Colin Griffin Speaks to Irish Examiner on the Journey to Olympics 2012


Walking tall at last

By Kieran Shannon


‘Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.’
– Former US president Calvin Coolidge

You may have never heard of him but you’ll want to hear his story, trust us, because probably no Irish athlete has had it quite as tough or cut it quite as fine to make it to London as Colin Griffin.
Walking is his sport and in ways that sport is like baseball: three strikes and you’re out.
If a judge thinks — as opposed to definitively knows — that you don’t have at least one foot in contact with the ground at any point or that your supporting leg hasn’t remained straight from the moment it has touched the ground to the moment your body passes directly over it, that’s a red card, one strike.
If another judge reckons you’ve committed another violation, that’s a second card, two strikes. Doesn’t matter if you actually did or not, the judge is the judge.
Another strike from another judge and you’re gone. Doesn’t matter if you’ve trained over 250km a week, doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone; your race, and possibly with it, your dream, is over.
Three weeks ago 29-year-old Colin Griffin from Ballinamore, County Leitrim, found himself on the starting line in a Russian town called Saransk, and if it had been a movie scene, the intro to Eminem’s Lose Yourself would have provided the soundtrack. It was the last of his five attempts to qualify for the Olympics. In May 2011 in the European Cup he had to quit 35 kilometres into his 50km race with an abdominal injury. At the world championships in South Korea he was disqualified at the 30km mark.
A month later he raced in Germany and seemed certain to qualify, having gone the first 42km without picking up a single card and going at a pace well within the A standard qualifying time. But then the flu he had been carrying into the race started to affect him, he began to cramp and spasm, his technique started to go and before he knew it he’d picked up three cards in quick succession, the last dished out with less than two kilometres to go.
It didn’t just cost him a possible place in the Olympics. It cost him his place on the Sports Council’s carding scheme.
He had enough saved to pay his way for a high altitude training camp in Spain in March but not enough for a coach to monitor and tweak his technique and at his penultimate qualifying race in Slovakia a month later he picked up a third card with just eight kilometres to go.
With his 6’1″ frame, he literally stood out from the pack and so did his reputation. He was the guy who kept getting disqualified, and judges tended to keep a particular eye on him to see if he would confirm their unintentional bias again.
“A lot of the time I’ve been punished for something cosmetic, rather than my actual technique,” says Griffin without a hint of self-pity; instead his tone remains measured and matter-of-fact all through.
“I’d do quite a bit of video analysis and when I’d break it down frame by frame my technique would actually be within the rules. But the thing is when a judge sees that in normal human motion with the human eye, something I do attracts their attention. They don’t have time to scrutinise it properly.”
The way he’d overcome that was to take responsibility for perception being reality; that it was up to him to ensure he tidied up his technique and ensure he looked fluent at all times. He has never abused a judge. To do so just wouldn’t be in keeping with his sport or his demeanour. In fact, as much as they’ve been the bane of his life, he actually gets on rather well with judges, enough to approach the English-speaking ones anyway after a race to seek and gain feedback to make his technique less red-card prone.
It’s typical Griffin in so many ways: cool, methodical and considered. A couple of years ago he read that the Australian Institute of Sport had its own altitude house and chamber. His research also led him to discover there was no such facility in either the UK or Ireland, so he approached the University of Limerick’s sports science department; why not have one there in UL? The university jumped at the idea and last autumn its Altitude House opened for business.
Already the house Colin Griffin built has been occupied by Paul O’Connell and several of his Munster rugby colleagues. Conor Murray literally lived there for the weeks leading into the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster to accelerate his recovery from injury. Clare and Limerick hurlers have also availed of it but it’s especially popular with endurance athletes, with its founder a particularly regular resident.
