Inverclyde AC athlete John Bell won his first Scotland vest at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon in August. It was a special and emotional moment for an athlete who has had endured quite a journey both inside and outside the sport.
By Michael Houston
A Scottish national champion and international road runner has thanked running for improving his life . . . after spending his traumatic childhood in a broken home and losing both of his parents.
John Bell claimed a cherished gold medal for the first time in his career at the Scottish 10K Championships in Glasgow back in May some eight years after taking up the sport.
That win came only a few weeks after two other podium places in National Championship events.
John was third at the Scottish 10-Mile Champs at Strathclyde Park in early April and ended the month with another bronze – this time on the track in the Scottish 10,000m Champs (when he won a photo-finish with Ryan Thomson of Cambuslang Harriers).
John, now 31, started his hobby by running home with friends from his job at Amazon and the Gourock man joined his local club, Inverclyde Athletic Club, back in 2015.
It was his first job after his mother’s passing, who died when he was just 21. A year earlier, his estranged father – who served time in prison – had died, too.
John discovered the body of his mother just before Christmas and one of her parting gifts already wrapped was a pair of running trainers, which he wore a few months later at the Edinburgh Marathon. He completed that particular race in under four hours while raising money for Help For Heroes.
Reflecting back on his childhood as part of the Athletics Trust Scotland ‘Transforming Lives‘ series, John noted the troubles he had from a young age in his family, effectively growing up in a life of poverty.
John races in the Scottish 10k Champs at Glasgow Green – where he took Senior Men’s gold (photo by Bobby Gavin)
‘We came from very little and through our time had numerous building and house fires,’ he recalled.
‘One of those actually left us needing to be rescued out the window by local fire services.
‘I had been taken to the police station in handcuffs by age nine and we had a break-in on Christmas Day.
‘Eventually we were evicted; my mum with her own struggles vanished on the day of eviction which left me to move into my sister’s house and stay on a sofa in a one-bedroom flat with too many occupants.’
Later, John’s mother attempted to end her life, but made a full recovery to continue raising her children up until her eventual death.
Following a brief spell in the Armed Forces as a communications system operator at the age of 16, John returned home earlier than expected due to family circumstances and lived between the homes of his mother and his future wife, Nicola.
Losing his mother was the ‘final straw mentally’, he said, thanking Nicola and her family for their support during that period.
Michael Houston’s interview with John is in the current edition of PB magazine
‘My mental and physical state at this point were not great,’ added John.
‘I ended up getting therapy as I couldn’t handle my own thoughts and was pushing everyone away from me in various ways.’
Meeting brothers John and Stephen Cooke, two local runners, at Amazon reignited his interest in athletics and soon he tried the local Parkrun in Greenock, recording an impressive time of 17 minutes 28 seconds.
‘I got some attention after this and started running a little bit more and this is really where my journey in athletics properly started,’ explained John.
‘I was in a better place physically and running helped, but I was still not a good mental place.
‘Running became a way for me to channel my pain into a positive manner. It became a huge crutch in my life and I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I hadn’t put on my running shoes.’
John with seven other Scotland athletes at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon event (photo by John Mackay)
Having had his own problems with alcohol as a teenager, John has now been sober for a decade and married his childhood sweetheart Nicola last year. He now works as a personal trainer in Greenock.
Through the support of his wife, his family and the sporting community, John claimed his first Scottish title at the Shettleston Babcock 10k race at Glasgow Green in May and a Senior Scotland vest in road running in Antrim helped complete his remarkable personal journey.
‘In my 20s, between running and a support network of amazing people I had/have around me, I started to get more serious as a runner,’ he said.
‘I continued to put in the hard work not just for times but for my own mental well-being.
‘The running community is full of selfless and like-minded individuals that will support and cheer you on no matter the weather or your position in the race. It is great to part of that community in Scotland.’
*John’s story was told through Athletics Trust Scotland, a charity focused on making athletics more accessible across the nation’s most underrepresented groups through the ‘Transforming Lives Project‘.
John wins bronze on the track at the Scottish 10,000m Champs in a photo finish (photo by Bobby Gavin)