The Malta Independent 22 March 2019, Friday

The multi-tasker with a heart of gold - an exclusive interview with Alan Camilleri

Raymond Scicluna Friday, 15 February 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Today's spotlight is on 39-year-old Alan Camilleri, a Macer stalwart, a lightweight, soft spoken, kind hearted long distance runner. Graduated B.Ed (Hons) Mathematics and post Graduate Diploma in Lifelong Career Guidance and Development. A Marathoner, FIFA Assistant Referee and Career Guidance Teacher.  Three roles which demand personality, ability, time consuming, patience, willingness to improve and highly attentive at all times!

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1. From the introduction, one may easily surmise that you are a multi tasker, a hard worker and a pro active person always striving to improve in both your sports career and at work. Surely you didn't rest on your laurels!! From an obese secondary school student to a 60 kilo athlete for a 1.63metres. You started competing in the 5k, 10k and the half marathon but which as of lately you embarked on the Marathon. You are adding more time on training, mileages, doubts and fears after all the assurances you got from your remarkable PB's in the aforementioned distances. What led you opt for the toughest and longest distance?  A marathon stands by itself for many reasons but what does it really mean to you?

First of all, please allow me to thank you Ray and The Malta Independent for providing me with this space to share my experiences, and above all, to share our common passion for sport. I want to make it clear with the readers and the general public, that I'm writing here not to promote myself and my achievements, but my only intention is to use my story to attract and encourage more youngsters to come closer to the world of sport.

My running journey started way back in May 2010 clocking 43mins 55seconds in a 10km road-race organised by Mellieha Athletic Club. I was always fond of running due to the fact that I'm also a football referee. In fact, during the year 2004, I was introduced to the world of running by a friend of mine and former referee Chris Lautier. Without any proper training, I managed to run the Malta half-marathon in 1hour 37 minutes... however I didn't have the guts to take on running seriously at that time!

Until reaching 17 years of age, I was never interested in practising any sport. During my secondary school years, I remember myself very clearly as an obese boy, weighing close to 100kgs, inactive, and 'hating' sports with a passion. I was that type of student always trying to find excuses to skip P.E. lessons, and always waited eagerly for the midday break to 'sprint' to the tuck shop for a burger or two!! Now that I've been involved in sports for more than 20 years, weighing 40kgs less and feeling healthier than ever, I still cannot believe the whole transformation that happened to me! It's never too late to start exercising and adopting a healthy lifestyle, it only takes some courage to start... all the rest will follow.

Coming back to my switch to the full marathon distance, back then I never imagined I would train and run a marathon, and even along my first running years I used to say "never ever a marathon for me!" However, when I started experiencing the sport, race after race, year after year, I realised that running a full marathon is a must and a necessity. I was also feeling that running long was my forte both in training and in races.  After long consultations with my coach Has Kesra, we decided together to go long! After 6 years of running, we thought there was enough experience, mileage and courage to step it up. I needed a new challenge in my life. To-date I ran two marathons and when I try to explain to people what it feels like, I often answer back "the full marathon is a different sport on its own!"

A marathon is a closed box, there's no right formula to succeed. Being the major event of the year, I always try to peak at the right time. This entails loads of preparation and specific detail in various aspects. My training program revolves around the chosen marathon, and my coach makes sure that I am fully prepared for the big day. From my end, I need to pay special attention to nutrition and ideal weight, especially when the marathon is fast approaching. The weighing scale is by far my worst enemy! I always keep in my mind, a fantastic advice from my coach - "try running a marathon with a 2-litre water bottle and see how it feels!"

Finally, the most important aspect of them all is the mind. Definitely, a marathon brings a lot of doubts and fears. You have to be mentally prepared to survive all the aches and pains, and to get out of the tunnel when you really hit the wall. Many experts say that a marathoner normally hits the wall around the 35th kilometre, and yes it's so true! The psychological aspect plays a huge role in all this. "Finishing a marathon is a state of mind that says anything is possible."

2. As a marathoner who loads over 100 km per week in training, how do you manage to combine the role of Assistant Referee which again it demands running and to be more specific more agility than that of the marathon. I don't doubt the agility cause you proved that on various counts with your impressive PB's (5km in 16:41, 10km in 34:23, half marathon 1:15.29) but I may question the energy to perform as Assistant Referee post your marathon training. How many kilometres do you run during a football match and is there a difference in kms between a local football match from those you referee abroad?

Undoubtedly, it is not easy to practice two sports concurrently at top level. I still cannot believe that I've been doing this now for almost a decade! Although, they are both based on running, football refereeing and marathon running are two different sport disciplines which require different forms of training regimes.

