“It was at a stage when I was 29 and I was nearly saying to myself, ‘I’m approaching 30 now and if I’m not at my best it’s too late’.”
And then it all began.
Brendan recalls feeling like this in 2014 after a poor display in a cross-country event in England. He had been asked by his old club to travel from Spain to re-join their efforts for this competition.
Two years later in 2016 and at the ripe age of 31, Brendan had the year of his life.
“I ran 10km in 32 minutes, 14 seconds in March. It’s always good to start the season with a personal best. I was about 45 seconds faster than my previous personal best for that distance. It opened a lot of doors as to qualify as an elite in the duathlon where you must qualify with a 10km time. The European Championship was 4 weeks later and it was no coincidence I came away with silver only a month after the strong 10km showing. And these two events are what qualified me as an elite for the Duathlon World Championships.”
Could we say that’s good enough for one year? There’s more! How about finishing the year as Northern Ireland’s fastest marathon runner in his first ever marathon? More about that later. Let’s commit to the process and learn from Brendan’s fascinating journey.
Humble Beginnings and Worthy Role Models:
His path to glory was by no means clear from the start.
“I actually started with music before I took up sport. My first instrument was the tin whistle, then the trumpet and percussion. Later again I took up piano and violin.
“I began sport as a break from music believe it or not. I found sport very fair. The first person to cross the line is the winner. What I didn’t like about music was that it was very subjective. It came down to stylistic preferences. One conductor during rehearsals would like it this way and another would say no.”
The roles have now reversed. Brendan uses music for leisure.
“I take the school choir and still play myself. My leisure time would be small and I would count music as part of it.”
Brendan admired another high performing Irish athlete who like him discovered athletics later in the game.
“One of the best male athletes whose progress I followed was David Gillick. He came from a football background. He disproved the theory you had to hone in on athletics from an early age to be successful.”
It is important to have role models and take the opportunities to learn from them. They say an essential element of success is getting exposure to people who are achieving what you want to achieve.
“If I think of Irish athletic performances at the Olympics I only ever think of Sonia. She would have been the female athlete I would have followed. I would have found Mo Farah and the Brownlee brothers inspirational. I’m very lucky to have trained with Alistair (Brownlee) when he came to Cambridge for a year.”
Growing up in Strabane, Brendan would not have got the access to top training facilities many other high performing athletes did.
“As a result of the Troubles we were under-resourced. Locals had to fund things themselves as the local government did not. This created a legacy of fundraising and helping each other out. The mondo race track accessible to Lifford and Strabane athletic club members is a legacy of the fundraising efforts of local people. It has enabled young people to access better facilities. So, things are changing.
“I know first-hand the kind of support Strabane people give to their own. It is unrivalled. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their morale and financial support. People driving to work who see me out running, toot their horns in encouragement. Walkers offer some kind words when passing. I credit my success to the people of Strabane, just as I do to friends and family.”
Despite fundraising efforts there is still a way to come to get to the levels conducive to top performance.
“The facilities to this day are under resourced in Strabane. Our leisure centre is hugely inadequate. The facilities don’t promote high achievement. The opening hours are third world, for example on Sundays it is only open for two hours.”
So, Brendan had to accept the limited resources and maintain an elevated level of performance regardless. This ensured he would be ready to avail of better setups when the opportunity arose.
The Journey to Performance Precision:
Brendan’s path to marathon glory began in London where he developed a passion for triathlon while working there as a teacher. He built a good reputation in the athletics scene there.
After this, sunny Spain came calling and this was enough to lure him away from England. He saw moving to Spain as a chance to develop within triathlon.
“I wanted to be a part of the Spanish training scene. At the time, they had 3 of the top 10 triathletes in the world competing with their team. I wanted to be part of it, so I moved out having found work there. I trained alongside the Spanish triathletes and it was just a phenomenal experience.”
If you truly want to perform at the top level, you must give yourself the best chance. By moving to Spain and partnering up with coach Paddy Hamilton, Brendan did this. He got involved in the top-notch Spanish triathlon club scene, a far cry from under resourced Strabane.
“They were very friendly, very welcoming. I spoke Spanish which was a huge help. The training set up was very professional. There were physiotherapists, nutritionists, doctors and psychologists all at hand. Nobody was more than a phone call away. I could get help with anything – the bike mechanic would often be out to me within an hour to solve an issue. The club system in Spain is much better resourced and much better funded than our club system here in Ireland and even in Great Britain.”
