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Runner Paul Pollock standing arms folder under spotlights in green jersey of Ireland

09 July 2021

He has qualified to compete at every major athletics event – World and European Championships, Commonwealth and Olympic Games – but when Team Ireland marathon runner Dr Paul Pollock comes under starter’s orders on 8 August in Sapporo, 500 miles north of Tokyo, it will be the pinnacle of his long distance running career. 

Paul is one of five Queen’s graduates competing in Tokyo, the list of which includes fellow medical graduate and Men’s Double Scull rower Dr Philip Doyle; Aerospace Engineering Master’s graduate and Olympic Trap competitor, Kirsty Hegarty (née Barr); Women's Eight rower and BA French and Spanish alumna Rebecca Edwards; and Law and Spanish alumnus and Wheelchair Basketball player James MacSorley, who will be representing Team GB at the COVID-delayed Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this month and in August. 

For the Holywood doctor and double Queen’s graduate (BSc Physiology 2008, MB 2010), winner of the Senior Belfast Sports Personality of the Year (2020), this will be his second Olympics, having been the highest placed Irish finisher in the 2016 Rio Marathon.

His time that day was 2:16:24, the third fastest ever by an Irish runner at an Olympic Games, in an event which is one of 12 athletics events to have been held at every Summer Olympics. With a personal best of 2:10:25 set in Valencia, Spain on December 2019, Paul has much to look forward to as a member of the Irish team.

Speaking last month to Adam McKendry in the Belfast Telegraph, he said:

“It is a real honour to compete in the Tokyo Olympics for Team Ireland.

“I'm excited about being based in the city of Sapporo, which is that extra bit special for having already hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, and I'm looking forward to the welcome that we will get.

“It will be a very different experience of course, without any spectators, but we are there to perform to our best and I am extremely proud to be part of the team.”

Getting into athletics

Paul Pollock grew up in Holywood, County Down attending St Patrick's PS, the same primary school as fellow Olympian and multi major golf champion, Rory McIlroy. 

In another newspaper interview earlier this year Paul admitted that he was only ‘decent, but never amazing’ at a range of sports until his mid-teens, when he won a 5k race in Monaghan (without any real preparation) and before he joined Abbey AC in Newtownabbey, County Antrim where he began training seriously.

“I absolutely hated it,” he told Cathal Dennehy in the Irish Examiner. “The cold, the wet, the hard work.”

First competing at a major championships in 2004 when he represented Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bendigo, Australia (where he finished 4th in the 1500m) Paul remained a keen runner at University, though as he told the Irish Examiner, it was more a way to 'hang out with those who weren’t just his classmates’. “It was great to get out and clear the head,” he said. “With Medicine, you can get caught up in reading and studying, and the fresh air does wonders.”

A 2009 Bronze Bursary athlete (Athletics 800m, 1500m and 5000m) while at University, Paul has previously participated in – and won – the Powerade Queen’s 5k ‘Race Round the River’.

After graduating with a medical degree from Queen’s, Paul worked in the Royal Victoria and Belfast City hospitals, keeping up running without taking it too seriously, until a holiday conversation the following year gave him the idea to try for the London 2012 Games.  

He returned to Belfast, negotiated a year off, found himself a coach, deferred his Olympic plans until 2016 (though he did become Irish National champion in his debut marathon in Dublin in 2012), and started making a name for himself. Now with over 20 Irish caps, he holds records for the highest placing by an Irish athlete at a World Championship over the marathon (21st) and half marathon (14th) distances.

Giving back

In 2017, he founded the DreamRun Dublin project, in which he selects and coaches a group of 10 Irish runners for six months each year, with the goal of breaking three hours at the Dublin Marathon.

“I wanted to give back to the running community, to give people a focus, to help improve mental health and say to the wider community: all of them are targeting the marathon and training hard, why don’t you? I get great enjoyment out of it.”

In 2018, he qualified to run in the Commonwealth Games marathon on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia but was forced to withdraw when he sustained an injury during training.

Before the onset of Covid-19 in 2019/20, Paul and his partner Sophie – by this stage parents to son Theo – relocated from London to Yorkshire to be closer to Sophie’s parents. During the nine months he was there, he worked part-time in Harrogate Hospital, witnessing at first-hand the impact of the pandemic on staff and patients, before returning to Northern Ireland later that year. He now runs for two clubs – Annadale Striders in Belfast and Kent AC in England – balancing life as an Olympic athlete, father and as a part-time emergency medicine doctor.

Catching up with his alma mater, just weeks before heading to Tokyo, Paul said: 

"The Olympics is the pinnacle of sport for any runner. It is a real honour to have the opportunity to pull on the Irish vest once more, on the biggest global stage. After the events of the past year, hopefully these Olympics will act as a symbol of hope for people around the world.

"The Olympic experience will be very different this time, without any spectators, but we are all there to do our best and I am extremely proud to be part of the team."

Running author and New York Times best seller George Sheehan once said: "Of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.”

Assuming he can stay fit and healthy during the coming weeks, who knows what levels of heroism might be possible. Good luck Paul - it's over to you!

If you would like to support the next generation of athletes at Queen’s visit the Queen’s Foundation website or contact Paddy Gilmore, Queen’s Development and Engagement Manager, Queen’s Sport.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast or telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

Main image courtesy of Silver Hatch Sports Ltd; headline image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

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