Stephen Scullion: ‘I’ve been like a wrecking ball since I was 18 years of age’
Irish marathon runner on his battles with binge drinking that led him to give up alcohol
Stephen Scullion celebrates after winning the Irish national title at the KBC Dublin Marathon in 2019. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stephen Scullion is sitting in the same bedroom in the Belfast family home where he promptly admits to waking up a few days before last Christmas in a pool of his own drunken vomit. Which is okay to say now, because he hasn’t touched an alcoholic drink in the 141 days since.
Which isn’t the only reason this is no ordinary Zoom interview: to those who know him, Scullion has always been among the more frank and frankly more interesting of Irish athletes, his own popular running podcast and social media presence further evidence of that. He says what he thinks, usually does what he says.
He’s here to talk about the last of his journey to Tokyo, where on the last day of the Olympics, he’ll actually be 800km north in Sapporo, lining up in the men’s marathon. He’s also looking beyond, to possibly defending his national title at the KBC Dublin Marathon in October, assuming that happens in some shape or form.
It was sometime last month when Scullion tweeted out about being 122 days sober, a direct nod to a video tweet sent out a few days after Christmas by now two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (with 10.7 million views and counting), titled “With gratitude, I celebrate 45 years of sobriety.”
Scullion is also quick to point out he didn’t necessarily have a drinking problem; he was just a problem drinker. That pivotal moment of realisation came last December, when he arrived back in Belfast from his usual training base in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I went home for Christmas around December 17th, and just woke up, in this bedroom funnily enough, in a pile of my own sick, had drunk way too heavily, and had thrown up all the bed.
“And I ended up booking a flight back to England the next day, so I didn’t even stay home for Christmas. Because I pretty much didn’t trust myself to stay, and not drink again. And I’d watched that video from Anthony Hopkins where he was off the drink for over 40 years.
“I know how much it messes with my psychology, and I know it doesn’t help my running, all these things. I’m always running away from situations that probably I could end up being in where I would drink too much, go over the top.
“So I tried to think of one time where alcohol has actually done something good for my life, and I couldn’t think of one thing. I think I used to not drink because of running, that training would be better the next day. Whereas this time, before Christmas, I made the decision I was going to do this for me. I do all this work to try improve my mental health, try to be happy, and then to go ruin it, just by being greedy with alcohol. I just decided I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Scullion would need both hands to count the number of times he’s quit running before (including again last summer, after another late-night drinking session), only to discover some irresistible urge to start back. Indeed now, at age 32, he believes his running career is still only getting going again, especially given in 2017 he was still smoking, well over his natural running weight, by his own frank admission getting pissed drunk every weekend, either on the couch, or ending up there.
“Honestly, it’s not like I had a drinking problem. The problem was I’m greedy, I just got to the point where when I did drink, I have this problem where I can probably handle it at the time, but not handle it in the end.
“So at the time I can drink and drink and drink and everyone thinks I’m fine and in a great mood, and then my body decides I can’t process all this alcohol, because you never drink, you normally live up a mountain like a saint, and here you are hammering 10 pints or 12 pints and shots, and yeah them my body just rejects it, and I’d be incredibly low-low.”
Scullion, by way of brief reminder, is the fastest of the three Irish men qualified for the Tokyo marathon, thanks to the 2:09.49 he clocked at the elite-only London Marathon last October, over two minutes faster than his previous best, 11th best in a field of the world’s finest marathon runners. This also stands as the fastest official Irish marathon; John Treacy’s Irish marathon best is still considered the 2:09.15 he ran when finishing third in Boston in 1988, although for record purposes Boston is considered a slightly downhill course.
As well as battling to better balance his mental health (he’s started taking anti-depressant medication since London in October), Scullion also underwent an operation in January on his throat, after being diagnosed with Exercise Induced Larynx Obstruction (EILO), supposedly quite common in thoroughbred racehorses, the result of which is “a phenomenal feeling, for 10, 15 years of my life I said breathing was the biggest thing that set me back, so to be almost set free is really cool.”
Still he knows the road ahead will always bring highs and lows: “It’s been tough. It has always been an ongoing process for me, I’ve been like a wrecking ball since I was 18 years of age. It’s a really tough balance and I think with mental health it’s not like a constant, it can be up and down, we don’t all love our job every day.”