WITH one final glance at his watch Tommy Hughes’s familiar hunched gait slows to a stop. The crowds packed behind railings on either side of the Mall are in fine voice as they cheer the last strides of those participating in this year’s London marathon.
As the finish line nears, some shout his name. People he doesn’t know and has never met, yet they know him.
“Go on Tommy, you’re nearly there”
“You’re doing brilliant Tommy, keep going”
Their words of support barely register, though not because of tiredness in the legs or focus on finishing the job at hand. Instead, the 61-year-old’s mind is already drifting miles back, to the call of nature that cost him what he came for.
“I had to pit-stop halfway round – jump the ditch as they say.
“I never had that before. You couldn’t get to the toilets at the start because there was that many people there. And then you were fighting your way through slower runners for probably the first mile, trying to make up time.
“Eventually I saw this pile of trees and started climbing over the fence, but I couldn’t get over. This boy saw me struggling and lifted it up so I could get through…”
He stopped his watch then restarted once back among the throng. When the course was completed it read 2:29:33, but the official clock said 2:30:46.
There wasn’t another man over 60 within 20 minutes of his time. To most normal people, regardless of age, the idea of clearing 26.2 miles in a fraction over two-and-a-half hours is unthinkable.
But Tommy Hughes is not normal.
Having run sub-2:30 marathons in each of the past four decades, he is determined to stretch that into a fifth. Weeks on from London, it still gnaws that this target has thus far proved elusive.
To add to his frustration, the parent and child world marathon record – which Tommy and youngest son Eoin smashed in Frankfurt two years ago – was there for the taking too.
The pursuit of such minor margins remains both a blessing and a curse, the carrot at the end of the stick leaving him hungry for more and making it that bit easier to heed the alarm for 5am runs through the winter months. Day by day, it helps keep his demons in check too.
Because for all the preternatural ability to absorb and embrace the road’s grind, the physiological gifts that helped him to multiple marathon victories and a place at the 1992 Olympic Games, the most remarkable aspect of Tommy Hughes’s story is that he is still here to tell it.
A battle with alcoholism has lurked in the shadows of his success at different stages, to the point that when he wasn’t training flat out, he was drinking flat out. There was no middle ground.
Until his last drink in 2018, that was the pattern of life across decades as the most incompatible of addictions took turns at the wheel – one steering him towards clarity and contentment, the other down a path that cleared all before it.
“It’s like a self-destruct button,” he says with a rueful smile, “I don’t know why. I don’t seem to know any other way… it’s just my nature.
“All or nothing.”
IT was by complete accident that Tommy Hughes discovered he was born with something special. Like most young men growing up in south Derry then, the only time you ran any kind of distance was to get fit for when football started.
The Gulladuff man was put off though when, having been involved throughout Lavey’s run to the 1975 Derry minor championship final, he didn’t feature in the decider against Kilrea.
Married life brought him up the road to Maghera at 21, where his football career was resurrected with Watty Graham’s – but not for long.
“I was piling on the weight so I joined Glen. Nobody was telling me when training was, so I joined the committee just to find out.
“I was on the reserves but, being competitive, I wanted to get on the senior team, so I started going running to try and get that extra bit of weight off, get myself into decent shape.
“I soon realised I was much better at the running than the Gaelic…”
With long legs, despite his 5’8 frame, a low knee lift and a cardiovascular system the equivalent of a Honda engine, it soon became clear that Hughes was built to last.
His first crack at the Belfast marathon, in 1983, saw him cross the line in just over three hours having struggled after the 20 mile point. Five years later he was first past the post in 2:19:00.
For all the carnival atmosphere and Bank Holiday bonhomie that surrounds the showpiece events, it was the daily slog which really drew him in. Once he could see improvement, he learned to love the hard yards and the isolation of the roads around the Sperrins.
The routine, the discipline, the focus, it was all or nothing – and he was all in.
Yet Tommy Hughes’s head was never filled with dreams of glory on a global scale.
He watched in awe when John Treacy finished second in the men’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, never for a second imagining he could grace such a stage.
By the time the Barcelona Games came around eight years later, however, the pair were team-mates – a time of 2:13:59 at the Marrakesh marathon enough to seal Hughes’s spot on the Irish team.
Unfortunately, though, injury struck at precisely the wrong time.
“After Marrakesh in January that year, I was in the best shape of my life. That time was my PB and still is… I never got near it again.
“But then in February I got a stress fracture in my foot, to the point I couldn’t even put it on the ground. The doctor said I had no chance of being ready for the Olympics in August. The way I saw it, I had to be ready.
“I got a turbo-trainer on the bike, then I went with the Irish team to a warm weather training camp in Italy – Catherina McKiernan was training on the grass all the time so I stuck with her. It was on the bus to the airport it was confirmed I had been selected for Barcelona… I’ll never forget that moment.
“I took the family to New Jersey that summer because I knew it was really hot and I’d be able to acclimatise there. And I recovered in time, just about.”
Yet as the sun beat down on the start line, Hughes knew the mission to Marrakesh would not be repeated. This time something else was driving him on.
The men’s marathon was the last event in Barcelona and, because of the closing ceremony taking place that Sunday night, anyone with a finishing time longer than 2:45 was redirected to a finishing point outside of Estadi Olympic.
“There was no way I was going to let that happen,” he smiles, “that was my motivation.
“Coming into the stadium, seeing yourself up on the screen with the Irish kit on, it was unbelievable.
“I gave it my best shot, I ran it in 2.32 or something [2:32:55], ended up finishing 72nd. If I’d been in my best shape, who knows… but, having been told I wouldn’t even be there, how could I be disappointed?”
Treacy was 35 in Barcelona, Hughes would have been 36 by the time Atlanta came around in 1996. By then, though, running had been parked. Put away. Been there, done that.
An electrician by trade, earning a living was now the priority. And while he returned to win the 1998 Belfast marathon – 10 years on from his maiden victory – it was only ever stop-start, the drive to sustain that competitive edge no longer there.
“I thought that was it – that’ll do me. I got further than I ever thought I’d get, then I left the running altogether.
“When I was working away in England I was eating kebabs, smoking, drinking beer… I’ve been out for five or six years at times, periods where I wouldn’t be interested in running, wouldn’t look near results or anything like that.
“I always found a way back eventually, but I thought I could do without it.”
How wrong he was.