The Malta Independent 15 November 2018, Thursday

Domine, Dirige Nos - an exclusive interview with 39-year old marathoner Andrew Grech

Thursday, 4 October 2018, 09:42 Last update: about 2 months ago

Raymond Scicluna

The spotlight today is on Andrew Grech, a 39-year old District Police Officer, married to Diane, father of 6-year old Julia Maria, a marathoner, current vice national champion of the local 5k and 10k, former footballer with Gzira United, coached by international coach Has Kesra and an avid Juventus fan "Fino alla Fine".

Andrew, you are one of the top elite local athletes in the long-distance fora, highly respected by many. A macer stalwart who is the favourite idol of many but, above all, an inspiration to the entire long distance running community. Mellieha has always produced good runners but you are their top athlete, their pride and joy. The Mellieha AC  is increasing from strength to strength both in numbers and in quality. You have been at this competitive level for quite a long time. I can recall your victory at the tough Gozo Half Marathon 2004, covering it in 1hr 17min! It has to be said that you started off in the shadow of Jonathan Balzan, then you had your winning streak until one day, a newcomer Charlton Debono, stormed to victory ahead of you. Give me your sensations of being a follower, then a leader, then finding yourself chasing the title again. What are your feelings about all this?

ADVERTISEMENT

First of all, thanks for this opportunity to feature in your popular weekly interview corner Ray. I started running over 17 years ago and have seen a lot of athletes in the top places ever since but, for a reason or another they give up after a handful of seasons, so I feel grateful for being around for so long. I have never changed club, therefore, I can't speak about other clubs, but at Mellieha AC I found my second family. I saw it growing from around 10 athletes at the time to over 200 senior athletes and around 50 kids from the nursery nowadays, thanks mainly to the hard working committee headed by President Ivan Cassar and head coach Has Kesra.

Life is full of challenges and I love challenges. I used to be beaten by Jonathan Balzan in the past. Beating him for the first time was a difficult task in itself when he was in his prime. Then I had a local winning streak on road races of over 2 years, before Charlton Debono came into the scene and started his winning sequence. I find that these challenges keep me motivated and always on edge. Deep down, I believe I still have more to give; there is still room for improvement especially in the full marathon distance.

 

Andrew, most times, your presence on the track and road races is highly positive and results are overwhelming. At one point, you were the holder of the title of the National Recordhalf marathon too. Which results and victories are most at heart? And on the other hand, which results would you rather forget, perhaps ones where you knew you could achieved better?

Out of the 100 or so victories I registered, there are some I will truly never forget. The first victory, in Gozo 14 years ago, remains obviously at the top of the list but, 3 other races come to mind immediately; the 1st time I topped the Maltese runners at the Malta Full Marathon in 2015 and a year earlier when I broke the then NR at the World Half Marathon in Copenhagen remain imprinted in my mind. These 2 races have a story behind them. The 2015 race came the year after the mishap I had in 2014 when I got dehydrated within 1.2kms of the finish line. In the process I lost both a potential National Best and the medal for 1st Maltese runner, therefore I was looking forward to win the title in 2015. The NR in the Copenhagen half marathon of 2014 arrived just 4 weeks after the afore-mentioned incident, and I was very positively surprised at my full recovery from that experience in such a short amount of time. Another positive experience that comes to mind with the National Team is my Personal Best at the 1st European Championships for 5,000mtrs in Baku , where i registered 15'21''. Personally, I feel that wearing the National team kit gives me that extra boost, that's why I'm seen wearing the red kit for 2 P.B.s.

Moreover, I have a personal best of 32'06" at Marsa Track, 2hrs28'16" in the Malta Marathon 2017 and 2hr24'12" at the Malta Marathon Challenge 2015.

 

Competing locally is one thing, but when competing abroad, especially representing Malta, things are totally different and much tougher. The longer the distance, the greater the discrepancy from the opponents. I do, however, consider your results from when you competed abroad as impressive. One cannot aspire for Podium placings but you managed a NR and a P.B. which, in my opinion, are results that is vied for and should be the way forward. Long distance in Malta, especially the top places, are being fought tooth and nail so, in that aspect you are used to chase and to lead for quite a distance. What do you think local athletics should do to continue making head-way even abroad? When abroad, what difference do you see between our way of doing things, amenities, weather, safety of training places, etc.? We always claim that we are at a disadvantage. In your opinion does this ring true?

Local athletics has improved in many ways, both on an administrative level and in results achieved. However, when I travel abroad I feel that we lag behind in terms of facilities. We are still a long way behind. I believe that training camps and frequent competitions abroad against quality athletes can really help to improve our level. For instance, if for long distances we manage to avail of an international pacer we could manage better times, and MQSs for international races could become more achievable than they are at present.

