iTAB Star, Nov 2022
Gareth Armstrong from Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“It was perfect for me, it’s was a must have. Every marathon or half marathon medal, if there’s an iTAB available it’s one of the first things that I go for, it makes it a piece of history.”
Inspired by early memories watching his dad and Uncle finish Belfast City Half Marathon and triggered by his meningitis recovery, running ambassador and official pacer, Gareth Armstrong, now has the sixth and final Abbott World Marathon Major in his sights.
‘It was perfect for me, it’s was a must have. Every marathon or half marathon medal, if there’s an iTAB available it’s one of the first things that I go for, it makes it a piece of history.’
Gareth, on why the iTAB is important to him.
How did you get into running?
Through recovering from meningitis. It took me three years to recover fully from having that illness. A lot of people tried to talk me out of running a marathon and they said I should build up the smaller running events, but I wouldn’t listen to anybody, and I ignored all the advice. I jump straight in and registered for the Belfast City Marathon in 2016 as my comeback to myself, and to my friends and family, just to prove that they I had fully recovered or recovered as much as I could from having that illness.
What has been your biggest running achievement?
My first marathon was probably my biggest achievement, that was back in 2016. Coming back from having a serious illness, which was meningitis, I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to recover from that illness. So, to cross the finish line of the Belfast City marathon in 2016 will always be to me, my biggest running accomplishment.
And you’re close to completing another big achievement?
I was on course to complete the Abbott World Marathon Majors at the Boston Marathon in 2020. And you can see behind me some of those most important medals in my collection from London 2017, Berlin 2018, Chicago 2018, Tokyo 2019, and New York 2019. The bittersweet thing is that I have six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors in my collection, but it’s bittersweet because there’s no six-star finishers marathon medal in my collection, the Boston Marathon in 2020 was run virtually because of the pandemic. So, hopefully in 2023 I’ll be fortunate enough to travel over to Boston and complete the sixth race in the Abbott World Marathon Major series and join that very small list of people from the United Kingdom and Ireland who can quite proudly to call themselves six-star finishers.
So, why do you run?
For my own wellbeing. If you’re having a bad day – and it doesn’t mean you’re having a bad day at work, you can have a bad day when things slightly annoy you – the only way to shake them off, I find, is to get your running kit on, no matter what the weather is. When you come back, you’re completely revitalised. You can face the rest of the day and take away all that stress from work life or family life and it refreshes you and recharges your batteries. That’s what I find, it’s a big help for my daily life.
What charities do you run for?
The Meningitis Research Foundation, and a local cancer charity in Northern Ireland there called Cancer Focus NIU, who do great work. I also do a lot of organisational work for the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland, and organise a my annual 5k Run to Remember event which is over here in Northern Ireland.
What’s it like putting on a running event?
I think back to the first year I organised the event. It was solely down to me on my own to do all the applications to get local council government approval, and local police approval to hold a 5k running event on public roads. And really the first year that I took it all on myself I didn’t realise the amount of work involved for one person. And on the day, I was lucky enough to have about five friends who volunteered to marshal the event on the day of the event from 2017 right up to this year, 2022. It’s an Athletics Northern Ireland registered event, the distance is measured, there’s timing chips for the start and finish. It’s all run above board, and everybody gets a nice Poppy Run to Remember finishers medal. It’s grown from maybe 50 runners now to over 250 runners, and it continues to grow year on year. With that you then need to reach out to your wider running circle and ask for people to volunteer, and that is the big thing. I think within the running community anywhere in the world, people don’t recognise the efforts of volunteers and the time they give up to help put on a running event. Without volunteers, running events simply wouldn’t run, they wouldn’t be cost effective enough to host and to manage.
You also run events as an official pacer, what’s that like?
For a pacer you have to find that time group which you’re comfortable with, you have to be mentally prepared in your head. You have to know, quite confidently, that you can run it maybe 30 minutes faster for a half marathon or a full marathon, for the pace you’re setting because others are relying on you. You can’t be struggling or be seen to be struggling.
Nine times out of ten I do all my marathon training alone by myself, on quiet country roads and in the countryside. There’s no passing traffic, there’s nobody about, just peace and silence. To then run in a group in a city marathon in a pacing group, and leading that pacing group, it’s quite an overwhelming feeling, in a very good way, because you can get the sense of energy from the people around you. They’re all helping each other, giving words of encouragement, checking to see if people okay, and unfortunately sometimes in marathons things do go wrong, and quite badly go wrong very quickly. So, you just feel that sense of responsibility to the runners around you to make sure they’re okay, and they’re not trying to run at a pace that they’re not comfortable with or their body is not comfortable with. The last thing you want is for someone to get injured or drop out of the race? So, the responsibility is there, but it’s a very enjoyable responsibility.
Run the hills or walk the hills?
