Tommy Hughes knows what it takes to be among the best in the world at marathon running. In 1992 the Co. Derry man ran his personal best of 2.13.59 in the Marrakesh Marathon and later in the year represented Ireland at the Barcelona Olympics. Eight months ago, at age 50, Hughes defied his age and ran 2.29.14 in winning the Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham. When the Veterans World Rankings are finalised later this month, there’s a good chance that run could put Hughes at the top of the world in the over-50 category.
His half marathon time of 70.28, achieved at the Peterborough Half Marathon in October 2010, should also be among the world’s best.
Now 51, Hughes is looking forward to competing in the Belfast City Marathon on Bank Holiday Monday. It’s a race Hughes has won twice – in 1988 and 1998 – and he says his training has gone well and he’s ready to put his best foot forward. Hughes says,
‘The Belfast Marathon is home. I know most of the runners in the race and I get a lot of good support around the course. It’s hilly but at the same time it seems to suit me because I was surprised to run 2.28 there three years ago [at age 48, when he finished sixth overall]. Training has been going okay. I’ve had problems with my left Achilles tendon but it hasn’t stopped me too much. I’m happy enough with my form.’
Hughes, a member of North Belfast Harriers, has been living in England for the last three years and also runs for Leicester Coritanian Athletics Club. An electrician, there is more work for him in England but he says that, ‘my home is Northern Ireland.’ Hughes has also run for Annadale Striders, Belfast Olympic, and Sparta in Derry.
And this year’s Belfast City Marathon will be for him a family affair. His brothers John and Damian, who both live in Northern Ireland, will be joining him on the course as they attempt the distance for the first time.
Hughes was a fulltime athlete between 1983 and 1992. After the 1992 Olympics, he began working again and did not run another marathon until Belfast in 2008. Moving into the veterans’ ranks has supplied him with a fresh wave of motivation and renewed his love of running.
In striving for his goal of reaching the top of the world rankings, Hughes subjects himself to a training regimen that would rival that of many top senior athletes. Indeed, Hughes says he may be training harder now than he did when he was a senior athlete. He says,
‘I’m actually probably doing more than I did when I was younger. I’m working in Leicester so in the time I have after work I can train away. I usually do ten mile in the evening time and 8 in the morning. And I mix it on a Tuesday and Thursday with speed work with the boys from Leicester. And a long run on the Sunday. I’ve been up there at about 120 miles a week, but that’s what I need to do. I’ll not do that all the year round, but you need to get miles in the legs, so I’d say about 6 weeks at 120.’
Hughes says he is not sure how many marathons he has run, but he knows that it is more than 50. Most of those came during his time as a senior athlete. He would sometimes run up to five marathons a year – bucking the conventional wisdom that says that elites should race at most two marathons per year. For example, in 1988 Hughes ran five marathons and won three of them: Belfast, Marrakesh and Melbourne. He says, ‘Even then they were saying only run two a year. The way I looked at it, you have to get used to the distance. If you want to be good at it, you have to be able to handle it.’
Hughes says that from the time he started running he was captivated by the marathon and has ‘always considered myself a marathon runner, that’s what keeps me going: the magic of the marathon.’
His very first marathon was the first Belfast Marathon in 1982. He had only taken up running the autumn prior to that race, because ‘I had just got married and was getting fed well and putting on a lot of weight.’ His initial motivation was moving from the reserves to the senior team in his Gaelic football club.
So off training of four miles a day three times per week, Hughes got around the Belfast Marathon course in 3.01.20. That spurred him on to train harder and try to break the three-hour barrier, which he did in just a few months time in a marathon in Letterkenny, where he recorded a dramatic improvement, clocking 2.35. Hughes describes his first marathon in Belfast this way:
‘I was going pretty well till 20 mile. I always remember a comment I heard when I was running by a group of people. One shouted, “who do you think you are, Alberto Salazar?” I realised at 20 mile I was not Alberto Salazar! I learnt the hard way. But I didn’t know any better. So I just decided after that to train a bit harder.’
His first victory in Belfast came six years after that experience. Hughes said he had built up a lead three-quarters of the way through the race, but he began to tire and his Sparta teammate John McDowell closed the gap. Hughes held on to win by four seconds, 2.19.00 to 2.19.04. Hughes says his second victory in Belfast, coming in 1998 at age 38, was more of a surprise:
‘Coming up to 1998 I decided to have another go because it had been ten years of a time span. I trained January to May and then at the start of the race we were told that the course would be rerouted because of a bomb scare. It was a bit longer than normal distance, and I won it in 2.23. I was surprised that no younger people came along and gave any competition on the day. After that I concentrated on work again, and left athletics until three years ago. 2008 was another ten year span and that brought me back to Belfast. I was now 48 and I ran sixth in the race and ran 2.28.35 and then after that I left it for another couple of years, turned 50, and decided to come back in that age category to achieve as much as I could.’
Hughes says that he has pondered why there is no longer the same depth in quality in marathon running in Ireland and the UK. No man from Northern Ireland has broken 2.20 in the marathon since 1995. He says,
‘Way back when I stared the marathon our generation trained a lot harder than the generation now. They are distracted by a lot more things than we were. There are a few young people coming through but not as many as the days when I was running. There were more people around the same standard, and they brought each other on. Today there are only one or two, and the rest are in it for the fun of it.’
But it’s clear that while running is fun for Hughes, a competitive fire still burns in him. Hughes says he continues to relish the challenge of the marathon: ‘The marathon is just a very, very tough event and there’s so many f actors in getting it right and getting it wrong. That adds a mystique about it. You have to try and get it right every time.’
And he says that when ‘you get it right’ the rewards are incalculable. He says he has had two days during his long career that stand out in that regard: winning Marrakesh in 1988 and Dublin in 1991. Hughes describes those races this way:
‘The win in Marrakesh came out of the blue for me. I didn’t expect it. I went not expecting anything and ended up beating men like Mike Gratton, who had won London in 1983. He was a bit of a hero for me. So to end up winning really made my year. Then the other was the Dublin Marathon when I won it, the year before the Olympics in 1991. In that race, everything went absolutely perfect for me. I could do no wrong. Everything clicked totally on the day. Every part of the race felt so comfortable. When I decided I wanted to do something I just done it, within reason. I think about 18 mile there was a group of us, Jerry Kiernan and John Griffin, all the top Irish boys. But I decided let’s see what everybody’s got, put on a surge, and nobody came with me. I moved away and kept going. I ran 2.14.46 I think it was, feeling good the whole way through. There’s not many times you can say that about a marathon!’
By Gladys Ganiel
By Gladys Ganiel