The Spanish experience could have been the end only for a blessing in disguise.
“For the first month or two over there before settling into good routines I was just enjoying Spanish life. It was my break from training. Before I had moved away, my club in England asked me to come back and do a cross-country race, which I agreed to do. Unfortunately, as I was on my break and not the fittest, I didn’t perform to my best. To be honest it was a bit of a disaster.”
This was a low point for Brendan. But we can either succumb to self-doubt and adversity or find a way through it.
“They say every cloud has a silver lining and my poor performance didn’t go unnoticed. Some people recognised it and Paddy was one of them.
“He asked me, ‘how is Spain?’
“I let him know I was stuck. I was apprehensive about trying out for a club out there as the standard was so high and you only get one crack at the whip. Paddy then stepped into coach me and we haven’t looked back since. He was there when I needed him and within a week of the disappointing performance I was back training hard and refocused.”
Such hard training is only optimal when it is taking the right direction. When it is specific to the end goal. When doing any training for a specific sport or end goal always ask yourself ‘how is this session going to help me get there?’
Paddy Hamilton guided Brendan to this point.
A Guiding Light:
“Before Paddy, I was a triathlete. The difference is now with him I am training as an elite. Paddy is an elite runner and if you want to be the best you need to learn from the best. I really respect him as an athlete and as a coach, so I trust him and listen to him.
“He took over in October 2014, we got a lot of things in place that first year with regards to training changes. Any changes you make have to be gradual because if you make sudden drastic ones you will either get injured or frustrated it’s not working.”
This realistic, steady and consistent approach to training adaptions under Paddy led to gradual improvements for Brendan which culminated in a phenomenal 2016.
Open and honest communication facilitated these changes. Key elements to any high performing coach/athlete relationship.
“It was the first time ever that I had a coach that was only a phone call away. When we started, I was in Spain and he was in Newry. The good thing about social media is that you are only ever a WhatsApp call or Facebook message away. It was like being in the house next to him. I couldn’t fault him in how available he was. That’s something Paddy does very well.”
Now with access to a top coach, Brendan shows he was wise not to rush into trying out with a Spanish club. It is important to take a long-term view to achieve your ultimate goal. In this case for Brendan it was to train with the top Spanish triathletes.
“From a more practical level I was aware that if I had underperformed or even performed just well enough to get in to a club that would be the basis of entering a training group. So, you could be put in a group that doesn’t truly reflect your ability and that would have a long-term impact.”
Make it about More:
Spain offered Brendan other performance enhancing opportunities. He learned from their healthier eating patterns and has incorporated these into his daily routine.
He also benefited greatly from an admiring group of students. Creating accountability to those around you can help you reach your goals. It also creates positive energy around the journey to such goals.
“You can always tell people look up to you when they ask you how you do things with a view to copying you.”
Brendan is aware of the responsibility to try and behave as a role model.
“I expect my students to do their best, so I have to practice what I preach. When I won the Madrid 10km event, the students in my class over there thought it was just great. There were over 10,000 people competing in it.
“I convinced the students they need to buy in to my efforts by bringing in nice fruit for me to eat instead of chocolate. They brought in mango and passion fruit. I also said they must behave so they wouldn’t tire me out for the race and they behaved! I then realised: ‘God, they really want me to do well so I do owe it to them.’”
Let’s move from the classroom to the training arena. The key to performing to your best is to find where to specialise and not spread yourself too thinly. Brendan came to this realisation during his Spanish Triathlon experience.
A Narrowing Focus and Overcoming Performance Anxieties:
“I moved from triathlon into duathlon because my biking and my running were better than my swimming, so it made sense to concentrate on two sports rather than three. It’s very difficult if you move into triathlon at a late age, as I did. It’s very difficult to specialise in 3 sports because it’s just very hard to fit them all in. I was doing my absolute best and still my swimming was only ever good, it wasn’t excellent. Because swimming is the first event in Triathlon I was always behind the leaders coming into the bike and run. It always put pressure on my run. This worked sometimes, but didn’t other times.”
Sick of swimming against the tide, Brendan made the logical decision to move into duathlon. He also moved back home from Spain at this stage. Qualifying for the Duathlon World Championship showed this was a strong judgement call and it meant a trip back to Espagna.
The world championships brought performance anxieties Brendan’s way – something he had not encountered before.