Typical training sessions for referees include dynamic and agility exercises, change of speed and direction focusing on side-ways and backward running, high intensity training, high speed running and sprinting. Several studies state that referees cover around 11.5km in match, whereas assistant referees cover 6.5km. On my Garmin watch, I usually notice that during international matches I cover a slighter longer distance than in local matches. On average, during a local match I cover approximately 5.5km. During international matches abroad, I can run distances close to 7km. This may happen due to higher-tempo matches, faster players, and styles of play which are different from the ones we are used to in Malta.

Referee fitness tests evolved as well along the years. Around 15 to 20 years ago, the test consisted of 2x 50m sprints, 2x 200m sprints, and the so-called Cooper test, which is a 12-minute run on the track covering at least 2700m. Nowadays, the fitness test being incorporated is more match-related. Assistant referees start with the Change of Direction Ability (CODA) test. Assistant referees to have sprint 10m forward, 8m sideways left, 8m sideways right, and 10m sprint to the finish. This has to be done in less than 10 seconds. Then, 5x 30m sprints to be done in less than 4.7 seconds (with up to 90 seconds rest in between each repetition). Finally, the referees must run 40x 75m in 15 seconds (with 20secs walking recovery in between each run).

During major UEFA competitions and seminars, referees must run the Yo-Yo test (up to level 18.2) which is definitely more demanding. Furthermore, referees must undergo regular body fat composition tests during the season. Fitness is top priority at the moment in refereeing. Referees are athletes too.

3. After years of calls for video technology better known as VAR to be implemented into football in order to help referees, we saw its first major rollout in last Confederations Cup and is now being used in Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and as from next season UEFA Champions League. You are still young and so are more apt to technology. What are your views in this regard since you have not yet experienced and experimented with this technology both locally and internationally? As an assistant referee, I think the role is to collaborate in full with the referee, do you recall instances when you spotted some irregularities to which you reported to the referee and the latter ignored and then you learn through visual aids post matches that you were right? What are your feelings during a football match?

Last year, following several trials held in major football competitions, VAR (Video Assistant Referee) was incorporated into the Laws of the Game by the International Football Association Board which are the official football's lawmakers. The use of technology is definitely the way forward in football.

Personally, I agree with the introduction of VAR in our beloved game. Many a times, we referees are faced with crucial and difficult decisions which have to be taken in a split of a second. Decisions which may decide a championship or a relegation! Much is at stake nowadays, and it's only fair that if there's a possibility to turn a wrong decision into a correct one, let's go for it 100%.

At present, the Malta FA Refereeing Centre is studying the possibility of introducing VAR in some Premier Division matches. This will first involve personnel training as well as an offline exercise prior to actually implementing it in real terms.

Referees are always under the spotlight, so apart from being in tip-top physical condition, we have to be psychologically prepared to deal with all the pressures which a football match may throw at you. The role of an assistant referee, apart from being the 'expert' in the offside rule, he/she has the duty to assist the main referee in other match situations. During a match, I always try to fully focus and don't let other thoughts cross my mind. My main objective is always to help the main referee and other members of the refereeing team without interfering too much.

Out there, we have to forget about our own performances and always act as one team. Coming back to one of your questions, there were times where I communicated certain decisions to the referee and I was of great help in taking the right decision, but unfortunately it happened vice-versa as well. In refereeing, you win as a team and you fail as a team.

There's much to say and discuss about refereeing and this space is definitely not enough. Albeit the fact that football referees are not so 'popular' amongst the general public, I can truly say that it's a fantastic opportunity for youngsters to take up this career. Refereeing shaped up my character, it challenged my personality, it boosted my confidence, it made me fitter, I am the person I am today thanks to this. I am so grateful to the refereeing world.

4. Delving into your CV, year 2019 will be your 17th consecutive year on the FIFA list as FIFA Assistant Referee making you the longest serving Maltese FIFA Assistant Referee. What a feat! Which were the most important highlights of your referee career and the most difficult ones which made you reflect your role? What are your intentions for the future?

My refereeing journey started refereeing in 1998. The start, as everything in life, is never easy.  

I still remember the embarrassment I went through when I attended my first referees' training session at Marsa athletics track - I didn't manage to complete one whole lap without stopping and was completely out of breath! When I was appointed for my very first matches in youth football, it was somehow strange to hold and run with the referee flag, and it was even more bizarre to run and to find my position on a football pitch! Year after year, with loads of hard work and perseverance, I managed to improve my fitness which definitely helped me to become a better referee.  For all this, I am much obliged to my former referees' fitness coach, Euchar Tony Grech. An extraordinary gentleman indeed, who instilled in me the love for athletics and sport.

