The BIG interview: ‘Marathon Man’ Rob Young

Photo by Chris Winter

Thousands of people watch the London Marathon from their sofas each year and say, ‘I’d like to do that one day.’ And many actually do it, eventually. But there can only be one person who, the day after the 2014 race, got up at dawn, pulled on his trainers and ran his very first marathon – and then went to work. And that was just the beginning. He did the same thing the next day, and the next, and soon Rob Young – aka Marathon Man UK – was entering marathons up and down the country. By April 2015 he had run his way to a new world record by completing a staggering 370 marathons in a calendar year.

Can it really be true that this monumental endeavour started with a bet? ‘Yes!’ says Young, who lives in southwest London. ‘Me and my partner, Joanna, had been watching the marathon on TV and I made a comment that I’d love to do it. She said, “You couldn’t do that” and I said, “Of course I could!” We had a 20p bet.’

Young jokes that she’s still not paid him the 20p, but it’s clear he understands what he owes her. One day, she had a ‘normal’ partner with a regular income to help bring up their young son, Alex. The next, he was swept into a world where running takes precedence over almost everything. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

I first meet Young in a London café, where his kilt (originally worn for a Parkrun and now his customary running attire) turns heads. ‘I’m just a normal runner,’ says the 32-year-old. Seeing my skeptical expression, he adds, ‘I believe most people could do what I’ve done.’

Before we examine this statement let’s examine exactly what Young has done. There’s sheer the distance he’s covered (11,700 miles in a year). And the early starts: ‘In the week I’d run in the morning, between 3am and 7am,’ he says. ‘When I finished, I went straight to work and washed in the sink. I averaged about three hours’ sleep per night.’ Add to that the travelling: ‘At weekends I went to wherever there was a marathon or an ultra on,’ he says. ‘If there wasn’t an official race, I’d run the marathon course in Richmond Park – sometimes with as many as 60 people with me.’ Young once ran five marathons and the North Downs Way 100-mile race in 48 hours.

And then we need to consider the remarkable pace Young has maintained in these races. In January 2015, well into his ‘marathon year’, he flew across the Atlantic to run the 3,100-mile Race Across America, from LA to Washington DC, which he won by 30 hours (finishing in 482 hours and 10 minutes) despite popping back mid-race to run the race that started it all. ‘I had to be at the London Marathon because that was where my year officially ended.’ This entailed getting on a plane fresh from back-to-back marathons, running London in 3:07, then having a shower before jumping on the back of a motorbike to Heathrow to catch a flight to Atlanta and launch back into the epic race.

Then, of course, there’s the fundraising – over £70,000 so far for three children’s charities. None of the money raised has been used to fund his exploits, even though he’s had no sponsor for most of the year (he now has modest support from Lucozade). ‘I haven’t taken a cut from the charities – not a penny,’ says Young.

The more you hear about Young, the harder it is to accept his assertion that he is an ‘ordinary’ runner. But he insists that he is, even offering advice on how anyone can run a daily marathon: ‘Start by running slower than your usual marathon time,’ he says. ‘It takes three weeks to adapt. One more week after that, your mind will adapt, too. Once a week, push the pace a bit close to your ‘real’ time. Every eight to 10 days, you’ll have a bad day. On the bad day, you just go a lot slower than normal.’

While Young’s relentless running seems like an act of madness, there’s method to it. He’s developed what is, for him at least, a remarkably effective strategy for serial marathoning. ‘I never race a whole race,’ he says. My technique is to race the first half, then slow down. I don’t do negative splits or even pace. I drink energy drinks in the first half and electrolyte drinks in the second, starting my recovery along the way. That enables me to run through the finish feeling fresh and go on to the next one.’

Sports medicine experts, intrigued by his exploits, have been monitoring Young since the early days. He is vague about their findings and confesses he’s not much interested in heart rates and VO2 maxes, but says, ‘I’ve a body that can endure a lot more than most people. It’s a new thing I’ve discovered I can do. I owe it to the scientists to help them understand how far the body can go – and I owe it to myself, too.’

It’s evident that Young has physiological and biomechanical advantages for distance running. He also developed his athletic and competitive edge in his five years in the army, and as a Junior GB duathlete and triathlete. But it would seem that where he really leaves most of us behind is in mental strength.

‘The mind is everything,’ he says. ‘It controls the body. I get worn out, just like anyone else, but that’s where the mind comes in. You can manipulate your mind to keep going longer. When I run, if I’m doing an out-and-back or a loop and runners are coming the other way, I will sing a song to them or make them laugh or lie down in front of them so they have to jump over me. By taking their minds off their running for a moment, it helps them refresh and it refreshes my mind, too.’

One of the things that have surprised Young over the last 20 months is how a solitary act such as running can bring people together. ‘I thought everyone just looked after themselves, but there’s a real community out there,’ he says. ‘People help each other, inspire each other.’

The fact that Young has become something of a pied piper on his many running challenges is testament to how inspiring others find him. And after a lunchtime run with him in London’s Regent’s Park, I can see why. He’s a natural coach and motivator. As joyful as a Springer spaniel let off the lead, he runs this way and that, changing speed and direction, bantering constantly, interacting with other park users (runners and non-runners alike), and issuing challenges (‘Let’s catch that runner up’, ‘Let’s make up a song’) and tips (‘Shake your arms out, just once’). It all somehow makes you want to do your best. And Young believes it’s also a factor in him staying free from injury. ‘If you just enjoy running you limit the stress on your body,’ he says. ‘Then injuries don’t happen so often, if at all.’