“The whole principle is that you live high and train low. You sleep and live in the house for 14 or 15 hours a day at simulated altitude, and then train at normal sea levels at the same or higher intensity than you would on a normal altitude camp in the mountains abroad. I would still go to Sierra Nevada in Spain a couple of times a year but not as often or for as long as I used to.”
He’s also a director of Altitude Centre Ireland which specialises in providing simulated altitude technology, such as the chamber in the Delta Sports Dome in Limerick.
Yet for as much as Griffin knows about altitude, he knows all about low points too because he’s had plenty of them.
Here are just 12 of the trials and tribulations Colin Griffin encountered on the long road to London.
1 For all his promise he missed out on qualifying for Athens, mainly because of all his problems, injury-wise.
“I would put a lot of that down to not having a proper strength and conditioning coach in my late teens and early twenties. I had a lot of weaknesses around the pelvic area. My core muscles weren’t quite strong or developed enough. There were a lot of imbalances and instabilities which caused me to miss weeks of training, especially the year of the 2004 Games. But I was young and knew I was in the sport for the long haul so I just got refocused for the next Olympic cycle.”
2 In 2005 he finally started work with a proper S&C coach in John Kiely but in many ways Griffin was playing catchup. Bad habits and posture had been ingrained and to weed them out he nearly would have been better to take some time out from competition but he couldn’t because that way he would risk losing his Sports Council card. Within a year he would lose it anyway. He would be disqualified in three major races that season, the most heartbreaking being the World Student Games in Turkey. With a lap to go he was in fifth place.
3 In early 2006 he took some time out to address some bio-mechanical weaknesses. It paid off, with him winning a European Grand Prix race and re-establishing himself on the card system but he missed out on the European championships. The qualifying time for the 20k was 84 minutes. He’d run 84.18, 84.16 and 84.12.
“That was tough. After that I said to myself, ‘I need a new challenge’.” Would he get a challenge in the 50k?
4 At first it seemed a breeze. In his first race, he’d win it, break the Irish record and make the A standard, qualifying for the world championships and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In both those major events though he’d be disqualified by around the 20k mark.
Looking back, he was a bit too naïve and distracted leading into Beijing. He’d started 2008 well, working under a new Italian coach, Sandro Damilano to refine his technique. Damilano was hugely impressed by Griffin’s fitness and enthusiasm and felt he had a potential top-eight performer on his hands, but by February Griffin had injured a knee tendon. He’d miss a month’s training and later, the World Cup, and although he’d be able to compete in Beijing, the local attention in Leitrim and the heat and humidity of the training camp in Japan drained him of energy when it was most needed.
5 Fast forward to 2011. It wasn’t working out with Sandro anymore. He seemed to lose faith in Griffin after Beijing and dedicated more of his time to his Italian and Chinese projects, leaving Griffin feeling more and more of a hanger-on within the group. At the end of the year they parted.
6 A few months later so would the Sports Council with their funding for him.
“I got a call from the [Athletics Ireland] performance director [Kevin Ankrom] the day the grants were being announced. I’d met him a few months earlier and he had said he was hoping I’d be kept on but now he was saying I was being dropped, though I’d get some limited support up until the end of March. I decided I wasn’t going to waste any energy on a confrontation, but you would like if they had sat down, really examined your situation, talked to the people working with me like my strength and conditioning coach [John Cleary] and realised, ‘Right, this guy has the ingredients to deliver a world-class performance; the whole missing link is some technique problems. If we can isolate and resolve that and put the whole package we can go places’.”
7 Griffin would go about tackling this technique issue by calling on Liam O’Reilly, a Cork-based bio-mechanical specialist and physio who had worked extensively with national champion Robert Heffernan, a close friend of Griffin’s. He also got huge support from his S&C coach John Cleary, the Institute of Sport physiologist Caroline McManus and the video analyst Alan Swanton. His technique seemed to be improving, but he was still running out of chances.
8 He was disqualified just two kilometres from the end in that race in Germany.
