Former Olympian marathoner Peter Maher talks about his chequered athletics career and rediscovering his passion for distance running as he approaches 50
Welcome on board for a tour of Peter Maher’s roller- coaster life in athletics. You will encounter tales of youthful promise, excess, triumph, rotten luck, the blues and redemption. There are some turbulent patches along the way, but Maher’s journey is never less than engaging and you could even emerge a little more enlightened about your own life and running aspirations.
Before you fasten your belt, you may need some background detail. A potted summary of Maher’s sporting career reads as follows: schoolboys’ athletics prodigy becomes disillusioned because of injury and not making the national team; he packs in running and takes to drinking, smoking and eating prodigious amounts of junk food as he embraces the party lifestyle in Cork in the early 1980s. The weight piles on, despite his 6’ 5” frame, but the sight of his one-time rivals thriving on the international athletics stage sees him return to running; he recovers his form rapidly and becomes a national road racing champion.
He emigrates to Canada and discovers his true calling is marathon running; he pares himself down to 11 stone and becomes a serial winner and contender in big city marathons in North America. Now a fulltime athlete, he runs a world record for the 25K and is selected to run the marathon for Canada at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, but is dogged by illness and injury in the run-up to both Seoul and Barcelona.
After Barcelona he is told he may never run again, but confounds the doctors and sets his Maher stripped his 6’ 5” frame down to just over 11 stone during his competitive peak in the 1980s and 1990s sights on running the marathon for Ireland at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He is overlooked for selection and loses his appetite for competition, but continues to grind out the races before he gives up running altogether after winning the Finglas Marathon in 2000.
After the Goldrush
Fast forward to the present and you meet a born-again athlete relishing his third running life. The towering frame has once again been stripped of fat and these days Maher is a great believer in and a convincing evangelist for the ancient Greek concept of ‘arête’, which in essence is about pursuing harmony of mind, body and spirit. He even has the word arête tattooed on his right arm, yet by this time last year he had strayed far from the lofty arête ideal.
He weighed over 17 stone after years overindulging in the wrong kind of food and drinking plenty of pints at the weekend. He had, bar what he describes as a couple of ‘feebleattempts’,abandonedrunningforclose on a decade. As he approached 50, the man who had clocked two 2:11 marathons in London and New York in 1991 had an almost fatalistic resignation about the onset of middle age spread and inactivity. It’s time to let him take up the story himself. “After the disappointment of not being selected for Atlanta I suffered about 10 years of depression. For a few years I funneled all my efforts into robotic running – there was no passion involved, and my running was memory based. There was no zest, no exuberance, no joy and after I won the Finglas Marathon in 2000 in 2:24 I stopped altogether.
“I had started to study physical therapy while I was in Canada and when I returned to Ireland in 1999 I also qualified myself in sports psychology and nutrition. Instead of running, I channelled all my efforts into the business. I developed a great business with a great clientele, a state of the art sports therapy centre and I was very happy with the gait analysis centre I had started in Cork, but there was something missing and that something was running.
“I had psychologically twisted things around and justified not running on the basis that I had been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. I bought into that way of thinking hook, line and sinker. The new t-shirt reads: been there, done that and shit loads more to do. “Going back to last year, my weight had ballooned up to 17 stone,” continues Maher. “It came on slowly over the years, and I was happily moving towards middle age spread and my attitude was ‘so is everybody else, who cares, let’s have a good time.’ I had grabbed the Celtic Tiger by the tail and was having a good old time, working hard Monday to Friday and letting rip at the weekend. But all the time I knew that something was missing and last April it all came to a head. My wife was sick with a serious viral condition, the Celtic Tiger was ending and something just fired off within me.