 

When a regular winner stops winning races and starts placing second or third, many times they either stop or compete less.  You kept at it, notwithstanding the cumulative second and third places. That resilience, by itself, is a commendable and impressive feat indeed. You kept yourself motivated even after losing leadership in the race. Motivations are still visibly present; your competitive level is appreciable and results are encouraging. I dare say you badly love competing. Or is there something else telling you that you still have more to give to athletics?

Yes, there is the love and passion for running but I feel the urge to compete. When you train hard and you strictly follow your personal coach, the obvious choice is putting yourself to the test and the only way to do that is to compete. Competing is a motivation factor by itself. Yes, it is frustrating that you place second, third etc. but I also have to take my age into consideration; I'm getting close to 40. Apart from that, the long distance athletes avail of various choices on several road races. One can opt for a 5k rather than a 10k, a half marathon rather than a full marathon, so again, thanks to this, I am still achieving top placings. My favourite race is the full marathon and so far, I am the first Maltese athlete who covered the distance first for three years in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Needless to say, I am confident to aim for more first places. I thank God, that, notwithstanding my age, I am still going strong both physically and mentally. This year, at the Nationals in the 5,000m and 10,000m races on the track, I was very close to Charlton Debono and we fought tooth and nail for every metre. Charlton managed to win the races in the last 100m sprint. Again, when you see that your efforts are productive and results are positive, it goes without saying that it is brings about a hunger for the following race.

 

Andrew, you are not just an athlete and a Police Officer but also a sensitive person who has helping the less fortunate at heart. Polrun proves to be another important race in the yearly calendar of local road races. The Malta Police Sports Committee and you were the mastermind of such a welcome initiative. This 5k road race along the Coast Road is reaching its 4th edition this year. It is held on Boxing Day and the money raised is donated to the Community Chest Fund. The President of Malta presents the trophies to the various winners herself. What are your feelings about this success, both in terms of presence and in funds raised? We all know that organising a race is never easy. For police permits, diverting traffic and having officials on the spot, the committee surely doesn't encounter challenges, but there are other factors involved in organising and presenting a good race with the least possible flaws to the athletes and the running enthusiasts. How does the MPSC deal with such a demanding task?

Polrun is my baby. I always wanted to help others through the sport I love and 5 years ago, during one of our meetings with the other MPSC members, we decided to organise a 5km road race along the Coast Road in aid of the Community Chest Fund. Just like you said, being organised by the Police somehow eases the headache of traffic control and diversions through our own personnel. Sponsors offered their help from the get-go, therefore, expenses were kept to a minimum, which meant more profit through race fees would go to charity. Boxing Day 2015 was the 1st edition with about 100 athletes, and at last year's edition we managed to double that amount. Who couldn't run the distance, walked it instead. This year will hopefully be the first edition where we'll be using chip timing and applications will be opening soon. At the end of the event a Race Presentation is held with H.E. President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, together with the Commissioner of Police,  presenting the trophies to the winners. 

 

You and I both agree that local long distance running has become very popular and is thriving with talent and running enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds.  More profile photos on social media are cropping up showing the individual wearing a racing bib on their vests and new road races are mushrooming every year to the point where they are close to being a weekly event all year round. This is highly positive. Moreover, elite athletes like you are enjoying various sponsorships which bring the running expenses  to a bare minimum; flexi training schemes at the place of work, free costly running watches, free running shoes and running clothes, nutrition products and supplements. The increased popularity in this sports makes it very appealing for sponsors. How do you feel about  all your sponsors? Do you feel having sponsorships puts more pressure on you to succeed?  How do sponsorships help you with regards to expenses and training time?

I can confirm that presence in long distance running has soared to exponential figures compared to, for example, the desert we had 10 years ago. Obviously, races are more interesting when you have a bigger number. Nowadays, most of the races attract not less than 200 participants, something that surprises many. Such races bring enthusiasm, positivity and consolidate friendships. On a personal note I feel lucky enough to have a supportive family. I'm a Brand Ambassador of a nutrition supplement company based in Belgium which distributes locally and I am also sponsored by a leading sportswear company, amongst others. These sponsors help lower my running expenses, like you aptly pointed out. The Flexi Training Scheme is a Government scheme which I benefit from, which gives me an exemption of a number of hours to be utilised for training. |I feel that these sponsors give you further motivation, and put more responsibility on your shoulders, to keep working hard and stay on top form as much as possible. 

