Going Long: An Interview with Colin McCourt

By Mario Fraioli

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Left to right: McCourt when he was competing for Great Britain in 2011; McCourt when he started running seven weeks ago; McCourt after a run just seven days ago. Photos: Courtesy of Colin McCourt

As a middle-distance runner for Great Britain, Colin McCourt represented his country in international championship competition and notched world-class times of 3:37.06 in the 1500 meters and 1:46.72 for 800 meters. After failing to make GB’s Olympic team in 2012, McCourt retired from professional athletics and started working full-time. Over the next five years he gained over 50 pounds, topping out at 207 (94 kg) just a few months ago.

Earlier this year, McCourt was forced into a bet by 17 of his friends: break 16 minutes for 5K—an average pace of 5:08 per mile—by the end of 2017, or tattoo each of their names to his body. In January, he ran 24 minutes at a parkrun 5K near his home and started running regularly again. To date, he’s dropped 35 pounds (16 kg), posting daily video updates to his Instagram account and blogging about his journey on Athletics Weekly’s website. He recently started sharing his daily training on Strava. I caught up with McCourt last week to talk about the bet he has going with his buddies, the biggest keys to his weight-loss success thus far, the similarities between his journey as a professional athlete and a self-described “normal geezer who is out there grinding, trying to just lose weight so he can run around with his kid and not get 17 tattoos on him,” the unique connection he shares with his followers on social media, and much more.

I guess a good place to get started is today [March 17]. It’s day 50 for you, which is kind of an arbitrary milestone, but you’ve come quite a ways here in less than two months, having dropped what, I think over 20 kilos? I’ve been following your training on Strava and you’ve just been getting faster and faster on your daily runs. Today you were cranking a 6:30 mile toward the end. How were you feeling on that run and when you looked down at your watch were you thinking, “I’m running paces I used to run before”?

Yeah. Well, I’ve stopped … I don’t look at my Garmin anymore so I just start it and I just run. I don’t even look down and see where I’m at until I’ve finished. I knew I was running fast, don’t get me wrong. I knew I was flowing quite well. I just felt really strong. I felt good. I think you get little spurts, especially when you’re starting to get fit, where you have a day or a few days where you take a step forward. That’s what the last two days have been, just taking another step forward in my progression. I just felt good to flow again, to be honest. The course I’m running on is quite hilly as well. It’s not flat at all. It’s got a few horrible gradients in it. Obviously it’s got some nice downhills in it too, but it’s got some horrible little uphill drags. It’s a nice loop, because before I was just running out and back constantly.

At the outset of this challenge, when the idea of a sub-16 minute 5K came up, that was a little scary for you, given how big you were and how slow you were running. I think you’d just run a 24-minute 5K. You’ve got until the end of the year to [run under 16 minutes]. You’re still not nearly as light as you want to be, but given how good you felt on your runs of late, does the thought of a sub-16 minute 5K seem any more realistic at this point than it did just a couple months ago? Or does it still feel like that’s light years away?

No. I feel now a lot more confident that I’m going to get it. At first obviously when I started I was like, “Oh, God. What am I going to do?” It’s a 5:08 mile and I’m well over 8 minutes a mile for 5K. As the weeks are progressing it’s starting to feel more realistic. At first there were a few restless nights where I was thinking, “Geez, I’ve kind of stitched myself up here.” I could only run for like, 20 minutes when I started at day one. And now, to be at a double day, yeah, I feel strong. I’m just being really sensible, trying to hold back a little bit and just make sure that I can get through the week rather than going crazy. People are like, “Why don’t you just do one run in the morning?” Yeah, I could just go and run 10 miles in the morning, but I’ll probably break down a lot quicker than just doing it in light increments, doing a nice 4-mile run where I’m in control and I’m flowing, and then do another 4-mile run on the treadmill where it’s controlled and I’m in control of the pace and I can keep flowing rather than trying to grind it and grind it and grind it. I think that’s where a lot of people get caught up when they start running: they want to grind everything out. Then they run slow and they get tired and they don’t feel their way through it properly. They just want to run quick or they want to lose weight really fast.