9 In March, being disqualified with just 8k to go in Slovakia. He and his girlfriend Claire would spend the rest of that weekend in Budapest but he was there in body only. His mind was racing, thinking of even quitting the 50k and take a chance of making the A standard in the 20. When he got home though and reflected some more, he decided he’d give the 50k another go, but only after doing one 20k race first.
“I wanted to do it for my reputation and my confidence, just to finish a race. So I did this race in Germany, the same place where I’d been disqualified with 2k to go back in September, and pretty much all the same judges were there. I came fourth, and afterwards talking to the judges they said ‘That looked a lot better; whatever you’re doing is working’. I took a lot out of that.”
A few weeks later he flew to Russia for D-Day but he was trying not to look at it so much as his last chance but rather a fresh start after the anguish of Slovakia.
Everything seemed in place. Liam had identified a few technical cues for him to use throughout the race: ‘Shoulders down’. ‘Chin up’. He’d worked a lot on his breathing, especially in his exhalation, to ease any inner tension. He had developed this little affirmation mantra, “I am calm, confident and controlled.”
And that’s how he felt on the starting line. He was going to break the race into 10 five kilometres segments, and the first five kilometres was all about just being relaxed. He wasn’t going to worry about the judges, or having to finish ahead of Jamie Costin and Michael Doyle to secure the third and last spot available for an Irishman in the event.
“I was just trying to focus on process, get the right stride technique-wise and just be fluent and relaxed.”
10 After 5k, he was shown red.
11 Just four kilometres later he was shown a second.
The man who kept getting disqualified was now literally on his last chance. After picking up two red cards in just nine kilometres, he now had to go through the next 41 without incurring any. The odds of him doing that…
12 “I was thinking ‘Jesus, that’s two cards already. If all the judges are thinking the same way, a third is going to come now any minute’. I was almost preparing myself for the fact I could be disqualified.
“But then I just checked myself and said ‘All I can do here is change something. I’m making the same mistake I made in Slovakia, of being too conservative and too slow and not giving myself a chance to open up. I’ve got to do something here — pick up the pace and hopefully look better and feel better’. And that’s what happened.
“When you’ve had the experiences I’ve had you can let it seep into your subconscious and say ‘Here you go again’ and bow to the inevitable. But I tend to say to myself, ‘No, why should it be me that’s disqualified here? I trained hard for this and I deserve to get my reward and performance on race day. I don’t train 240km a week to be qualified. I’m not going to be the victim here’. Whenever that negativity creeps in you need to break it right away and almost re-programme your way of thinking.”
He went back to thinking of five kilometres, even one kilometre, every step, at a time. After awhile, he was beginning to feel really good out there. He was thinking more of Liam’s cues and feedback than the judges; concentrate on those and he wouldn’t have to worry about the judges. At 30k he picked up his pace a couple of seconds every kilometre.
“Everything clicked about then. I started feeling the adrenaline, started moving up the field. I remember thinking this is exactly what I had been missing the last few races. I had always been racing under some constraint, some threat of being disqualified, or chasing a time. At that point I was just enjoying racing.”
By 35k Costin as well as Byrne had opted out, Griffin’s pace and the heat too much for them to bear. Griffin himself was only starting. The 40-45k split was his fastest all day. After that it was a case of keeping the head down .
“It’s hard to describe how I felt in those last stages of the race. Relief, satisfaction. Because I’d really earned this. I’d gone through the hardship, the setbacks and come back stronger every time.”
What sustained him all through those testing times? He always loved it: the sport, the challenge of remotely mastering that blasting technique; the gym sessions; those hours alone but never lonely hours out on that road.
London too was always a beacon in the darkness. A few years ago he had the Olympic rings tattooed onto his arm. Occasionally he’d look at them and wonder if he’d ever see them on a flag somewhere in London in the flesh this summer. Now he will.
“I’ve unfinished business with the Olympics after Beijing. I’d like to go there and enjoy the experience. Hopefully a top 10 finish is possible and obviously make sure that I don’t pick up any unnecessary red cards early on. I’ll be looking to be more aggressive from the start, believe I have the work done and from that I’ll have the right technique and rhythm.”
He’ll press on.


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