Stand Up And Be Counted
How swapping booze for running helped comedian Liam Withnail hit his stride
Running saved comedian Liam Withnail from himself
THERE ARE SOME DATES
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.’
‘ 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’
JOKING ASIDE Liam loves the feeling of achievement he gets from running