The process of doing it is actually a lot simpler than what people think. Rather than going out and running like 8 miles, 9 miles, because they read in Runner’s World or somewhere that you only burn fat when you run over 40 minutes. That’s true in a sense, but the key is you’ve just got to go out and do something every day.

Are you running every day? Or are you being a little more strategic about it?

I like to keep active. I work all day so I know that I’m going to lose a lot of weight very quickly because I’m running in the morning, I’m working all day in an office, and now I run in the evenings. So I know my body’s going to be wanting more and more food. I did do something a bit extreme at the beginning. My first two weeks I spent at like 1,200 calories (a day), which is a bit extreme, but just because I was so fat I knew that my body would eat that fat. I wasn’t hungry for that two weeks because I was at 1,200 calories. My body was just going, “Right, you’ve got loads of spare resource here.” It was like, “Right. I’m just going to eat that fat,” which is really good for me because it made me lose a lot of weight really quickly. People were like, “You should do this. You shouldn’t be doing 1,200 calories,” but it was safe because I was so heavy.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone but it worked for me. I didn’t have time at work to think about, “Right, I’m going to have this. I’m going to eat this.” It was just literally like I had breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then running and walking in the evenings. That’s where I started at, doing a little run in the morning and then walking in the evenings.

You just mentioned your 1,200 calories a day for the first two weeks. How has that evolved since then? Are you back on a normal eating schedule?

Yeah, very much so. I’ve gone back to normal completely. I’m not eating crap, like I’m not having pizzas and burgers and stuff. It’s clean, healthy eating. For example, morning is yogurt with nuts and honey in it. Lunch is like, a sandwich or something like sushi or something quite healthy. Then water and coffee all day, but I’ve cut out sugar completely, so any excess sugar where you add it to coffee. I don’t drink any vanilla lattes, where I was having like, three a day at one point when I was my fattest. Now it’s just a normal Americano with a little bit of milk, no sugar, and then water and apples and bananas and stuff through the day, and then a big dinner. Then I just don’t snack in the evening once I’ve eaten my dinner. I don’t go for anything else.

So this is a huge shift for you, almost a complete 180 really. You’re eating a lot cleaner, you’re running consistently again after years of being sedentary. How was that initial shock to your system? At this point, 50 days in, does the active lifestyle feel a little more normal to you again?

Yeah. At the beginning it was tough, like mentally draining, which is the only way I can explain it. You just have to get through that initial, like the first seven [days] … I think it’s really crucial, the first seven to 14 days of when you start something. It’s really crucial to stay on track with it. It’s really easy to do the first five days if it’s a weekday because you’re quite occupied if you’ve got a job and stuff. You can get through it quite quickly. It’s when you get to Saturday and Sunday, where normally you would get up, eat a bacon sandwich, eat crap all day, sit in front of the TV or whatever it is that you do.

After holding it for two weeks, I felt like I could get through. Once I did, it just became progressively easier every day. It’s more thoughtless now. At the beginning it’s really you have to think, “I’m not going to get that.” You walk past the coffee machine at work and you’re just like, “Oh, I could just click that latte button,” but you just get yourself a normal coffee. We used to have a big canteen at work and it’s like, cheap bacon sandwiches, everything you can think of. They’re the worst kind of food you can want to eat. It’s just sitting there readily available. It’s so cheap, it’s like two pounds, a pound for a bacon sandwich. It’s easy to pick up. It’s just getting into that mindset of knowing that you don’t need to have it. I feel 10 times better. Cutting the sugar out made a huge, massive difference to my health and the way I felt. I was quite sugar dependent, so I’d go on peaks and troughs throughout the day. Once I cut that out, once I got through the headache bit in the first three days, I then started to feel a lot better within myself and I’m more controlled.

The other thing you touched on was consistency, not only with your diet obviously, but with your runs. You’re getting out in the morning and then again in the evening. First walking, now running. How important has that been for your trajectory to this point? I guess my question is: How can other runners who are struggling with similar problems really prioritize that over, as you said, feeling like they have to run over 40 minutes every time they go out? How important is that consistency even if it comes in small doses?

