Interview by Martin Lyons
Name: John Downes
When did you start running and what motivated you to take it up?
A bit by fluke really. I was asked by a bank manager who saw me running in an open sports day in Kilfinane to join an athletics club in Croom, County Limerick. Ran in an U15 county cross country and won and then Munster cross country two weeks later. I was hooked. I found it good for my confidence as well, as I had been bullied a lot when younger.
What is your favourite and least favourite type of training and your favourite race distance?
I enjoyed all training to be honest. It didn’t matter to me. I just did what I was told, or set out to do.
My favourite distance was nine miles on the cross country. On the track my preferred distance was 3k. It is a good mix of speed and stamina.
I used to run to work most days, 13 miles in, labour for the day on the building site and then 10 miles home.
My average mileage was 110 per week, some blocks of 150 miles and a max of 173.
These days, I really enjoy coaching other athletes, it’s a passion of mine and I’ve done quite well at it. I’ve helped a lot of guys in the UK.
Among those I’ve coached and who run the following times under my tuition are, Colm McCourt 3.37 1,500metres, Dan Robinson 2.12 marathon, Dave Taylor 2.13 marathon, who also ran 13.53 5k at 43 years of age.
David Hibbert, who ran 3.46 for 1,500metres at 17, 8.06 3k and 14.17 5k, between 17 and 18 years of age. He was in a bad car accident shortly after, busted his ankle and he could never run again.
Teresa Duffy from Northern Ireland who was fifth in the Commonwealth Games marathon in 2002, who ran 2.35.27 in London in 2001 and who also ran 1.12 for a half marathon.
Sergiu Ciobanu, based in Ireland, who ran 2.15 and 2.19 for marathon, and John Travers from Donore Harriers in Dublin, a sub 4 minute miler and sub 14 minute 5k runner.
I also coached Donore Harriers club to novice and intermediate cross country titles and also to their first Irish senior national road relay title in 23 years.
Martin McCarthy, who won the Irish cross country Championship in 2003... the List goes on.
But I’m lucky, also, to have given my experience to coach these individuals at some stage of their careers, to get the most out of themselves. Each plan I do out is tailored for that individual, as everyone’s needs are different. I’m not a one for all guy. That’s probably another reason I’ve been successful.
I also had the pleasure of coaching Martin Fagan from Mullingar Harriers while he was training for the Rio Olympics marathon. He was the first Irish man to get the qualifying standard, but opted against going.
He was an awesome athlete and a really nice guy. If Mullingar Harriers and Westmeath can keep producing guys of his calibre or even close to it, you will be doing very well.
What running achievements are you most proud of and why?
I suppose it would have to be winning the British cross country championship in 1996. Also, running 13.29 for 5k was something I’m very happy to have as a lifetime PB. These achievements were done while working full-time on building sites, which was not easy.
List your current PBs for the following distances.
400 metres: 50.10
800 metres: 1.53:72
1,500 metres: 3.42:59
1 Mile: 4.00:01
2 Miles: 8.27
10 mile: 47mins 48sec
Half marathon: 62mins 40sec
I never ran a marathon.
What are your running goals for the next 12 months?
There’s not many running goals for me. I am 50 in July, so I would like to break 15.30 for 5k by this time next year. But we will see. It’s coaching I am more interested in now, as you’ve probably gathered!
What advice would you give to anyone who is looking to take up running?
Look for a good coach. Find out and ask who has done and achieved things, not just athletically, but who has coached youngsters to senior level. Who keeps improving athletes as they get older.
Be prepared to invest in a coach. In other words, pay. There are very few with skill, knowledge and experience so seek them out. It is worth it with the right coach.
I got so much coaching experience from helping people like Peter Riley, who beat Mo Farah in the British 5k championships a few years ago, and he has also run 2.14 for the marathon and won the English cross country championship.
I was helped by Dave Bedford, a former world record holder for 10k. I am good friends with Peter Julian, who is second in command in the Nike Oregon project and who I keep in regular touch with. He is also a good friend of Cormac Finnerty from Mullingar.
So this is what keeps me motivated and gives me goals for the future – knowing that I have helped these people and that can help me to achieve my goals for my athletes in the future.
Mentioning Cormac, there have been so many from Mullingar – Dave and John Burke, Tom McGrath, Martin Fagan. There’s a current good crop in Westmeath at the moment – Jake Byrne, Shane Hughes, Shane Fitzsimmons, Jack O’Leary and Jack and Padraig Moran. Also, Mark Christie from the Harriers, goes without saying, who is probably the best road and cross country runner in the country right now.
What are your lifetime goals and PBs?
At my age, there are not going to be any more personal bests. But I try to have personal bests in mind at all times for the people I help. It keeps me motivated.
So mainly to keep fit and healthy and if possible, try to break 15.30 for 5k.
Also, as I’ve said, to keep helping the athletes that I am coaching, to achieve the best of their potential. This is something I am good at, but the athlete has to listen.
Outside of running, my own goal personally now is to travel Japan. I speak a bit of the language. I love the food and their way of life and discipline. Other than that, I love spending time with my family.
Days out and with my sons Björn and Árón. My youngest Ellie is Down Syndrome and it’s her I love helping and being with the most. She’s a special child who gives me perspective every day.
Thanks for asking my opinions. I hope that they make some people realise their potential.
What is your favourite post race meal?
An omelette. I used to push myself so much that my stomach needed something light.