 

Races are never an easy task. Athletics is definitely not always a matter of winning but more importantly, it is about improving the winning/finishing time. The marathon has always been considered as a tough race both mentally and physically. Irrespective of the perception that many have adopted  as of very recently, ie. that the marathon is being outdone by ultramarathons, I believe that a marathon is still a marathon. The marathon bears 42.2km which is no joke. I, for instance, am sure not to be up to it, and I feel I do best in the half marathon rather than other races. You, on the other hand, excel in the marathon but it was not always easy for you either. I recall the 2014 marathon where you fell three or more times, just 1.2km away from the finish line, as you described earlier in this interview. That scene is still vivid in my mind. What happened that day? What went wrong? What could you have done differently to avoid such a mishap? What precautions do you take now to avoid it from reoccurring?

Going back to the Malta Marathon 2014, although I was a seasoned athlete, it was still only my 3rd full marathon. I remember I felt a stitch on my right side at the beginning of the race and in order to ease the pain I decided not to take any liquids. I remember I was running at a very good pace, mid-way through, at 21.1km mark, I clocked 1hr11 flat. I felt light and comfortable even without liquids and kept this momentum. All of a sudden at the 41km mark, past the Manoel Island bridge, I felt like my body went into shut down. I couldn't go further.  At the time, I was leading the race with around 6 minutes to spare. I fell to the ground a dozen times. Somehow, I still put my mind to the task of finishing the race, placing 2nd Maltese overall in a time of 2hrs32'41". From then on I learnt my lesson. Drinking gradually throughout the race is the best way to keep hydrated for the full marathon distance. 

 

Your professional duties are to protect and to serve. Most of us , especially those my age, enjoyed watching movies or telefilms featuring police themes, namely Chips, TJ Hooker, Starsky and Hutch, etc. where Police chase criminals by car or motorbikes and then end up running after them. You form part of Division 6, which covers the Sliema, Gzira and Msida area; quite a distinctive perilous area. You have been in the Police Force for the past 15 years so I reckon you have a bagful of remarkable experiences to share. What are the most common instances Police are being called out to assist in? Domestic violence, thefts, drugs and criminals on the loose are some major tough tasks handled by Police. Can you describe some incidents where you felt that your presence made a difference and avoided bad outcomes, and others where you felt helpless? And can you share some other moments which you truly treasure?

Reports differ from one district to another and when speaking about a district like Sliema, which is invaded with tourists, especially in summer, we see, quite a high incidence of theft offences, mainly on beaches and buses. Victims are predominantly tourists themselves and most of the offenders we take to court are foreigners. Introduction to Civilian Policing in the area as a response to these crimes has had very positive results, as statistics show a good decline in recent years, although there's  still more to be done.

I'm a Police Officer and it was a very easy decision for me to join the Police Force as I followed in my father's, grandfather's and great grandfather's footsteps. We're a family of Police Officers with 2 of my brothers on the force as well. Working at District 6 is quite demanding but very rewarding. During my 15-year stint I had to deal with several incidents but a life-saving incident which comes to mind took place just over a year ago. A nursing aid called the station stating that an elderly woman who was under the care of the same nurse was not answering neither the door nor her landline, and the latter was concerned about her silence. A few of my colleagues and myself went on site and noticed a gas leak in the area. We gained access to the woman's residence through a side window and found the old lady unconscious on her bed. We assisted the nurse in giving 1st aid to the lady, who was later admitted to hospital alive, thanks to a quick response and great team work.

Moments that I treasure most during a stressful day at work are surely those deserved coffee breaks with my colleagues as these represent a short period of rest from enforced routine. It is also another way to conduct community policing as we stop in certain places and we become more familiar with the locals and it can also be a good opportunity to collect intelligence.

 

As with everything in life, there are setbacks in athletics too; injuries, lack of positive results, tiredness, lower motivation, not qualifying, pressure to perform always at best, etc. I may surmise that an injury is the worst one of this pool. Do you agree? You yourself had some injuries, like every other athlete. How was that period of rehab for you, refraining from running, training and obviously, from competing? What goes through your mind during that phase?

I concur with you, injury is the worst nightmare an athlete can deal with. Some injuries can be easily avoided through the right bio mechanics, the right footwear, nutrition and the right amount of training but others may be unpredictable and occur even when you're doing the right thing and when you reach your top form. Unfortunately, it happened to me twice. Patience and resilience are key for instances like these, although it is easier said than done. Thankfully, I can avail from the services of a Personal Sport Therapist and, through the MOC, I'm followed by a top Physiotherapist as part of its scheme. 

 

Andrew, your longevity in long distance running is yet another example of 'who dares wins'.  You gave so much to the local athletics scene and I'm sure there is so much more to come. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to interview such a respectable athlete and individual who is highly regarded and loved by many.

  • don't miss