The Malta Independent 26 May 2019, Sunday

The mountain runner of the three hills - an exclusive interview with athlete Stefan Azzopardi

Raymond Scicluna Monday, 11 March 2019, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

This is an in-depth interview with Stefan Azzopardi, age 37, married to Christine and a father to Leon, 3 years, and Soleil, born only last Sunday 24th February. Hailing from Gharb, a small Gozitan rural and peaceful village, Principal at Ministry for Education and Employment, a long-distance runner who has of late immersed himself in Mountain Running. A self-made, hard-working athlete who has always been into sports until finding a new dimension in long distance running.

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1. Stefan, you are my next office workmate! By now, you are aware of my high esteem towards you but this did not happen due to our friendship. You earned my respect because you are a hard worker and made way into local athletics after years and years involved in Sports. I must admit I have a weak spot for athletes who yield great results post decades of training other sports. You started competing when you weighed 96 kilos, mind you even Zlatan Ibrahimovic weighs 99/100 kilo so your weight for those who are not into sports might consider you as overweight or on the brink of obese, but certain sports require being more physically built than others. What can you say about your previous sports experiences and how did you come up with the decision to embark on athletics? Do you think that the former sports were a good foundation for athletics?

First of all, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss with you my running story and for featuring this interview in such an important article which definitely highlights your appreciation towards our hard work as athletes. Heading on to the first question, I can say that I travelled through a journey in sports and tested several waters before I settled the grounds. Like many other young boys, I started off by chasing a ball pretending to play football and later teamed up with the Gharb football nursery. Back then, football in our village was quite limited because apart from being quite a small village it was not that followed. At that time, I kept on believing that one day we will succeed and team up into a great team and never missed any training sessions but as time went by I started to work and reside in Malta and this resulted in me crossing over to Gozo just for training. I could cope with that but I could not bear the feeling of sacrificing my time to ultimately arrive for training and find that most of the team mates did not bother to attend for the session. This was when I had to take up a turning point and start looking around for other sports which suit my liking in which I will be the master of my own and arrange the training slots according to my schedule. I resorted to weight lifting training until a friend of mine which is a Master in martial arts introduced me to kickboxing. When it came to promotion from yellow to orange belt this same friend suggested that I start off with some running sessions to shed off some kilos and keep fit as much as possible provided that the 2 hour kickboxing exam entailed quite a high level of endurance to finish it off. I wanted to complete this task as best as I can, so back then, I immediately resorted to the advice of an office workmate of mine who always impressed me with the amount of kilometres he used to cover weekly. I planned some routes and decided to start off slowly with some trial runs. When I discussed these first running sessions with this same workmate, he was impressed with my performance and he insisted that I should dedicate more time to this sport because he strongly believed that I could do great. Without thinking it twice, he subscribed me for the first upcoming race at that time being the Dingli 10K. This was way back in 2013. I decided to pluck my courage and attend for this race although I was sure enough that this was going to be the first and last race of mine. However, as opposed to what I thought before and during the race I felt so good and happy to be part of it that I immediately turned my thoughts and I knew I wanted more and more of this sport. When I crossed the finish line, I realised that I had performed quite well even though I weighed 96 kilos and it was just my first experience. I think that this was the time when I decided that this is my type of sport because it gave me the feel good factor that I was always looking for so I went on to check out the upcoming race list and started to subscribe for one race after the other. I started to read a lot of books about running, planned my training schedules and did not miss a session the whole summer. It looked like I was on the right rack because after just four months of self-programmed training I managed to record a time of 36.40 for a 10K race. I strongly believe that every opportunity in life is a lesson learnt. I am sure that the different stages throughout my journey to find my grounds have helped shape up to achieve what I am today. The different sports that I have participated in since a very young age have definitely kept me fit and active. Kickboxing in particular, is a sport which entails a lot of self-discipline and I think that mentally, this a equipped me with the much needed determination to succeed in athletics.

 

2. Stefan, you are one of the finest local athletes who more likely than not top the results list of every road and track race. A quick view of your PB's with 16.02 in 5km, 33.31 in 10km, Half Marathon in 1hr 12min 34sec and Marathon in 2hrs 49min 37sec speak volumes. Very few other athletes managed to supersede such results last year. We discuss athletics at length and you are more apt to run a marathon rather than a 5km. Is it the right time to beat a new PB in the marathon? What about the other distances, do you think there is still room for improvement? If you conduct a self-cross examination about your performances where do you need to improve most?