It may not be a theory you’ll find in a sports medicine textbook, but during his marathon year Young suffered just one injury – a stress reaction in his ankle – bad enough to put him out of action. Even then, he took only two weeks off. ‘A lot of people overstress about injuries, which I think prolongs the recovery period,’ he says.

But Young has an unusually high pain tolerance, which may allow him to run through niggles that would have most of us laid up with an ice pack. ‘When I’m in pain, I can shut my mind off,’ he says. ‘I can retreat inside myself and yet still communicate with other people. It’s like being in two places at once.’

Young learned to shut himself down long ago. From early childhood, he suffered serious physical and mental abuse at the hands of his father. He was regularly beaten, deprived of food, dangled over the banisters upside down and pushed down the stairs in a suitcase. His father was also abusive to his mother and sister, and even killed the family dog. ‘My early years were a living hell,’ he says. His mother eventually left, taking the two children with her, but she was unable to cope on her own. Young ended up in care and later with a foster parent, whom he credits with helping him turn his life around.

Young’s was the sort of start in life that so often ends up with the victim, in turn, becoming a perpetrator of violence and abuse. But he has a different take: ‘Through the many years of hardship and abuse I developed qualities which I may otherwise not have – strength, kindness, loyalty and honesty.’ He says these are the characteristics that drive him to help and inspire others and it’s no accident that each of the three charities he supports focuses on giving children a better future. ‘I now see my background as an asset,’ he tells me. ‘I can use my experiences to connect to kids in a similar situation. I can give them hope by telling them a few hard facts about my life and what I’ve gone on to achieve…’

Young no longer sees any of his birth family. ‘My family tree only goes forward, not backwards,’ he says. For now, family means fiancée Joanne and Alex, but there’s another baby on the way. Young speaks lovingly of his ‘little family’ but it’s obvious there’s a conflict between his desire to be a good dad and provide for them, and his drive to follow his running dreams.

‘I want to be someone who can inspire people,’ he says. ‘I’m happier [since I started running], because I’m doing something I want to do. But I’m unhappy that I can’t do more to support my family. Am I being a slightly lousy father? Probably. But I’ve taken that step to challenge myself and do something I believe strongly in. And hopefully that will inspire Alex and benefit his life in the future.’

You can’t help wondering if Joanna wishes she’d never made that bet back in April 2014. Does she? ‘Yes, in a way,’ says Young. ‘We’ve had our ups and downs. I’ve been away a lot and so it’s been very tough, especially when it comes to money. If there was a constant income she’d be happy with all the running.’

Donors and friends have helped here and there – one paid towards Young’s expenses for Race Across America and another paid the couple’s rent one month when things were particularly tight, but money has been a problem since Young left his job as a manager at a motor parts company to focus on running, a few months into his challenge. He now works part-time in a sports shop.

‘So many people have something they want to achieve and they say, “I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it next week. Next year...” Ten years later, they think, “I wish I’d done it back then.” I’ve shattered all those layers and become the person I really am. In my heart, I’m an adventurer.’

When Young and I spoke, one of his aims was to break the world record for the ‘longest known distance’ run continuously without sleep. It stood at 350 miles, set by renowned ultra runner Dean Karnazes. Before I’d even finished writing this article, he’d achieved it. He started at 9.30am on Tuesday, July 21, and ran continuously until 12.48am on Saturday, July 25, when medical staff persuaded him to stop because they were concerned about irregularities in his heartbeat and other alarming symptoms, such as headaches and hallucinations – ‘I saw seals in the road.’

By then he had run 373.75 miles without sleep. ‘At one point I really started believing I could get to 500 miles,’ he says. ‘But once I hit around 340 miles I felt horrible. Your legs go first. Then your lower back and shoulders. And then the headaches start. Every step felt as if I had no shoes on – as if I was slamming my feet into the ground and at the same time someone was hitting the soles with a baseball bat. I thought it couldn’t get any worse and then, all of a sudden, I was experiencing a new intensity of pain: my face was on fire – bright red, tingling – I was dizzy, my chest was tight and my throat closing up. It was a whole new level of hurt.’

The medical team put him on an ECG, but they could not be sure from his heart profile if he was suffering from extreme exhaustion or having a cardiac event. Blood tests would confirm one way or another, but it took them 10 minutes to persuade Young to call it a day and take the tests.

But that’s not the end of it. In September Young took part in a 48-hour treadmill event for charity and then set off on a 1,900-mile relay run around the UK with fellow record-breaking runner Adam Holland; it took them 25 days. ‘The running is a tool to inspire,’ says Young. ‘I’ve got to keep raising the bar to maintain that.’

But I think it’s more than a tool to inspire; there’s something about running itself that resonates with Young. For someone whose past necessitated retreat and withdrawal, nothing could be more physical and present than running. It reminds you that you’re strong and free – that you’re alive and, in Young’s case, almost indestructible.

‘I want to find the ultimate running challenge,’ he says. ‘I look at the existing records and challenges out there and I don’t see them as the ultimate. My goal is to break as many of those as quickly as possible and then achieve something that makes all the people who’ve set those records look around and say, “That’s a phenomenal record.” I want to take myself close to the very edge of human endurance, breaking point – and beyond.’

If anyone is capable of doing that, I’ll bet you more than 20p Rob Young is the man.