Well, how am I going to explain this? The easiest way to do it is to just think, “I need to get out the door.” Whatever you do, when you get out the door, it’s a bonus. That’s how I think about it. For example, this morning I really struggled because we were up all night with the baby. I only wanted to do 20 minutes. I’d convinced myself to get out of bed, to just do 20 minutes out and back. But I kept pushing and kept thinking, “Right. I’ll just … ” Once I got to the corner of the street, I thought, “Right. I’ll get to the next corner.” If you keep convincing yourself that way, before you know it you’ve finished your 4-mile run or your 30 minute run, and you feel 10 times better because you’ve done more than what you set out to do. You feel good because all the endorphins are going crazy.

The evening run is a bonus for me. I just do it now because it’s easy. I’m in a routine. It’s just my process that I’m in. I use the morning as more of my mental stimulus to be like, “You’ve got out and got it done.” I feel 10 times better in the day. I’m a happier person at work and I get through the day easier. It’s literally as simple as just getting out the door and then seeing what it is that you do. If you’re just starting out, don’t set yourself ridiculous goals. It can be as simple as just walking around the block or walking to the gate and back. By the time you got to the gate, you’ll think, “Oh, well I’ve got to the gate. Now I might as well go to the corner of the street.” By the time you got there, you might as well think, “I might as well walk around.” Sometimes you might turn back and say, “That’s enough for me today,” but the more you do it, the further and more confident you’ll get. That’s how I think, anyway. I’m not a elite athlete anymore, I’m just a normal geezer who is out there grinding, trying to just lose weight so he can run around with his kid and not get 17 tattoos on him.

You’re not an elite athlete anymore, but your situation is unique on a couple levels. One, not many folks have a bounty of 17 tattoos of their friends’ name hanging over their head. Two, a lot of overweight folks who are just trying to drop the pounds and establish a healthy lifestyle weren’t elite athletes in their past. They’ve never had to train for a goal or be immersed in a process. So for you, training on a world-class level in athletics is obviously a lot different than what you’re doing right now, but how is that process similar? What parallels have you seen between these two journeys?

I think what I can draw from both is that when you’re training, you have a lot of pressure to do well and a lot of pressure to say, “Right. I need to perform and these are the things that I’ve got to do. So I’ve got to make championships. I’ve got to … If I don’t do that I don’t earn money.” In the same aspect of being overweight, it’s that I need to lose weight for my health now because I was too big and I actually want to be able to play with my son and do things with him, where we go to the park and play football, and not be too out of breath. I was out of breath walking up the stairs when I was fat. The goal has shifted between trying to make something my job and something that I invested all my time into, to now, where I’m investing all my time and stuff into it again, but I have an outlet to be able to say, “Right. Once I’ve got to a certain level I’ll be able to do all these things with my son when he gets of age and I won’t have these tattoos.”

 

Does your current journey feel like a job in any way?

Yes and no. It’s very similar in the fact that it’s job-like and it’s very not job-like. I enjoy it. I got to a point in athletics where I didn’t really enjoy it and I got to a point where I was just doing it for the sake of doing it. Now it’s that enjoyment factor of going out for a run and feeling good. Your goal setting is actually quite similar because you have an end goal of what you want to achieve. One is making, I don’t know, the Olympics. The other one is going down to the park and playing with your son or being able to take him out running with you and that kind of stuff, which wouldn’t have happened for me 50 days ago because I’d have blew a calf, keeled over, had a heart attack, or had some sort of serious issue if I’d have tried to do anything serious with him.

Now it’s very similar in that you want to achieve these similar things. The hard thing is keeping your brain in check to think, “I’m 32 now. Where I get to at the end of this process is… who knows? Anything could happen.” I could end up in really, really good shape. I could end up just getting to a state where I’ve plateaued and then I’ll reassess from when I get to that stage and see where I’m at from there.