As you rightly said, I participate in a wide range of distances but yes, I must admit long distance running remains the closest to my heart. In general, I think personal bests are the target for most of us but I realised that these are unpredictable. Personal experience has showed that there are certain mishaps which can crop out of the unknown that will hinder your performance. This can happen even though the proper plan is being followed and unfortunately can occur when you feel in your top form. For the time being, I decided to invest my energy, challenge myself and focus more on shorter distances and their tactics. I was never inclined towards short distances and track so I believe there is a lot of room for improvement especially with regards to speed work and sprinting. I believe that in the long run these will help me to overall perform better in longer routes.

3. Stefan you surpassed track and road running races!! You competed against the best World Mountain Runners abroad. A new milestone, thanks to the Malta Mountain Running Committee, has brought this new opportunity to elite local athletes. Races even depicted in photographs tend to appear highly perilous and a tough feat to conquer. Races consist of man-made paths and with incredible lofty altitudes. What can you say about this new experience? What goes through your mind during such highly demanding races? Why do you prefer such races rather than a track or a road race?

I must admit that when I qualified for the Malta mountain running qualifiers I had a range of emotions. I was overwhelmed because I was going to represent our country abroad for the first time. At the same time, I was a bit afraid because I have never experienced this sort of running before so I was not exactly sure what to find. Soon after our arrival we went for a course inspection and I was welcomed by the several perilous paths and the tough terrain you so well described above. At this point, several thoughts crossed my mind. It was definitely not the sort of environment we are used to. This adventure is challenging both physically and mentally. You need to be tough and so well prepared to give it a go. Personally, I am that sort of person who is always ready to face challenges so instead of getting discouraged, I got more excited than before. I focused on the never-ending breathtaking scenery around instead of letting the dangers fear me out. Having said that, on the race day, I still had a constant battle against my own thoughts and I must admit that I repeated to myself over and over again why am I passing through all this suffering when I can practice my hobby in much easier conditions? It is easy to run a stage race at low altitudes but this was a completely different story. I knew that I would only stop when I am done so giving up was definitely not the option that I would choose and although painful at times, I enjoyed every step of it. No words could describe my feelings once the race was completed and I reached the peak of the mountain. It was one of the most awesome events I went through during my life and was already excited for the next experience! I felt much better about my abilities. In this sort of experience, you get out of your comfort zone, you push the boundaries and immerse yourself in another culture. Moreover, I met and got to know many professional athletes in the field and definitely loved listening to their different experiences.  I do not want to say that I prefer these mountain races over road races or track racing because although they provide the most challenge it might be too early to commit myself. I consider myself as a newbie in mountain running so it might be the euphoria of exploring new boundaries.  I think different types of racing are important because each type of racing shapes you up in its own way and makes you a stronger athlete. Moreover, I think setting new targets and exploring new boundaries also keeps up your motivation.

4. Stefan, you strive for improving and getting better and the coaches which you opted to hire are two incredible athletes namely Fabio Spiteri and Ivan Roshnov. Fabio Spiteri has been into athletics almost his entire life so apart from being highly knowledgeable about the matter, his experience both present and past surely leaves a great impact on his athletes. Ivan Roshnov was an impressive long distance runner who still enjoys some records which are almost unreachable. The Dingli 10miles route record belongs to Ivan and stands to date. I call him Lo Stakanovista, the workaholic, the mentor who delves deep into every miniscule issue of his athletes being rigorous timing, training schedule, diet, races etc...Stefan, it is a fact that you went places thanks to these coaches. What can you say about them and what are the most significant things which worked wonder for you?

Yes, as you very well highlighted, Fabio and Ivan are two incredible athletes which I highly admire and which I believe are a true inspiration not just to me but to most of us athletes. They definitely have one of the best CVs in sports. I am highly indebted to both of them because most of the journey I have travelled so far was only possible through their professional guidance. They always believed in me and realised my potential. Fabio was the first coach I ever hired and he helped me pave my foundation steps. Through his training programmes, I developed my first milestones and he helped me move on from a totally inexperienced man running on the streets with self-designed programmes to a more structured runner. He was the one who skilfully prepared me for my first full marathon. Then, after 3 years under his coaching, I felt that it was the time to set new targets and explore new boundaries. At that time I had discussed the matter with Fabio who was not just a coach but also a friend and through an amicable transition I moved on to my current coach, Ivan Roshnov. In Ivan I have found one kind of a coach whom yes as you very well said he delves into every minuscule of detail. He is a coach who constantly teaches his athletes. After every training session he is always eagerly waiting for my feedback,  and knows how to truly appreciate the effort one gives in. When I perform not as expected he is always there to try and find the root of the problem and provide me with advice. He pushes me beyond my limits and his professional guidance make me feel better and stronger day by day. Ivan's guidance has not only made me a stronger athlete physically,  but he helped me a lot with regards to mental preparation. He made me believe stronger in my abilities and this has a great role when it comes to performance. I have found great support from him when the path appeared more difficult to conquer. He is the one who introduced me to trail and mountain running.