“I needed her to get well and my better instincts took over and I began to jog and run again. I had a sense of purpose in that I was helping to look after her by looking after myself. I began to eat better, drank less and then I didn’t drink at all. “My running blossomed in a different way this time. It almost went full circle back to 1983 when I had resumed running for the first time,” he says. “Progress was actually very quick,” he says. “The weight came off – I didn’t starve or restrict myself, but I was diligent and I avoided what I knew was bad for me. I started to open up all the old training diaries and journals and I could feel something happening at a better level. The competitive instinct didn’t start to come into the equation until October, but now it’s grabbed me by the neck again. I feel as if I don’t have a choice in the matter because running has been my salvation.”
Maher is reluctant to talk about specific targets or races, but he is focused on running marathons again and if his second coming mirrors the first, his racing contemporaries better watch out.
Comes A Time
The story of Maher’s first fall and rise was related on the pages of this magazine 25 years ago and is well worth revisiting. Born in Ottawa in Canada, the family had moved back to Ireland when he was a child and he grew up in Sneem, Co Kerry. He excelled in athletics at St Brendan’s in Killarney and, under the guidance of Brother John Dooley, became a national schoolboys champion on the track and in cross country.
His progress, though, was hampered by an Achilles tendon injury and he failed to make the junior team for the seminal 1979 World Championships in Limerick. He was first reserve, but that was never going to satisfy Maher and he turned his back on athletics.
“I felt hard done by,” he says. “All my peers had been enjoying the party scene and when I stopped running I went at it full tilt, at 100pmh. One pint became 10 became 15. I drowned myself in Guinness and alcohol in general and forgot about running. I was smoking 60 a day and eating vast amounts of junk food. I was working in a pirate radio station in Cork, enjoying the nightlife and I suppose you could say I became a hail fellow well met hedonist.
“I put all of this down to energy. I am the sort of person that if I am not in a disciplined position my energy can take me in a negative direction. Now when I look back on those days when I was the bon vivant enjoying the rock in roll lifestyle I see that it was a negative drive, there was nothing satisfying in it. I was always craving more of this, this and this.” The turning point came one night in 1983 when he was in the pub and saw highlights of Marcus O’Sullivan winning a big race in the States. He remarked to his boozing buddies that he used to run against and beat O’Sullivan back in the days. The mocking disbelief on their faces was enough to cause a dark night of the soul that concluded with Maher’s decision to return to running. “The early stages were very difficult for me back in 83 and 84,” he says. “I basically ran with people who were far fitter than me and they beat the crap out of me. Bit by bit, though, I could see myself clawing back as the weight was shed and as the fitness started to return the self belief started to grow again.” By 1985, the erstwhile bloated hedonist was winning top class road races and clocking 65:20 for the Half Marathon. Employment prospects, though, were sparse in Ireland in the mid 1990s and Maher decided to try his luck in Canada. “Everybody’s bitching and moaning about how bad the economy is now, but it’s nothing compared to back then, It was brutal in the 1980s, it was very bleak, there was nothing going on here. My father had always told me to go to Canada, that it was a land of opportunity, so I decided why not try it out. I had no interest in England, I wanted to try something exotic so I got the train to Dublin,the boat train to London and waited three or four days In Heathrow for a cheap flight to Canada.
“I arrived in Toronto in the middle of August wearing an Aran jumper and carrying about 15 cases. It was 40 degrees outside, but I fell in love with the city immediately. I was anonymous and it gave it me a fresh canvass to work on. “Joining Toronto Olympics was a real eye opener. I found myself exposed to different ideas and I was fortunate to find a coach of real genius in Paul Poce. I was young, I was eager and I was hungry. “I would have been one of the whipping boys initially, a domestigue but I began to move through the groove and got to the Barbados Marathon 1986 and won it and all of a sudden I was elevated to a new level,” says Maher. “It was only a 2:24 performance, but it was worth a lot more because the race was run in furnace conditions – 90° heat and 90% humidity. When I got back to Toronto, Poce grabbed me by the arm and said ‘where are you going, what do you want to do?’ I said I would love to run the Olympics and he said: ‘Well 2:24 and 2:12 is night and day, there’s a huge distance you have to go here.’ He laid out the road map for me. I didn’t think it would come as quick, but five months later with a very simple, orchestrated approach – nothing crazy – I ran 2:12 to win the Ottawa Marathon, it was something else to win a marathon in the town where I was born.”