That’s a good segue. At some point here this is going to become more than just about weight loss for you and you’ll have to flip the switch and actually start training like an athlete again to some degree. Does that excite you? Does that worry you at all? Is it something you’re not looking forward to? And lastly, how and when will you make that transition to actually doing some workouts or running faster paces than what you’re doing now?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m at with it because when I left running I was in a really bad head space. I wasn’t great mentally, and now I’m in a great mental space. Everything’s going well. I haven’t introduced any of those factors yet. All this is just steady running at the moment, like running as fast as I am just off of running every day. No [speed] sessions. Taking that next step is a big step. I just don’t know to be honest. I’ve thought about it obviously because everybody would, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts like, “What if I did this? What if I ran this? What if I instead of running 16 minutes I ran 14 and a half or I ran 15?” Do you know what I mean?

I sure do.

That kind of thought process really does happen and it’s natural because everybody would do it, especially with the rate I’m improving at. You do get ahead of yourself. It’s just bringing yourself back into check. I don’t know. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want it to happen because if I did get back to a decent level, obviously that is great. It’d be life-changing at this point because you know where I’ve come from to where I’m at. The doors that would open would maybe be a bit different to when I’d ran before. I’ve thought about it, but I’m trying just to concentrate on the now. I’m going to start sessions and intervals and tempos next week. I’m just trying to settle in because I’ve literally just moved to Glasgow, Scotland, so this is my second week. I’m just trying to figure out, because I have to take a train to work and stuff, the time frames and how much time that would take away from my family and what that impact will be.

They’re really supportive, which is fine. My girlfriend never knew me before I ran, so she’s always had me around. Now that time will get less the more I run. She’s been really supportive, but it’s just weighing up that work/life/fitness/family balance and making sure that it all works and that I don’t basically end up saying, “Look. I’m running 90 percent of the day. I’m working for the rest of the time and I’ll see you for 20 minutes before the baby goes to bed and then I’m going to go to sleep.” It’s just like, where does it all fit in? That scares me. It’s real challenging. I’m trying not to think about it because it’s quite challenging to think what could happen.

The positives are great in doing a run. Most people would be like, “Don’t think about that and see what happens,” but it’s difficult when you’ve just had a baby and things are changing. I run at six in the morning. I see the baby. He’s asleep when I leave for work, so I leave for work at half seven. I get to work for nine and I then work all day. Then I run from like, half five until half six. I get home at seven, half seven and then I have half an hour before the baby is bathed and in bed. The same with Rebecca. She’s out with him because she’s looked after him all day, so the only time we get to see each other is on weekends, and then that will become less and less because I need to do gym work, because of how big I was and now I’ve lost weight.

I need to strengthen my hips and my back. I need to do all that stuff to be able to support running 5:08 [miles]. You can’t just run 5:08s off of no gym work, no core, so that has to be incorporated somehow into this, which I haven’t done yet. It was easier when we lived in Bournemouth because I was five minutes away from work. So I’d finish work at five past 5. I could go to the gym. I’d be home by six. I could run, do gym work, and be home by six. But now it’s another hour on top. Yeah, I know I’m going off on one. Sorry.

It’s just it’s scary. I’m really excited, don’t get me wrong. Even though I’m saying it’s scary I’m really excited to see what my body can do at this age even though I’ve missed four, five years of running. I’m excited because I’m improving really quickly. I know I will plateau at some point, when that is I don’t know. But yeah, I’m just a bit worried about the family life balance and that.

You’ve made all of this so public and it’s gotten attention from some different places. There are a few thousand people following your journey on Instagram and checking in on what you’re doing every day. Many of those followers are leaving you comments, or saying how much you’ve inspired them. Do you feel like you’re connecting more with your fans and average runners now as opposed to when you were running world-class times?

Yeah, definitely. I’ll tell you, some elite athletes don’t want to talk to anybody. They want to hide behind what they do. They want to hide behind what their process is because they don’t want anybody else to think that they’re doing something better than the rest, and I was guilty of that as well. I would take one picture on Instagram of, I don’t know, my trainers or coffee. I did no work for the company that gave me money, really. I just expected a kit and stuff off them and did no real work for them. It’s the same with training. They don’t want to tell you anything. They don’t really want you in their lives, they just want to run. Now I feel like I’m happy to share everything with everybody. They are now such a big part of me getting up every morning and getting out. The comments on Strava, which I never knew really existed until people were like, “Get on in,” and I went and found the app and was like, “Oh, it’s brilliant.” Just putting the runs in there and stuff. It is really competitive, though. It can be a very dangerous place, I think.