5. Gozo is intriguing in many ways but having to travel to Malta every day back and forth is not just a nuisance but physically demanding and time consuming too. You have to wake up early to arrive at work in time and return back to Gozo in gloom and doom during Winter. At what time do you train in Winter and what is it like when you have double sessions? Do you use a threadmill to avoid being out in the dark?

Ray, it is already a great challenge for a Gozitan who works in Malta to take the journey so frequently let alone being an athlete and having a family of your own! Apart from the gross waste of time involved in the daily travelling it is so mentally and physically exhausting. I train daily and on some days I even have double sessions included in my programme. When I have just one session I usually leave it for the evening, after I arrive  back home from work so that I try to get as much rest as possible but on the days of double sessions, irrespective of it being a cold and rainy winter day or a beautiful summer one I have to carry out my first session for the day as early as 3.00am or 3.15am. I know that this sounds crazy for most people outside but otherwise there is no way how I could make it in time for work. Although the treadmill training is not the best form of training, yes I have got a professional treadmill at home and I do resort to it when outside gets dark early during winter as well as on other days when I arrive so exhausted that I do not feel like going out.

 

6. Gozo is famous for the three hills so we both know that running in Gozo means more uphill than flat routes. This in a way is positive. Unfortunately, in Gozo there is only one tartan track but which is 200m long rather than 400m. It can serve for some 100m and 200m sprints but it cannot cater for long distance running.  Sharp curves can trigger injuries. Some fellow athletes do speedwork on a horse running course made of sand, not the best one can get but if I am not mistaken it measures close to 1km. You do speedwork on a lane 1 at Gharb measuring 300m. Not the idyllic way! The Maltese keep complaining about lack of amenities and facilities and Gozitans who avail of much less are getting stronger and stronger. Gozitan pride by all means but there is something more. Races in Gozo have increased and the Gozo Half Marathon, apart from attracting hundreds of athletes, is recognized by European Athletics as the only 3 star race in Malta. Quite a feat indeed! Gozo is the equivalent of one large village in Malta, athletics a decade ago was non-existent, so where did all this sudden surge in athletics come from? Who were the masterminds, if any, behind all this or what was the move which generated so many followers and enthusiasts? What would you like to see more of in Gozo to improve running?

I fully agree with you that yes, Gozo lacks so many amenities related to our sport. As you rightly said, many times I use the track at Gharb, the village that I reside in. Training in this 300m track is definitely not the idyllic way but I must admit that with my so busy schedule I find it very comfortable provided that it is just a few steps away from my home. However, it is not as easy as it sounds because it is not the first time that I find it so difficult to find an empty slot when I could carry out my training provided that this single lane track is part of the football ground so at most times and at most times there is either some football training going on or else a football match. It is definitely not the available amenities which have resulted in the surge of athletics in Gozo! Looking at it from a personal point of view, I think that this is more a matter of preference for the individual type of sport. It is much practical and convenient to resort to such a sport like running which you can practically carry out your training at any time of the day especially when one has many other commitments. However, I strongly believe that efforts carried out by both the Gozo Athletix club as well as TRIGOZO are responsible for an indispensable part of this surge. Until let's say a decade ago, football was the only sport practised and followed on our Island but nowadays, thanks to these clubs, running as well as cycling and swimming are being given a lot of promotion through the organisation of talks etc at primary and secondary schools. Moreover, I think that the fact that Gozo athletes are achieving quite promising results also helps as an inspiration for others to enrol in the sport. I strongly believe that if we do get more amenities and working opportunities on our island, this sport gains more popularity.  The availability of a 400m track, which is a great asset when it comes to practicing of our sport will definitely attract those who are not fond of running in busy streets and the available tracks which are definitely not suitable for our sport! With regards to working opportunities, as I mentioned before a Gozitan who works in Malta dedicates at least 4 hours to travel to and back from work. If we are offered more jobs on our island I do believe that there will be more individuals who use their time and energy to practice the sport! It is not the first time that I have been stopped by locals who express their wish to practice running and who bring forward the argument that the time and energy spent in travelling is what is hindering and discouraging them from taking up the sport. Although I do it, I fully understand these people because training in the limited time we end up with is definitely no piece of cake and apart from a strong will you do need outside support.                            