I walk them. I’m a big promoter of ‘walk running’ and that’s something that I can only do when I’m running an event for me personally. When you’re pacing an event, I can’t walk run because it’s about having that consistent time over the miles. But if I am running a full marathon distance for myself, I’ll walk hills and maybe even walk run some of the events. There’s a lot less physical stress on your body doing that. It’s frowned upon by some runners, but I’m definitely a big promoter of it.
‘For my own wellbeing. If you’re having a bad day, the only way to shake it off is to get your running kit on. It takes away all that stress from your work life or family life, refreshes you, and recharges your batteries.’
Gareth, on why he runs.
What’s your message for first-time runners intimidated by the pace of other runners, and are struggling to get out there?
I constantly remind people on social media, do not compare yourself to other runners. It’s the age-old thing – Instagram versus Reality. Your expectations for yourself have got to be realistic. You should never compare yourself to the other runners. It doesn’t matter whether it’s taking you two hours, whether you’re the world record holder like Kipchoge, or somebody who finished the marathon finish line at eight hours. Most marathons are official events, and will always have a six-hour cut-off, and you should be underneath that. But I think some of the bigger events are now recognising slower runners, London Marathons has pacers out to seven or eight hours now. As they say, it’s about the finishing line not the finishing time.
When you’re running, what motivates you when the going gets tough?
Personally, I have to set myself goals in the future. Having a marathon event plotted in your diary for the upcoming year is a big motivational tool for me to get going. Knowing that going into 2023 I’ve got those two big marathons quite close together – Boston and then the Belfast City Marathon two weeks later. That gives me the motivation, that I know I have to work to achieve that goal. You have to earn it. It’s like renting something. The rent is due every day of the week. If you don’t pay the rent on your running, then when you come to race day, you’re going to end up embarrassing yourself in front of everybody if you haven’t put the work in beforehand. Planning and preparation is the key to success for anything in life. Whether it’s marathon running, or work or family, you’ve got to put the work in beforehand. Also, inspiring others motivates me.
I know when I’m out running that I’m inspiring other people. Even people in my local community, they say to me they’ve seen me out running and it’s inspired them to do a couch to 5k or their local Parkrun. So, that gives me a great sense of achievement that you’ve inspired somebody else to take up running who has never put on a pair of running shoes in their life.
How would you describe the feeling of crossing the finish line?
It’s absolutely amazing, there’s no other feeling like it, and especially if your family and friends are there at the finishing line to celebrate with you. I’ve been quite fortunate to have a small group of friends and family at Chicago and Berlin and London that are waiting on me at the finish line. You can see the look in their face, they’re proud of you and they’re proud of what you’ve achieved.
How important is the medal?
The medal itself, I think is a big thing for any runner. It’s a marker of achievement, and something that you’re going to have for the rest of your life. One of the most important medals in my collection is my dad’s 1985 Belfast City Half Marathon medal. I remember being a small child and watching on the pavement, seeing my dad and my uncle Tom running the Belfast City Half marathon. That has a massive positive impact on your life as a small child because you want to then replicate what you’ve seen your dad and your uncle achieve through marathon running at very small age and that inspires you, and I hope that I can inspire younger members of my family to then go on and achieve things in life or take part in running events in the future.
Earliest running memory?
I found a piece of home video footage recently. My grandad, he was always a great man for recording, he was one of the first people I knew to have a home video camcorder back in the early 80s, and I was lucky enough to find all his old video recording tapes recently and it was made me taking part in a 5k running event in Belfast with my dad, sometime in the mid 1980s. That piece of video footage is a unique piece of family history, and also a piece of running history. It’s a great thing to look back on, having that old video recording.
Future running goals?
The Abbott World Marathon Majors six-star finish in Boston 2023, that’s the big thing. And I think the future plans for the World Marathon Majors are for two more to be added in South Africa and Australia so it might become an eight-star finish, so that’s something I might look at in the future. One of my ultimate goals is to run the North Pole Marathon at the geographic North Pole, the extreme weather conditions appeal to me. You’re running in the snow with temperatures of minus 30 minus 40 degrees. To get a place at the North Pole Marathon in the next few years with those extreme weather conditions would be the ultimate achievement in life for me, as a marathon runner and just even as a person in general. I think that would be pretty hard to top.
Why did you get an iTAB?
During my childhood my grandad, Tom black, he is complete stickler, he gets a sharpie pen and records the date and time of everything and I mean everything, so that’s old family photographs and objects that he bought on holiday, and that’s something I’ve inherited from him. And I still do the same, I get a sharpie pen and I write the date and the time of day on it. So, my first marathon was 2016, that was the first time I became aware of it iTAB, it was perfect for me, it’s a must have. Every marathon or half marathon medal, if there’s an iTAB available it’s one of the first things that I go for, it makes it a piece of history. If it’s not available, then the sharpie pen has to come out, and I have to physically write it on the back of the finishers medal, it just makes it unique and personal to you.
Thanks Gareth, you’re a star!
Gareth runs for:
If you want to follow in Gareth’s footsteps, here are some of the events he has completed: