MUCH has changed for Paul Pollock since he competed in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics and he is hoping that a relatively clean bill of health can propel him to a career-best finish in Sunday’s race in Sapporo.
The Annadale Strider was the leading Irish runner at the marathon in Rio, but he has enjoyed an altogether more routine preparation for Sunday’s marathon.
Back in 2016, Pollock’s selection as part of the three-man Irish team was overshadowed somewhat with Sergiu Ciobanu appealing his omission from the team and bringing a case to the Court of Arbitration (CAS).
The Moldovan-born runner and his coach, the late Jerry Kiernan, felt Ciobanu should have been selected ahead of the Holywood native as he’d ran a faster qualifying time in Berlin in 2015.
Their appeal failed and Pollock more than justified his place on Team Ireland by finishing a respectable 32nd in 2:16:24 ahead of teammates Kevin Seaward and Mick Clohisey.
Pollock insists he’ll have a different approach to his weekend’s race, which will be staged in the cooler climate of Sapporo, a city on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
“I went to Rio with a very different mindset,” said Pollock.
“I definitely wasn’t any near as fit as I am now.
“Going into the race, I was just hoping to finish as the first Irish runner, rather than actually performing to my best.
“This time around, I’m more experienced and the build-up to this has been very different to Rio.
“When you are fit and healthy and confident, you become a dangerous runner and can over-perform and really succeed beyond your potential.
“Putting a position or time on things sometimes isn’t a good idea because a lot can happen in marathon races, but I have to believe that I can perform very well and a top-10 finish would have to be one of my goals.”
In 2019, Paul’s partner Sophie gave birth to their son Theo and the family relocated to Belfast earlier this year.
He spent last year working in Harrogate Hospital in Yorkshire, but has put his medical career on hold as he prepares for another Olympic Games.
Pollock hailed the running facilities of Belfast as “fantastic” although he now has to juggle the demands of parenthood with his training.
“It is completely live-changing. It all comes down to time-management and great support from my partner Sophie and my family and friends,” said Pollock.
“It is a balancing act to do everything, but Theo comes first now and everything else is in second-place. That can sometimes clash with the running and training, but that’s the way life is. We’ve fantastic running facilities in Belfast and I know everywhere from growing up here so it just made sense to come back.
“Training has been going well. I’ve had a few wee niggles over the past five or six months, but I’ve been able to train away. To be honest, anytime I’ve been training, my body has never been 100 per cent.
“It is the big injuries you need to worry about and, thankfully, this time around I haven’t had any of those.
“I am in a good place and I’m probably fitter than I have been in the build-up to any other marathon which is a nice confidence boost. It is just about making it to that start line in one piece really. It will be interesting to see how I get on in the race itself.”
He added: “This time around, we’ve taking a different approach – I’m doing very low miles. I’d say 60-70 miles per weeks is the maximum. I’ve added training on the bike as well which I’ve never done before.
“That will hopefully mean I’ll not feel as beat-up and I’ll feel a lot fresher.
“I feel fit and I’m confident and, hopefully, those two things will allow me to compete well in Japan.”
Pollock has another reason to feel confident having switched to carbon-fibre plated running shoes prior to competing in Valencia in 2019.
His first run in the Nike Vaporfly shoes led to him posting a time of 2:10:25 – a Northern Irish record and more than a minute inside the Olympic qualifying standard.
Pollock, like all the other athletes at the Olympics, has had to wait an extra year to test his new shoes and compete on the world stage after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the 2020 Games.
Indeed, Tokyo declare a state of emergency last month with spectators banned from indoor events amid tightened restrictions.
In the build-up to the Olympics, there was plenty of speculation as to whether or not they would take place with seemingly growing opposition to the Games throughout Japan.
Having first-hand experience of the devastating impact of the pandemic while working in England, Pollock feels every athlete will be a little anxious prior to their respective events, knowing a positive test will rule them out.
Yet, he believes the staging of the Olympics will act as a beacon of hope as the world attempts to put the devastating legacy of the pandemic behind them.
“I think it is well-documented, the severity of Covid. You can be hit badly with it so you have to minimise the risk as much of possible,” stated Pollock.
“I know Team Ireland have put guidelines in place to try and minimise that risk and it will be same in Japan. It is about avoiding contact with people as much as possible in order to get to that start line without testing positive.
“We are having daily tests while we are out there which is fantastic, but some athletes will test positive.”
Pollock will be joined at the start on Sunday by two other local athletes, namely fellow Rio Olympian Kevin Seaward and Stephen Scullion.
Former St Malachy’s College student Seaward finished in a time of 2:20:06 which put him in 64th place in Rio while South Belfast native Scullion, who now runs for Clonliffe Harriers in Dublin, will be making his Olympic debut.
Scullion reversed an earlier decision to withdraw from the Olympics citing mental health struggles, but the 32-year-old departed for Japan earlier this month with the rest of Team Ireland.
The Olympic Games have already produced some memorable moments for Irish athletes and Pollock believes the absence of fans won’t hinder the marathon runners on Sunday.
“It will be a surreal experience, especially not having my friends and family over with me,” added Pollock.
“Last year, the plan was for my son and partner to come with me.
“It is the same for everyone. It will be a strange atmosphere. Hopefully, there will be some fans out along with road.
“Marathon running is massive in Japan. The fact that the Olympics are taking place at all is a massive symbol of hope.
“Sport brings people together and we can get through this. It is fantastic that they are going ahead in some form and having little or no fans is a small price athletes have to pay.”
Having been dogged by injury woes throughout his career, Pollock finds himself heading into a major race in the best shape of his life having recently turned 35.
When he returns to Sapporo’s Odori Park on Sunday morning (the men’s marathon is expected to start at 7am Irish time), Pollock is determined to give a better account of himself than he managed in Rio back in 2016 – anything is possible after that.