7. Stefan, you have been at the World Mountain Running and we discussed the events at length but what impressed me most is when you had a discussion with a Kenyan athlete. He confided that in Kenya, athletes train with the group and not individually. For instance for a 30km long run, the elite ones would avail of three different fresh pacers every 10km. This for me is the way forward. Unfortunately, in Malta even though our athletes train for most of the same races, you rarely see elite athletes twinning with others of different clubs and coaches. What are your views on this? It is a fact that Athletix Club has managed to attract the biggest chunk of Gozitan runners and yet I don t think you train together. Again, it's a coach issue. The same happens in Malta and not just in long distance but even for a 100m race. Do you think such an attitude is hindering the full potential of the local athletes? Are you in favour that coaches can at least come to terms with each other, let's say, for two sessions per week to allow their athletes to intermingle during training?

As discussed by the same Kenyan athlete, in Kenya for most of the people, athletics is their profession. They are just focused on running so it is very easy for them to team up. Like you, this has also impressed me and would definitely be a dream to have all this time to dedicate to training. However, speaking on a personal level and I think this also applies to others like me who need to juggle between travelling to and from work in Malta, work itself, family and sports, this is a bit difficult. I need to divide the limited time available after my arrival from work between training and family commitments so although I like the idea of the Kenyans that they team up I find it a bit difficult to team up on most days because I often try to fit in the training along with my family commitments to try to give my utmost for all my priorities. One thing which also makes it difficult to team up is that different athletes have tailor made programmes especially when it comes to speed sessions which make it difficult to team up. However, having said that I do not mean that group runs are inexistent amongst us. There are random days when a number of us Gozitan athletes team up especially for our long runs even though we do not belong to the same club or guided by the same coach. There were also times when I teamed up with Maltese and even foreign runners residing in Gozo for some of the runs. When possible, I really enjoy teaming up for this sessions because it is the time when you also socialise, share experiences and find support especially during the times when running is not going according to your expectations.

 

8. Stefan, Sports in Malta especially for an athlete can very rarely make it as a profession so irrespective of how many efforts are undertaken by athletes, they still need to do an additional effort since young age. I am referring to the dual career path! Sports is costly, time consuming, physically and mentally demanding so a fulfilling career for life should be a must. I cannot see a manual worker managing to cope for highly demanding training schedule for years. You are yet another formidable example that you managed to sit for a University Degree, a bit later than usual but which yielded good results and allows you to train properly. How did you manage to cope with studies, training and work?

As opposed to the Kenyans discussed above, locally it is very difficult to take up running as a profession because we often need to juggle between the several commitments. I had embarked on my University degree a bit later than usual but I think that I have used this time to hone other skills of mine. Through time I have learned to make the utmost of my time, be flexible and use the available time as best as I can. During my time reading for the university degree I honed my time management skills. It was a time when I had to work on so many tasks at once which included, going to work in Malta, attend lectures at University, work on my assignments, study for the exams, work at our own place because me and Christine were going to get married, supporting my wife when we were expecting our first child and then welcoming and adapting to the roles as a parent together with keeping up with my daily training. It was a tough time but yes I did manage to survive, I consider myself as a highly motivated person, self-driven and goal-oriented so no challenge is big enough for me. I believe that with some time management and time efficiency everything is possible! Now some of the mentioned tasks have been dropped of the list because they have been completed so the load is a bit lighter. Apart from that, what I think also favours me is that although I have to cope with the travelling, my job involves office work so although most of the times I arrive mentally drained when I leave for the session I feel physically fit which would definitely not be the case for a manual worker.

9.  Athletics is an individual sport but very rarely can an elite athlete manage to make it to the top on his own. One needs many things in one's favour: a good sponsor, a supportive family, work which permits training, rigorous diet, a backing club, etc... What can you say about such issues and who is dealing with such issues to enable you to keep going with this running career?

Indeed, support is definitely vital to succeed in this type of sport and I think the ones that you mentioned are fundamental. It is close to impossible to keep up and succeed without outside support. My support system over the years has been so strong. I feel so lucky to be backed up by various individuals who help me in many different ways. I am heavily indebted to all these persons because I attribute a huge part of my success to them. A good sponsor is one of the main ones. Those not involved in the running field might think that our sport does not involve any major expenses as opposed to many hobbies because all you need is just some time and a pair of running shoes. However, this is definitely not the case. Us runners, spend quite a fortune between running equipment, vitamins, supplements, massages, travels, coaching, racing fees and the list goes on. A good sponsor will definitely help anyone both mentally and financially. In my case, the expenses of my running equipment, including the running apparel and running shoes are currently covered by main sponsor TeamSport Malta who have believed in my abilities and sponsored me with Diadora and INNOV-8. I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank all the management of TeamSport Malta because as I said this has helped me cover a great part of my expenses especially with regards to running shoes which needs to be replaced every 600-700km. This may sound like a huge distance for those who are not involved in running but considering that last year I have covered a distance of over five thousand kms, it amounts to a significant number of running  shoes :). In the previous years, I have also been sponsored by Barry Whitmore who has also been a great back up in the field. To mention just a few, other than these, there are also the vitamins, supplements and massages required for maintenance of the body as well as the coaching and racing fees for which we need to cater. A supportive family is definitely an asset and I consider myself so lucky in this regard. I am so thankful to my wife who is extremely supportive and patient. I think without her support all the hours I spend in training would have not been possible. She supports me emotionally and fully understands that from our limited time together I need to dedicate around 2 hours for training daily not to mention the additional 2 hr massage session every 3 weeks. Christine has been supportive since my early days in this sport. She also supported me by her presence during most of my races even during more difficult days when our son was much younger and we had to travel over to Malta with all his needs. I also find a great back up from my parents and my in laws who take care of my son on the days that my wife is away at work so that I can keep up with my training. As   mentioned previously, the fact that my work is office based also works in my favour because although I often end up mentally drained, physically I would still be fit for my session.

 

10.   Stefan, the official classification of MAAA road races running league has now been issued and you placed a respectable 6 th place. For many of us, it's still a respectable position but knowing your crave for more and your drive to improve, am sure you are not satisfied, considering last year s 3 rd place. What were the determining factors which made this overall classification different from last year? What I can vouch is that during some races, I saw you running in pain, can you confirm?

Well, let me start by saying that these past three months were not the best of my running career. I was enjoying an incredible form especially when I was competing in the World Championships but all of a sudden I got struck by a period of ongoing fatigue and felt like almost lost my form. As I mentioned earlier, I live such a busy life, having a full time  job for which I need to travel daily to and back from Malta, family and running commitments  which often leave me with not enough rest due sleep deprivation. I am like any other human and without appropriate rest now I understand that the body cannot cope with such a demanding schedule of mine for long. I started to believe strongly in what I used to read about the amount of hours a runner needs to sleep to give time for his body to rest. The body should get a minimum of 7 hours of rest daily and this was only a dream for me. The importance of sleeping has been emphasised by several people around me including my coach for quite some time, but I must admit I have ignored this to some extent and thought that my body got accustomed to sleeping for shorter periods but this has proved me totally wrong and all of a sudden I felt shattered into pieces. The coach was good enough to have the qualities to perfectly understand my situation and schedule a training programme which helped me recover. It was a period when I had to understand and practice less training and sleep more. This was not easy for me and I must admit that these months were frustrating, endless and killing may motivation. In fact, there was a point in time when I told my coach that I was going to skip participating in the MAAA road races running league but he knew that I was talking this way just because I was passing through such a hard time. He fully encouraged me to take part and go at my own pace and deep down I knew that there was no way that I was going to do away with running. Despite being in such a bad running form, I decided to go for it and enjoy the experience as I could. When you give your best and do so many sacrifices, it comes second nature to always crave for more and try to improve but at this point I can assure you that I was more than happy to go and finish the league races. In the first two races I was so bad health-wise and as you vouched, yes, I did run in pain but at the end I was so happy that I did not opt out of the league and managed to attend and finish them off. I kept believing in my motto that "you have to fight through some bad days to earn the best days of your life". Thank God,  as time went by I started to feel better day by day and for the the last half of the league I started to feel better and my performance also improved. I managed to rank 6th overall. If I had the fitness level I had the year before, I would definitely not be happy with the 6th place when last year I finished up in 3rd place because it is second nature for humans to always work harder to achieve more. However, this was not the case this time. I cannot explain how happy I am with the 6th place. I am sure that I will cherish this experience more and more as time goes by because it continued to prove that the body is more powerful than the mind could imagine. I could have easily opted out but I persevered and got rewarded. This will definitely serve a lesson for all the challenges that I will encounter from now on to keep on plucking up my courage to work harder and believe that I can carry out what appears tough feat to conquer!

 

Stefan, your success is made of sweat and sacrifices galore. You came from behind like an underdog, now you have become a prominent Elite long-distance runner. Keep it up and keep delighting us with your performances!

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