By Ciaran O’Donnell
It had been bugging him for a while. Yet, it was during the first day of 2011 that the urge finally took the firmest hold. Weighing 18 and a half stone, Hugh Coll knew better than anyone else that he was carrying too much timber. If things were going to change, he would have to alter his ways.
Having just bid farewell to yet another long festive season, the Milford man pulled on a pair of runners and some wet gear before heading out into the January chill. They would become the first steps of a truly admirable journey which provided so much in terms of guidance, accomplishment, achievement, knowledge and personal satisfaction.
“I made a new year’s resolution that I was going to lose a bit of weight. I hadn’t any notion of running or anything like that. I suppose I just wanted to look a bit better,” he says.
It’s not that athletics was never his thing. At secondary school in Milford, Hugh was a regular on the team managed by teacher, Martin Gormley.
“I was half decent at it,” he recalls.
Other interests took up his time and energy for the subsequent 20 years, with golf and motorsport being his two main passions.
By the end of January, 2011, Hugh had shed a stone. At the end of June, he’d lost five more.
“It was just like clockwork from January on. I lost a stone a month for six months. I walked for the first three months. Then one day I decided I’d do a wee bit of running and thought I might even speed up this process a wee bit. So I went out and marked a wee course. I ran out two and a half kilometres and back which gave me 5k.”
To say he struggled would be something of an understatement. After the first few hundred metres, he felt like stopping. But kept the momentum going and finished the distance without any breaks.
“It took me 26 and a half minutes and I was happy. I did the same the following day as well, but from the third day on I got to like it. And nearly the rest is history,” he comments.
After a month of running, Hugh was running 22 minutes for 5k. The bug had bitten. It was around that time that he met Milford AC coach, James Gibbons, who had indicated that he was thinking of getting back into a bit of running as well. James suggested that the pair meet up for a trot and that developed into a regular session, three days per week.
“I set out a few goals and the first was to run under 20 minutes. Ironically enough, I ran 19.01 in the John Gilmartin 5k in Milford, the same time I ran in the Burtonport 5k on Tuesday night past,” he says.
His long runs got longer as the months in 2011 passed. He was clocking nine miles at a time in April and that was his cue for another target.
“I told James I wanted to do the Dublin Marathon and his take initially was that I’d be better to leave it until the following year. I had signed up for it and after a few more weeks James said he’d do the Dublin Marathon, too. The two of us set sail for Dublin at the end of October and I ran 3 hours, 16 minutes and 57 seconds.”
Given where he’d come from, his finish time for 26.2 miles was quite something. He went on to post personal bests of 17:28 for 5k, 37:38 for 10k, 82:04 for the half marathon and 2:58:20 for the marathon.
Hugh and James met regularly to train and were joined occasionally by Gerard McGettigan. Later in the year, the group became bigger and new members were recruited in a gradual basis, with many preparing for the Waterside Half Marathon in Derry through the Living Links initiative, organised by Milford GAA club.
“The club has really developed since then and Milford AC now has over 100 adult members,” he explains.
“Winning the Donegal novice cross country championships in October last year, having come from nothing, was a great achievement for us. It was Milford AC’s finest hour to date, no question.”
While he’s still putting his toe to the starting line, Hugh is more involved in the coaching end of things along with James.
“For the first couple of years I was getting the buzz out of myself and getting the times down. But over the last few years, I get more of a buzz out of other people doing it now,” he says.
Having observed how popular adventure races were becoming, Hugh soon realised there was an opening for an event around his parts. He organised training sessions for those getting ready to take on The Race – a 250k race in Donegal involving cycling, kayaking and running – which were attended by people from all over the country.
“Hugh Hunter used to organise the Mulroy Bay event and it had stopped. So we knew there was an opening here. So that’s how the MAD (Milford And District) adventure race began.
“More and more triathletes are competing in adventure races because they see how much fun they are. It’s also maybe not as competitive as the triathlon and it’s something different.”
Last year saw the first staging of MAD and it was a massive success. Last weekend was even bigger and better, with all 370 spots sold out. MAD is a non-profit event with all proceeds going directly to the Milford Park Development Fund which accommodates the local GAA, soccer and athletic clubs at the one complex at Moyle Hill.
“We are fairly unique in Milford. There aren’t too many towns where three clubs work out of the one place. There’s a great buy-in from the community and that is so important to make a high-profile event like MAD be a success. We had 100 marshals over the course on Saturday and that was one aspect of the race so many competitors remarked upon after the race. It looks like MAD is established now and it needs work to keep it there. It takes in a few pound to run the facilities which is what it’s all about.”
Seven years on from starting out on an eventful route, Hugh Coll is a wiser individual.
The endurance events also appealed to him and he completed ‘The Race’ in 2016 when he placed 8th, and in 2017 when he placed 5th.
He also completed the Donegal Ultra 555k Cycle as a solo rider in 23 hours and 45 minutes to finish fourth overall in 2016. That said, he still has one or two boxes he’d like to tick. Next up is the Berlin Marathon in September. Yesterday, he flew out with a group of mates to watch the Neste Rally Finland. On his return, he’ll knuckle down, recalibrate and set new goals.
That’s what happens when the bug bites.