“I was anxious at the world championships as the standard was phenomenal. I was racing alongside Olympic athletes. The first time I’d ever done so. It was a small field of 45-50 athletes and these were the very, very best. They were physically very imposing. Everybody had earned their place and let’s just say you couldn’t afford to slip up.”
His usual pre-event routine also suffered.
“It was my first time dealing with pre-race conferences. Never had I Spanish journalists asking who is this Irish athlete speaking fluent Spanish and training with the Spanish competitors. So, my time was dedicated to these things during a time which I’d normally be training.”
Come race time he did not allow such anxieties to spill over to the event itself. An ability to focus on the present moment and the current task at hand helps us perform. Brendan adapted the following outlooks to focus during events and manage performance anxiety.
“With any race, I just think of it as a job to do. I’m focused. I’m not there to get distracted or to worry. I always tell myself that all my anxiety is wasted energy! I think of myself as a tank of petrol and I want to use that petrol on the race. Any petrol used on worries or distractions is a waste.”
“You want to justify all that training you’ve done, all those early mornings, double training days and hard sessions. This naturally leads to self-imposed pressure. One thing I tell myself on the start line to ease the nerves is at least it’s two and a half hours compared to the 100m where you have 10 seconds.”
The Green Vest:
None of these nerves were enough to quell the sense of pride and excitement of representing Ireland at the Duathlon World Championships.
“When you’re representing your country, you are very aware of it. So, you want to do your very best inside and outside the event itself in how you come across. At the Duathlon World Championships when I got to wear the Irish vest I felt like I had reached the pinnacle. You look at your green vest on the start line and soon realise it is so much more than this…it’s everything!”
Brendan sums up the tactics which came against him in the event.
“Spain and Britain could work together with breaks and surges. I was on my own come the race and had to rely on the goodwill of competitors from other smaller countries. Also, other competitors knew I was a strong runner and so they waited to break me on the bike. Ultimately, they succeeded!”
Just like the solidarity among runners benefited him after the poor English cross-country event, it benefited him again at the world championships.
Camaraderie – A Worthy Investment:
“The Spanish were very supportive at the event. Previous training partners from the Spanish triathlon scene came out and noisily encouraged me onwards.”
Not only were these elite World Championships recognition for the large time investment in the sport, it was also reward for the large funds many of these athletes invest in it. To pursue these sports to the best of your ability requires major financial investment.
“In 2016, I raced as an elite duathlete and I had to fund most of it myself. The sports themselves are expensive, as there are maintenance costs for the bike as well as travel and accommodation expenses for events.”
There are some things money can’t buy though.
“Among the duathletes, the camaraderie, the friendships, the friendly rivalry was like nothing I had ever seen. After the race, everyone met for a bike ride and it was a totally relaxed atmosphere. People were laughing, joking, patting each other on the back and chatting about our nights out.”
So where does the marathon come into the equation? Duathlon appeared to be going just fine.
The Significance of Goal Setting:
“I took the marathon up as something to just challenge myself through the winter months. 2016 was unusual as the Duathlon World Championships were early, in June. After that I had a ‘what now?’ moment. I always want to have a goal or target for 3-4 months so I can have focused and specific training. I decided to do the marathon as it was something I had always wanted to do just from seeing my father and his friends run them. It made sense as it wouldn’t affect my duathlon training too much as it was in the middle of winter.”
This shows the importance of effective goal setting. If you can target a specific event, on a specific date, it can help you ramp up your training efforts towards that. So, no matter what your standard, target an event or training regime that matches the level you’re setting out at. 5km park runs take place every Saturday morning throughout Ireland for all abilities so why not start there – http://www.parkrun.ie/
So back to Brendan and roll on the Frankfurt Marathon!
Time Management and Prioritisation:
Ruthless time management would be key to ensuring Brendan hitting his performance targets for the event. Brendan mentioned the importance of social media during the Spanish experience, but has this caveat about social media use.
“Social media can be a huge thief of your time so beware of this and other time wasters. You must prioritise to achieve your goals. Cut down on wasted time. I know a lot of people spend a lot of time perusing through Facebook and I don’t do that. I use it purely to communicate. Nothing else!”
It also helps if you can make your work timetable conducive to hitting your athletic performance targets.
“I’m a primary school teacher so my working hours tend to follow the same routine. I can be up at 06.00, in the pool for a session at 07.00 and still be in work for 08.15. I’ve trained at 05.00 in the morning before, so 07.00 is not so early. Then, after work I can be home at 16.30 or 17.00, grab a quick nap then train. It is tiring, sometimes it feels like having two full time jobs.