Maher attributes his great leap forward to the running culture he was exposed to in Canada. “I went from being a tall guy who was 12 stone to being a tall guy who was 11 stone. That one stone off allowed me to do sessions I wouldn’t have dreamt of before. I was probably doing the work back home when I was 12 stone, but the VO2 max was being curtailed by the weight. In Canada, I got my body fat down to 3% and I learned a big lesson about alcohol and running,” he says. “At home I would still have had my few pints after a session thinking it wasn’t doing me any harm but the Canadians just didn’t do that. Knowing what I know now about the science of running, even in small amounts the alcohol actually burns the mitochondria in the cells of the muscles you are trying to build during a session.”
In 1988 Maher was selected to run the marathon for Canada at the Seoul Olympics and he was considered a potential dark horse for a medal. He was in the shape of his life after 60 days training at altitude in Boulder, Colorada when he returned to Toronto for a round of public engagements prior to departing for Seoul. Somewhere along the way he contacted mono-nucleosis – glandular fever. “I didn’t know I had it until two days after coming home from Seoul. I ran 2:24. I knew that there was something crazy going on in the body, but I was afraid if I said something I would lose my place. Knowing what I know now I shouldn’t even have contemplated competing,” he says. Maher was forced to take several months off from running after Seoul, but bounced back to win the 1989 Montreal Marathon and he set a Canadian Half Marathon record of 1:02:30 in 1990. The following year he set a world record of 1:14:28 for the 25K, In Indianapolis. Three weeks later, he finished fourth in the New York Marathon, running 2:11:55. Earlier that year he had run 2:11: 46 when finishing eighth in the London Marathon. Looking back, he believes that such was his form he could have won the New York Marathon if he hadn’t burned himself out running the 25K in Indianapolis.
It was still looking good heading into another Olympic year, but five weeks before Barcelona he fell in a race in Buffalo, New York and sustained bursitis and bruising to the right hip. “Ger Hartmann worked on me extensively for five weeks in the hope that it would come right. The annoying thing is that I was in such great shape, but the whole thing went down the tube. I dropped out after five miles.”
He was told he might never run again, but spent months going through rehab, an experience that shaped his decision to become a sports therapist himself.
“The spark seemed to be coming back after rehab,” he says. “I finished 10th at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart and in 1994 I ran 2:13 in the Boston Marathon. I was building up again for the Olympics in Atlanta and I moved to Florida specifically to condition myself for a race in very hot conditions. I knew that if I was in 2: 12, 2:13 shape in those conditions I had a shot. I was working really, really well, but lo and behold it didn’t happen. I wanted to run for Ireland but it wasn’t to be. I prefer not to harp on about it, the politics that were involved.”
The facts are: he had been released by the Canadian Olympic body, but a selection committee of the BLE – the then governing body in Ireland – voted not to send him to Atlanta even though he was the only Irish athlete with the marathon qualification time.
Long May You Run
It’s February 2010 and Peter Maher exudes an energy a man half his age would envy. It’s an energy tempered by experience, but his
conversation is still a torrent of ideas and revelations about himself and running. “I’m running again, I’m competitive again for much different reasons,” he says. “I want to prove things to myself. Running can be a journey of self-knowledge as much as it is a physical experience. I like to see running as an art form – each and every day I do it I learn more about myself. “I would like to give a trumpeting sound to other people about the benefits of running. Get out there and run and the world will actually start to open up to you – running is such a primal instinct, the hunter-gatherer in you will become aware of new possibilities.
“I want to spread the message that there is so much you can still do even if you are 50, even if you are in the doldrums, even if you are being eaten up by depression, even if you are being eaten up by the economic climate, there is still so much you can do. Get out there and run and see what you can hunt and gather.