Talk a little bit more about the support you’ve gotten on Instagram and what that’s meant to you.

The Instagram support and the blog that I write and stuff, the amount of support I get is unbelievable. I know everyone says stuff like this, but the few comments that I’ve got from people where they’ve said, “I wasn’t going to go for a run tonight, but I read the blog or watched a video, seen that you were out at six, so I’ve gone out. Like, you’ve inspired me to go out for a run.” Even if that was just one person who said that for the entire journey, then that is more than what you could ever ask for. The more people get involved and just see that it’s as simple as just getting out the door and doing something, and whatever it is it will turn into something as long as you enjoy it. Just enjoy it. The moment you don’t enjoy it anymore find something else to do.

I know not everybody wants to go out and run. But just find something that you enjoy doing sports-wise. Get healthy, get fit, eat well, but enjoy it and just do something within it. I missed running and athletics and all that scene, and I didn’t realize I missed any of it for four years when I became a normal person, working 9 to 5. It’s just nice to connect with people who are in a similar situation to you who are overweight and want to lose weight and don’t have that motivation. Giving them that or helping them with that motivation makes you feel really good. I feel so good when I read comments about people saying, “You’ve got me out for a run tonight. I love watching your videos.” I love that and I never realized it before. I wish when I was a professional athlete that I told a stories like, “I’ve been injured for three months. I haven’t ran,” or like, “This is what I eat every day. This is how I train. These are the shoes I wear—not ‘buy these’—just, this is my process, this is how I’m going to try and get from club athlete to professional athlete, or I’m going to get from fatty to thin.” All that. The story is everything. I think people love to see and relate to the ability to be able to do something.

I’ve long said one of the major problems in athletics is that the average runner doesn’t feel like he or she can relate to the elite athlete, when the reality on both sides is that the two are more alike than they are different.

Yeah. They never have that relationship. They’ve all got stories, they’ve all god problems, but you don’t know that. But if you’re in the story with them, living it with them every day thinking, “God, he’s upset. Like, they’re not happy today.” That’s building up a culture on what you’re doing, which I think is really important. It’s helped me. It’s got me out the door on days when I was like, “It’s just not happening today.” Like, “My leg’s sore.” Obviously being fat and running in the style that I do, I’ve had calf pains, shin pains, but I’ve got through them sensibly, not stupidly, just because I needed to get out the door. I’m icing my leg right now. I’ll be foam rolling in a little bit. I think it’s easy to relate to someone when they’re honest with you rather than they just come up and say, “Buy these shoes because they look good.”

I totally agree. There needs to be more of that storytelling and connecting happening between athletes and fans. Last question because I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. Your 17 friends that you have this bet with: if you break 16 for 5K they owe you money; if you don’t, you tattoo their names on your body. Obviously they’re following your journey. Heck, they helped spur it on in a way. How often do you hear from that group of friends and what has their commentary been like over the last 50 days or so?

We speak every day. We’re in a group chat so we talk all the time, just silly stories and such. They’re quite funny where they’re like, “Oh, you were nicer when you were fat.” Obviously I’ve lost a bit more weight. They secretly would like me to do it because then I’ll be healthier and I won’t be out of shape and stuff, but they’re desperate to have their names tattooed on me. They would do anything. I get rounds of messages of just like, “Is your leg broke?” “You’re going to get injured.” “Why don’t you run for longer?” How about you do this?” Then they send me questions like, “Why don’t you do this ultra marathon race?” “Why don’t you do this?” They just try and jibe me a little bit into doing stupid stuff. Well, they’ve stopped it now because I’ve moved, but they would send me a random pizza now and again to the door. They’re desperate. Nearly all of them want me to fail, obviously. A few of them really want me to not fail, but don’t want to give me the money. The majority of it is good banter and it’s funny, but they are desperate for me not to do it so they can just laugh and have their names on me. Yeah, it’s quite funny. Daily it’s pretty funny.

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