In 2002, the Referees Department nominated me on the international list for Assistant Referees. It got me by surprise, I never expected this opportunity coming my way at this stage of my refereeing career. Opportunities don't come so often - if a window of opportunity appears, don't pull down the shade! It was a huge task for me. I think I was the youngest ever being nominated on the FIFA list. I had to switch immediately from refereeing in the second division straight to the Premier League. I had to establish myself in a new world very quickly. Looking back, I have no regrets with the decisions I had to make. Today, I am here with a huge baggage of experience which I am more than willing to share with all sports enthusiasts.

Talking a bit about numbers, I refereed close to 500 matches in the Premier League and 80 international matches played abroad. I was also appointed for 8 major cup finals - 3 FA Trophy finals and 5 Super Cup finals. Apart from the cup finals, one of my major highlights was the Premier League Decider between Hibernians and Birkirkara (1-3) played in 2013.

From my international matches, I can truly highlight the UEFA Europa League Group Stage matches in which I had the opportunity to referee top European teams like Sporting Lisbon, AZ Alkmaar, Young Boys and Rosenborg. During these matches, I always accompanied former FIFA referee Clayton Pisani who was the only Maltese referee promoted to Category 1 in recent UEFA referee categories. I can truly say that Maltese refereeing is of a very high standard, and we always leave a very good impression when officiating in UEFA/FIFA competitions.

With all the joys and accomplishments, difficult moments come your way too. Two particular episodes made me reflect and grow. Once during a first division match played at the Hibernians Stadium, I was assaulted by a supporter who managed to climb over the fence. It was a huge shock, many questions start popping up whether it's worth it to risk your health whilst you are giving your service. However, sad moments like these can only make you stronger, and it's only up to you to react and stand up again.

Another difficult moment was when I made a crucial mistake during an important international match. I suffered a lot from this, and this match kept haunting me for a long time. Nonetheless, perseverance and determination were the key to keep moving forward.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn! Setbacks can only make you stronger. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Never quit when you hit rock bottom. Nobody's going to win all the time. On the highway of life you can't always be in the fast lane.

I'm not that kind of person who thinks a lot about the future. I live in the present and always try to make the best out of all opportunities that come my way. Right now, all I want is to keep enjoying refereeing, to represent my country abroad in the best possible manner, and to mentor and motivate young referees. After hanging up my football boots, I still wish to be involved in the refereeing sector. Refereeing gave me much, and it will be my turn then to give something in return.

5. One of the main reasons of these interviews is to promote the dual career path. Who better than you who not even managed to fulfil your academic career by first graduating as a Mathematics Teacher and teaching secondary school students for a decade, excelling in sports as Assistant Referee and a long-distance runner and now as Career Guidance Teacher can enlighten us further on the matter. You guide students in career decision-making for senior school students by even offering and providing them with a job exposure better known the Career exposure week to their liking at various private and public companies and workplaces. What is the overall feedback of this welcoming initiative? Did you encounter some former students who thanked you for helping them out making the proper choice?

The career exposure experience is a fantastic opportunity for all Year 10 (Form 4) students in Malta and Gozo attending state school colleges. During this experience, students have the opportunity to shadow and observe professionals during their daily work routines for one whole week.

This is a holistic experience for our students. Prior to the actual placement, students are duly prepared by career guidance practitioners in their respective schools. Students are encouraged to prepare their own CV as if they are applying for a job. Furthermore, they have to attend a mock interview at school. Students look so forward for this part of the experience, and one can notice that excitement is starting kicking in. During the experience, students have to reflect on their daily observations through the filling up of a reflective logbook including various exercises focusing on skills, qualities, and future career plans.

This is a life changing experience for most of the students in which they have the opportunity to grasp and understand the basic skills and competences needed on the place of work. Feedback so far has been tremendous, from both the students and employers. Apart from this initiative, the Career Guidance Section within the Ministry of Education and Employment, offers a varied career programme for all secondary school students.

My current role of career guidance teacher allows me to get to know the student from a whole different perspective, it's much more different than teaching in a class. During my sessions, be it one-to-one or group, I have to be a good listener, knowledgeable, a motivator, empathetic, supportive, amongst many others qualities. I always try to share my own stories related to sports, and I always encourage them to take up a sport or involve themselves in any kind of extra-curricular activities. The role of educators is so crucial nowadays. We are role models.

6. So now, you can help others by guiding students opting for the proper career and future job according to their likings and abilities. Futile to say, in your days, this was not a possibility and yet you embarked on a triage!! A guidance teacher, an Assistant Referee and a Marathoner. Are you so insatiable, always aiming to get more of life? How did you manage in all this? How did you succeed to juggle with sports and academics and how did you cope with time management?

Where there's a will there's a way, that's my motto. Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing and greatest blessing of them all is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. And I am truly thankful to God.

Time management is the key to succeed. I am lucky that my working hours permit to train not that early in the morning before work. I have also the luxury sometimes to have a quick rest before my training in the evenings. Lately my life has been getting busier, and free time is increasingly at a premium.