“My marathon training began with big strides in July and August. This is when I was on my holidays from school. This was a big help as marathon training was a completely different animal to anything I’ve done before.”
Well prepared in terms of training, it was time to travel to Germany for the big event. Any road to success is not without ‘dislocated expectations’. Top performance coach, Dave Alred uses this term to describe when events do not go according to plan.
It’s how you deal with such unforeseen obstacles that defines you.
Rolling with the Punches and Finding your Stride:
“I’m usually very meticulous with my packing and I forgot my socks. The right socks are hugely important. I had to buy a pair of socks at the expo and I saw a stand selling quality socks with the colours of different nationalities on them. The store manager explained there were no Irish coloured ones and that if I wore the German ones it would be free. I tried them on and they were comfortable. Then I thought, ‘when in Germany, do as the German’s do!’”
Could these turn out to be a lucky pair of socks or were they a bad omen?
“At the start, I was worried that I couldn’t find my stride. I thought ‘My God, I have 40km to go and I can’t even get my rhythm’. What I didn’t realise was that it was a comfortable pace to start off at.
“The congestion at the start was a blessing in disguise. It slowed me and calmed me. It thinned out and I was feeling very comfortable.
“You know if the first 5km or 10km is comfortable it could be a special performance.”
Running at your own pace is key in any race and having a game plan is important to achieve this. If unprepared you could find yourself in a race for the lead early on only to get burnt out and fall completely back the field. Brendan’s blessing in disguise ensured this didn’t happen. So how did he keep motivated throughout such a demanding race?
“As I passed the 5km time mats I had images of my friends and family roaring me on in front of their screens. I could almost hear their voices, it was very strange. Those thoughts spurred me on!”
This shows positive visualisation proving to be good motivation for optimal performance. This was not the sole performance hack that he used on the day.
“Earlier that day, walking towards the race line I fell in with a group from Galway and we got chatting. I explained I had never done a marathon before so I asked one of the women about the 20 mile barrier. She said, “It will hit you, you will feel a bit disillusioned, a bit disorientated. All I’ll tell you is for every mile after that think of nice food or nice drink you are going to have after the race, and I did!”
This would have helped Brendan detach himself slightly from the muscular fatigue being suffered at that stage of the race.
The Future is Bright:
Performance points from the day would bode well to growth potential for Brendan in the marathon event.
“I ran a negative split which is where you run the second half quicker than the first half. It’s a good sign as it shows you have more in the tank, you ran it sensibly.”
The powerful second half running helped land Brendan an incredible time. The excitement was palpable in the race aftermath to see if he had done enough to set the Northern Irish 2016 record.
“In the couple of hours following the race I didn’t know whether I’d run the top Northern Irish time.
“Frankfurt was run the same day as the Dublin Marathon. 2 hours 30 minutes is a brilliant time but I knew some people who maybe could run it faster and wasn’t sure whether they had. Or if they were even running in Dublin.
“Then when that was wrapped up and it came out that I was number one, it was a huge achievement of which I was very proud. It was the result of a lot of hard work from my coach and I as well as everyone else around me.”
The time had exceeded Brendan’s wildest expectations.
“I genuinely would have been happy with 2 hours 45 minutes as I said in the Strabane Chronicle article before the event (http://strabanechronicle.com/2016/10/murphy-represent-ireland-germany/). The 2 hours 30 minutes surprised a lot of people including me and my coach. You mentioned that this was a mile average of 5 minutes 45 seconds – we weren’t doing that during training.”
From that point on would he be more marathon or duathlon focussed?
“Obviously with such a great time it changed my perspective. If you were to look at my marathon time compared to my duathlon results, you would say that my marathon time is probably better. There’s more potential there as well.
“The way I look at it is that I came seventh in my first duathlon event in Omagh, County Tyrone. My first marathon and I’m the fastest in Northern Ireland so there is a huge difference there!
“My focus is now to give the marathon at least one year and see where it leads to.”
Here’s the Marathon time rankings from Northern Ireland in 2016 showing Brendan 7 minutes clear of his closest challenger:
Read All About it:
Next week we release Brendan’s marathon performance tips for all levels of participant. When he incorporated these tips, we see what happened. Let’s just say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Not that he was allowed too much pudding!
This upcoming article is packed full of nutrition, recovery and training advice for ensuring all goes right come marathon day. It also includes many handy pointers to help you perform during the event itself.
Have your pen and notepad at the ready, steady, go!