2.09.49 – that’s the finishing time Stephen Scullion saw as he crossed the line at the 2020 London Marathon. It signalled a huge breakthrough for the Belfast native and an improvement of over two minutes on his personal best set on the streets of Dublin in 2019. Under the most adverse conditions on a wintry October day, a man no stranger to adversity defied the conditions to deliver the performance of his athletic career to-date.
For those outside the Irish athletics circle who were unaware of Stephen Scullion, his performance in Dublin went a long way to addressing the curiosity of the passive roadside supporter on one of the biggest days on the Irish athletics calendar. With blacked-out shoes and arms inked with the words ‘Ego’ & ‘Animal’, Scullion or ‘The Lion’ as he is popularly referred to, hunted down the field to take the Irish national marathon title in 2.12.01. A gutsy performance on the day was only bettered in the overall standings by Moroccan Othmane El Goumri, who arrived in Dublin fresh from serving a two-year ban for doping violations.
Highs and lows of running
2020 will go down as perhaps one of the most unique editions of the London Marathon. Taking in 19 laps of a closed circuit around St James’ Park in the midst of a global pandemic, it provided the world with a brief glimpse of a somewhat ‘human’ Eliud Kipchoge, as an ear infection carried into the race saw him tailed off the lead group at the business end of proceedings. Meanwhile, as a three-man sprint to the line saw Ethiopian Shura Kitata take the win in 2.05.41, Scullion was propelling himself to a time not bettered by an Irish athlete since John Treacy in Boston in 1988. While Scullion was clearly in decent shape based off a 61.08 half marathon clocking in Larne just a month previous, few would have expected such an impressive performance from the Clonliffe Harriers man in London, with race-day conditions not lending themselves to fast marathon running. Scullion later cited altitude training in France alongside Mo Farah and current Olympic bronze medallist Bashir Abdi as a significant contributing factor towards being in the shape to produce the sub 2.10 performance.
However, as is the nature of distance running, progression is rarely linear and since London, Scullion has failed to find the same formula that carried him to that career best time. A bitterly disappointing Olympic Marathon in Sapporo in August 2021 culminated in Scullion stepping off the course before half-way. He followed the Olympic disappointment up with a 2.22.57 in Boston just two months later, both performances that Scullion knows far from did justice to the quality he possesses as an athlete.
Finding heart once again
While the Boston outing did not challenge his personal best, an emotional Scullion tweeted in the aftermath of the race: “I owed it to myself and everybody who believes in me to tough it out. I might not have found the speed I wanted, but my heart is back. I’m in tears of joy.” A fire had been re-ignited in The Lion for the months ahead.
An intriguing character with an active social media presence predominantly through podcasting, Scullion has publicly opened the door to the highs and numerous lows in the daily life of a professional athlete in an individual sport. He has spoken quite candidly about his mental health struggles and has documented the contributing factors that have stalled his progression curve in the subsequent time following both Dublin and London.
After penning a retirement statement online in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics last year, a below par performance was possibly not unexpected when Scullion did subsequently toe the line. While the DNF will stand beside Scullion’s name in the history books, the courage and strength to overcome his self-doubt to arrive to the line in Sapporo should be the celebrated achievement, enabling him to represent Ireland on the greatest sporting stage.
Redemption in Rotterdam
Following a quiet winter on the racing front, Scullion is now gearing up to do battle again with the 26.2-mile distance next weekend (April 10), making the trip to Rotterdam in the Netherlands on what is a traditionally fast course. It was there that Bashir Abdi set the new European marathon record of 2.03.36 in October 2021. Scullion will attempt to return to the heights of 2020 with hopes of going under the 2.10 barrier once more, which would comfortably satisfy the 2.11.30 qualifying mark for this year’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Scullion has been bullish in the build-up around his current shape and prospects, tweeting last week: “You know when a pb is coming, it grows, and you feel it physically and psychologically. It’s coming.”
He has had a relatively consistent build-up to Rotterdam, his training block split between Belfast and London instead of opting for a camp at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, as he has done for previous marathon preparations. An unfortunate last-minute oversight of French vaccine certificate rules thwarted a planned hit-out at the Paris half-marathon at the beginning of March. But he has refused to let this derail his Rotterdam ambitions.
He will no doubt go to Rotterdam confident of a special performance once more, a shot at redemption, to prove to himself that the Lion within is still as strong as ever.