During the weekends I reach the climax though! When others are out enjoying the sunshine, spending time with family and friends, my weekends are mostly dedicated to sports. Normally, I train early in the morning and then I have refereeing duties in the afternoon or evening. Usually, I try to slot my rest day from running on Saturday so that I am well rested in preparation for my weekend matches. 

Time for adequate rest is crucial. Many a times, athletes have to skip social events in order to rest well and to wake up very early in the morning to race or train. This is the life of an athlete!

7. Being a competitive long distance runner is a lifestyle. We both know that there are loads and loads of sacrifices to endure on daily basis if one really needs to distinguish himself. I trust in you that the present PB of Rotterdam 's marathon 2:52.36 would surely be improved by large. Do you agree with me, that apart from the competitive edge which is alluring, long distance running can easily be taken as maintenance training once one stops from the arduous competitive training regime? According to you, what are the benefits which you find from long distance running? What are your aims for the future as a marathoner?

Long distance running suits my personality, though, and all my habits I've acquired over my lifetime I'd have to say that this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful. Running for almost a decade now has also made me stronger, both physically and emotionally. I'm the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I'm the type of person who doesn't find it 'painful' to be alone. Which is why the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being.

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit you raise the bar, and by clearing each bay you elevate yourself. In long distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be. Running helps me to deal with bad days and frustration as well. For example, when I'm criticised unjustly, or when someone I'm sure will understand me doesn't, I go out running so that I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent.

To-date I've managed to finish 2 marathons - the Malta marathon being my maiden one in 2017, and Rotterdam marathon in 2018. God's willing, next April I will be running the Paris Marathon. Furthermore, I have participated in 19 half marathons, 6 of which were international races including Edinburgh, Prague, Almere, Lugano, Valencia and Amsterdam.

Unfortunately, I've suffered from cramps in both marathons. During my first marathon, I started with mild cramping very early at around the 19th km. Cramping got so worse during the last ten kilometres that I had to stop several times. I was in tears, I was close to drop out but I kept going. Crossing that finish line was an unbelievable feeling. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you are running and you start to think 'Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore'. The hurt part is the unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.

Future aims include training and running the Berlin marathon in 2020. And hopefully, year after year, keep exploring the world through running - combining two of my greatest passions together. Please allow me to mention a fellow runner, team-mate, and motivator Andrew Grech. A fantastic champion and yet so humble and friendly. He's a role model for all of us, and he's the perfect example that you can still perform at your best in all running distances even though embarking on the 42.2km mark.

Long distance running has moulded me into the person I am today, and I'm hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I'll be happy if running and I can grow old together.

8. Alan, you form part of one of the biggest athletic Clubs on the island. Mellieha AC excels in producing and nurturing long distance athletes. One of the success stories is You. How did it all started? How long have you been running under the guidance of coach Has Kesra? Mellieha AC is a one large happy family where one helps the other, fair competition and sincere friendships. Mellieha managed to attract running enthusiasts from all kinds of life. From where do you think, Mellieha succeeded to reach out for such persons?

My connection with Mellieha AC started through a very good friend of mine, Charmaine Mifsud who encouraged me to join this fantastic club. We used to teach together in the same school, and we share the same passion for sports. I am also grateful to Joe Farrugia and Richard Borg for their knowledge and guidance during my early running years.

I've been running under the guidance of coach Has Kesra from the very start, it was September 2010. Apart from all the running knowledge acquired, I must say that we built a very strong connection which goes beyond coaching. His philosophy is based on human relationships, team work and camaraderie. When it comes to running, his mantra is 'run slow to run fast' and he is a firm believer of long-term planning. It's been an amazing journey so far together, and I am still craving for more. To keep on going, you have to keep the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow.

I also spent a couple of years helping out and coaching in the club's nursery. A great experience indeed, in which I also obtained the Level 1 IAAF coaching qualification through the course provided by MAAA. Unfortunately, due to time constraints I had to stop, however I intend to further my studies and involvement in coaching in the near future. Sports, and life in general, is all about sharing experience and expertise gained along the years with the younger generation, in order to make them dream and succeed.

Finally I would like to thank my coach and club, and the refereeing centre led by various Directors/Heads along the way, for their immense support shown throughout the years. Special mention goes to my refereeing colleagues and running mates, which are too many to mention! Last but not least, I would like to express my gratitude to my family and friends, for always being there in good and bad times.

 

Alan, you are a sheer example of self-made, determination, hard work, perseverance and abilities combined. You managed not just to test the waters but indulged much further exploring new heights. From a long-distance runner to a marathoner, from a Mathematics teacher to a Career Guidance Teacher and from a national assistant referee to FIFA assistant referee. Kudos friend.

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