Stand Up And Be Counted

How swap­ping booze for run­ning helped co­me­dian Liam With­nail hit his stride

Runner's World (UK) - - IN THIS ISSUE -

Run­ning saved co­me­dian Liam With­nail from him­self


Liam With­nail never for­gets, in­clud­ing fam­ily birthdays, his wed­ding day and April 22 (this year’s Lon­don Marathon – his first). June 29, 2015, is an­other date that will al­ways stick in his mind.

‘That was the day when I broke down cry­ing while speak­ing to a bunch of re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic peo­ple about my drink­ing,’ re­calls Liam. He was 26 and it was the first time he’d at­tended a meet­ing for peo­ple try­ing to over­come a drink­ing prob­lem.

‘They had dif­fer­ent lengths of so­bri­ety, rang­ing from a few months to 25 years. I wasn’t sure I’d have de­fined my­self as an al­co­holic; I just knew I wanted to stop drink­ing and, after fail­ing, I needed help.’

His jour­ney to that point be­gan at the age of 13, when he would drink lager with mates in the lo­cal park. At 15 he was get­ting served in pubs; this of­ten led to him sleep­ing off the ef­fects of eight pints by curl­ing up for the night in a shop door­way.

‘At that time, I wouldn’t have said I’d a drink­ing prob­lem,’ says Liam, now 28. ‘It only got bad when my friends

went away to uni­ver­sity. My own un­planned gap year wasn’t trav­el­ling around Thai­land or work­ing abroad, but sit­ting alone in my par­ents’ Es­sex house for weeks on end, drink­ing vodka.’

By then – and for the next seven years – he drank al­most ev­ery day, of­ten un­til he blacked out. Things got worse in 2008, when he moved to Edinburgh to study, which gave him free rein to live how he liked. By then, he was not only drink­ing heav­ily, but also ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous drugs.

‘I got a taste for a non-stop party lifestyle and saw my­self as some sort of bo­hemian, when ac­tu­ally I was liv­ing in a grotty flat with a bunch of hip­pies,’ he says.

But the fol­low­ing year, his life be­gan head­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. At an open mic night in his stu­dents’ union, Liam found he en­joyed – and had a tal­ent for – stand-up comedy. It even­tu­ally led to him drop­ping out of uni­ver­sity and pop­ping up on the Scot­tish comedy cir­cuit. But of­ten it was booze more than adren­a­line that fu­elled his act.

‘Do­ing comedy is an ideal way to hide your drink­ing,’ he says. ‘You’re of­ten per­form­ing in pubs where peo­ple want to buy you a post-show pint. Many times, I would drink into obliv­ion, barely re­mem­ber­ing the next morn­ing that I had even done a gig the night be­fore.

‘I would ar­rive at gigs drunk or not ar­rive at all. I be­came that man in the pub who has drunk too much and is spout­ing non­sense. Some­times I did that on stage, get­ting through my 20 min­utes of ma­te­rial with­out mess­ing it up, but not al­ways. When it went badly, I wouldn’t get booked there again.’

Fi­nally, fol­low­ing yet an­other lost week­end while do­ing sev­eral gigs in Aberdeen, Liam re­alised his life was stuck in a blurry, al­co­holic loop.

‘The day after re­turn­ing from Aberdeen, I tried go­ing for one day with­out touch­ing al­co­hol. I’d suc­cess­fully reached early evening when some­one asked me to meet them in the pub. I ended up drink­ing and so I failed mis­er­ably.’

His fail­ure con­vinced Liam he needed help. The next evening he went to his first meet­ing for re­cov­er­ing al­co­holics.

‘I’d seen these types of meet­ings on TV, with peo­ple stand­ing up and talk­ing about their drink­ing, so it was weirdly fa­mil­iar, but re­ally scary, too,’ he ad­mits.

After dis­cov­er­ing he shared many sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences with those who were there that evening, he vowed to at­tend as of­ten as pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially dur­ing his first three months of re­cov­ery. He hasn’t had a sin­gle drink since that day three years ago. His so­bri­ety has sta­bilised his men­tal well­be­ing, too.

It was dur­ing the six months be­fore he tack­led his drink­ing that he ten­ta­tively started run­ning. Liam de­scribes him­self back then as an ‘un­fit mess’ but his de­ci­sion marked a sig­nif­i­cant lifestyle change.

‘I’d read about the Couch to 5K pro­gramme and it ap­pealed to me to fol­low a plan,’ says Liam, who saw run­ning as a way of adding some much-needed rou­tine to his chaotic life. He loved build­ing up his strength and stamina by reg­u­larly tack­ling the run up Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s fa­mous peak.

‘Once I’d stopped drink­ing, I would wake up re­freshed, en­er­gised and ready to run,’ he says. ‘I’d also given up smok­ing and drugs, so the more I ran, the fitter I felt. I loved that whole rit­ual of putting on my train­ers, lis­ten­ing to my mu­sic and feel­ing fresh air in my lungs.’

Liam was soon run­ning ev­ery other day. He en­tered 5K and 10K races, and, in May 2016, ran his first half marathon. More fol­lowed.

‘I en­joyed the goal of train­ing for a race by fol­low­ing a plan. When I was drink­ing I would think about some­thing I wanted to do, but it never hap­pened; I wouldn’t have the drive to see it through. But now, sober, I love the feel­ing that run­ning gives me of achiev­ing some­thing to­tally by my own ef­forts.’

His love of run­ning con­vinced him to en­ter this year’s Vir­gin Money Lon­don Marathon and fundraise for the char­ity Scope, which sup­ports peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

‘It seemed the next log­i­cal step,’ he says. ‘For 10 years I’d abused my body with al­co­hol. So it felt right to help Scope, which sup­ports so many peo­ple, some of whom who may never be able to run a marathon.’

Liam be­lieves he will al­ways run, as it’s now part of what de­fines him. He hasn’t yet writ­ten any comedy rou­tines about run­ning, but he has toured with a show that mines his old drink­ing habits for hu­mour.

He still at­tends meet­ings for re­cov­er­ing al­co­holics and vol­un­teers at them, too, as a way of giv­ing back to those who helped him.

‘I never used to un­der­stand why peo­ple ex­er­cised when they could be in the pub,’ says Liam, who is now mar­ried and set­tled in his ca­reer as a stand-up and a comedy-club host. ‘But I’ve be­come that per­son who would rather go for a long run, when be­fore it was drink­ing into obliv­ion.’


JOK­ING ASIDE Liam loves the feel­ing of achieve­ment he gets from run­ning

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