was always involved in some form of sport. I’m originally from Rahan in Co. Offaly, so I played Gaelic football and hurling for my local Shamrocks club even after moving to Mullingar in the late ‘80s. I also played rugby with Mullingar RFC for a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s. Having retired from GAA activities in 2002, I found that between work and family commitments, I went through a number of years with minimal focus on fitness or sporting activity, apart from some five-a-side soccer.

Around 2010, my sister Ciara and her husband Gene were involved in triathlons, and encouraged me to have a go. At this stage I was very unfit and was hitting 17 stone on the scales. However, this was exactly what I needed and I was soon bitten by the bug. I joined Midland Tri Club and did my first sprint distance triathlon in Athy in 2010. I steadily built this up over the next few years and culminated in completing the “Shadowman Long Distance triathlon” in Athlone in 2013 (3.8k swim/180k cycle/42k run).

Triathlon is very challenging and very rewarding at the same time, but with three disciplines involved, it does take up a lot of time, training and preparing for the races. Most tri-athletes have their favourite discipline and I gravitated towards the running. Similar to triathlon, I built up my running from 5k to 10k to half marathon and then on to the full marathon.

Q: What kind of an experience was your first marathon?

A: My first full marathon was in New York in 2011 and it is up there with the best moments of my life. Lining up with 50,000 others at the start line, the nervous anticipation, the national anthem, the noise, the crowds cheering, the music, the incredible feeling of joy and then relief crossing the finish line. I found it a very emotional experience as well as it was an important journey for me personally from being unfit, overweight and ‘in a rut’, to completing one of the world marathon majors.

I thought of my late father, John O’Brien who collapsed and died from a heart attack, aged only 49, at a hurling match that I was playing in, in 1988. I thought of my friend and hurling teammate, Colin Dunne, who died suddenly aged 27 while participating in the Barcelona Marathon in 2009. I felt true gratitude for my health and wellbeing and that, in a nutshell, is my motivation to run.

Q: What is your favourite and least favourite type of training and your favourite race distance?

A: I used to favour the longer distances as I wouldn’t have speed, but I could stay going. However, a bit of knee surgery in 2017 means that I now need to box clever with my training and racing and basically mind the body. My favourite training is shorter interval sessions (e.g. 10 x 400m) and my favourite race nowadays is a 10k.

My least favourite training is probably our Saturday morning session which is mainly a tempo run (e.g., running at a solid pace for 25 minutes) or some longer intervals on the hills of the Belvedere House cross country course (e.g. 5 x 1,000m). Maybe it’s too early for me, but I always feel heavy legged!

Q: Which running achievements are you most proud of and why?

A: Any day that you run a personal best is a great day, and while my PBs are all in the past, they are still important to me. It’s because I had to work hard for them and I literally had to empty the tank during that race. There is a great sense of satisfaction when you do this. The beauty of running is that you are competing against yourself, no matter what level you are at. My PBs are important to me, but they could be totally different for someone else. There is a place for all levels of ability.

I’m proud that I got to complete ten marathons. They all took on a life of their own and have their own story. But I have been advised by my knee surgeon not to do any more!

Q: List your current PBs for the following distances:

A: 5k - 19.49, Daingean, 2013; 10k - 42.30, Tullamore, 2013; 10 Mile - 1.09, Slane, 2012; Half Marathon - 1.31, Longford, 2012; Full Marathon - 3.19, Chicago, 2012.

Q: How have the current restrictions, relating to Covid-19, affected your training or racing plans?

A: When we’re in a lockdown, I take my dog Pippa down to the canal and head off for a run. I live in Mullingar town and we’re lucky to have such a great resource on our doorstep. That’s also the case with Belvedere House. The cross country course there throws in a few hills, just in case the canal line is too flat.

While I enjoy the group training, I also enjoy heading off with the dog for an hour with some music playing. Apart from the physical benefits, I find that it also clears the head and it’s my bit of ‘me time’ during the day. I try to attend the three main sessions when restrictions allow – a speed session, a tempo run and a long run. At the moment, we are back in Level 5 lockdown and the club is closed until January 31 at the earliest.

Q: What advice or training tips would you give to anyone looking to take up running?

A: Join a club (in non-Covid times!); there is strength in numbers. I was very reluctant to join Mullingar Harriers originally, because I had this misconception that you had to be a really good runner to join. When I first tried out a Harriers training session, I was pleased to see that it is very much suited to all levels of ability. I haven’t looked back since.

Currently my training pod has about 12 people in it and we are all around the same standard. This means that we automatically push each other in training. That’s where you see improvement. You also need to give your training priority. It’s too easy to say that you haven’t time or that you have too much else to do. Slot in your training first and build everything else around that then. If you are a beginner looking to take up running, go with the flow, you don’t have to run ten marathons! Be modest with your goals initially. I started as an unfit 17-stone lad looking to get fit and lose some weight. If you stick with it and enjoy it and feel the benefits, then your progression will come naturally from there.

Q: What are your lifetime goals or PBs?

A: My PBs are behind me now, which took a while to get my head around. However, I now take the current level that I’m at and try to chip away on that instead.

My main goal is to stay fit and healthy, whilst hoping that my knee will allow me to keep doing what I’m doing for years to come!

- Martin Lyons

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