Born: May 30, 1960, Ottawa, Canada
Height: 6’ 5” Racing weight: 11st 10lb
Main Honours: Ran marathon for Canada at Seoul Olympics 1988 and Barcelona Olympics 1992; Four World Championships: Rome 1987, Tokyo 1991, Stuttgart 1993, Gothenburg 1995; Bronze medal at Goodwill Games Seattle 1990; Canadian 10,000m track champion 1987; Irish 10-mile road champion 1985; 19 marathon victories over 12 years, world record 25km 1991
PBs: 400m (50.4), 800m (1.52.6), 1,500m (3.54), 3,000m (8.05), 5,000m (13.45), 10,000m (29.01), 5 miles road (22:57), 10 miles (47:05), half marathon (62:13), 25 km (1:14:28), 30km
Changes to Peter’s Diet
April, 2009 – weighed: 17st 6lb
February, 2010 – weighs: 11st 10lb
Used to eat: Fry-ups at weekends; no breakfast during the week, survived on a massive caffeine load until a mid-afternoon sugar binge on chocolate etc; steak dinner every night washed down with a bottle of red wine; consumed little or no fruit or veg, and drank at weekends.
Now eats: Complex carbs (rice, pasta, spuds); large amounts of fruit and veg; porridge; home-made vegetable soups; main source of protein is fish – monk fish, tuna, salmon, trout accompanied by salad; also enjoys rice or linguine with olive oil or tomato ragu sauce; doesn’t drink alcohol; drinks at least two litres of water daily.
Extracts from Peter’s training log… 2009
TUE, APR 28: 20 min jog walk on grass. More or less jogging two mins, walking one
WED, APR 29: 30 min jog/walk on Carrigaline old railway line
THU, APR 30: 20 min jog on grass
FRI, MAY 1: Rest
SAT, MAY 2: 30 min jog/walk on railway line feeling better
SUN, MAY 3: 45 min cycle on stationary bike, great sweat up, followed by 20 min de-tox sauna
MON, MAY 4: 30 min jog a little stiff today but got going towards the end of session
A week’s holiday in June in Florida. Morning runs only – average temp 90° with 90% humidity!
MON, JUN 22: 7:30am, 6 miles slow on Isla Del sol Golf Course, 7:45 mile pace
TUE, JUN 23: 7am, 6 miles at 7:30 pace, better for starting that little bit earlier
WED, JUN 24: 7am, 4 mile recovery run, no time
THU, JUN 25: 3 laps of Isla golf course (9 miles), very tough, sweated up a storm, 78 mins
FRI, JUN 26: 3 mile jog and stretch
SAT, JUN 27: 6 miles slow, no time
SUN, JUN 27: Group run with some old friends, 90 mins starting at 6:30 am. Drank 6 pints of water during this run Great week of training, eating healthy, no booze and a ‘joix de vie’… renewed what holidays are supposed to be… mine however had over the past ten years been a complete haze by comparison… very encouraged.
MON, FEB 1: AM 50 min easy on grass in Carrigaline. PM 30 min, relaxed road
TUE, FEB 2: AM 30 min warm up, 35 min fartlek in Phoenix Park, 25 min cool down
WED, FEB 3: AM 7 miles on grass 42 min, PM 30 kin jog
THU, FEB 4: 7:45am 30 min slow run with Breda, 1pm 13 mile run in lashing rain on road, very hilly session including Kerry Pike!
FRI, FEB 5: 6.30am before work 30 min slow jog and stretch. PM 30 min jog on grass
SAT, FEB 6: 8am with Tony Lilley and Paul Dinan on Kerry Pike Loop (9 miles odd), good surges on hills up and down. Otherwise relaxed run. No PM run long hot tub and stretch… Plenty of hydration, got ready for Sunday’s LSD of 20 miles… bring it on baby!
SUN, FEB 7: It’s super to be a 20-miler, to be putting these miles back into the body is something I felt was gone for good. More importantly the vigour I feel before, during and after running is exceptional. Training starting to go really well. Must focus on flexibility and recovery for next two days.