When Jimmy Watkins started running again, he didn’t have much of a plan.
No training schedule, no set distance or pace in mind. He was just going to run.
One thing he did know, though: “I wasn’t going to wear lycra for my first run.”
He elaborates: “Imagine if a chicken dies and gets reincarnated as a peacock. It wouldn’t turn up outside Cardiff Castle on its first day back showing off all his feathers. He’d still act like a chicken for a little bit.”
So Watkins simply wore something comfortable. “I dressed up like I was going for a walk, just in case I had to start walking,” he says. “I also took money with me, just in case I needed to buy something if I stopped.”
His attire and fitness were a far cry from his past life as an international middle-distance runner. Back in 2006 Watkins reached the 800m final at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, having clocked a PB and Welsh indoor record of 1:47.23 in the semifinals.
Up against a quality field that included defending champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, 2004 Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy and 2008 Olympic champion Wilfred Bungei, Watkins led up until half way and eventually finished sixth.
But despite that promising breakthrough, Watkins walked away from the sport just 18 months later.
“I fell out of love with it,” says Watkins. “I used to play rugby, but it had a lot of rules and I was always being told off. I enjoyed running, so I thought if I just ran then I'd be free to do what I want. But I got to a level with running where I suddenly found there were loads of rules in athletics too.
“My decision to stop was pretty clear-cut for me,” he adds. “A lot of it came from not being selected for the Commonwealth Games which, as a Welshman, is a big deal. But there was also this moment when I was warming up for a race in Nijmegen. Next to the track was a little wooded area. I was running through there and it just reminded me so much of running in Wales as a kid. I did not want to stop doing that and go and race on the track. I was just so happy running through those woods.
“It used to be that I couldn't wait to get on a track; that was where I wanted to be,” he says. “But this was the first time that I felt the opposite and it was the moment I realised I no longer enjoyed running on a track.
“I think I was always chasing this freedom. I just always felt better if I was left alone, doing what I want to do. That's when I decided that it's going to have to be rock and roll.”
After his last full season in 2007, Watkins pursued a career in music and went on to have considerable success as the frontman of rock band Future of The Left and, more recently, with The Vega Bodegas.
But as much as Watkins enjoyed the freedom outside sport, the rock n’ roll lifestyle took its toll and became increasingly more difficult to balance with work life and family duties.
Then in October 2018, Watkins was given a surprise gift from his wife for his 36th birthday.
“She bought me a frame with two pictures of the World Indoor Championships final in Moscow,” he says. “I uploaded a photo of the gift on Facebook and someone posted a comment with a link to the video of that race. I'd never seen it before, but when I watched it I suddenly realised that I hadn't just got fat and lazy, I'd actually lost a version of myself.
“I kept looking at that guy in the photo and he looked so happy, so after a few weeks I decided I was going to start running again. I wanted to get back to being that guy – that was a bigger motivation to get back running, more so than just to lose a bit of weight.
“I didn't start running straight away,” he hastens to add. “I wanted to have one last Christmas with the fat guy. I wanted to give him a proper send off.”
After enjoying that festive period – his last one before returning to running – there was one final wake-up call.
“On New Year's Eve in 2018, my favourite shirt exploded on my body,” he recalls. “I'd put so much weight on, a button popped off my shirt as I sat down in a bar. That button was a turning point for me.”
More determined than ever, he went for a run on 1 January 2019 around his hometown of Llanelli, covering 5km in 22 minutes. The next day he did another 5km run, this one just outside 20 minutes. By the end of the week, he had done four runs and logged 27 kilometres.
Instead of a training plan, he started with a blank diary and simply wrote the word ‘run’ on selected days. “I'd look four weeks ahead in the diary and see the word 'run' and I could put myself in my body in four weeks' time, and then think about how good I'd feel once I'd done four weeks of running.”
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Most of Watkins’ early runs were near to maximum effort, but a friend recommended the book ‘80/20 Running’ by Matt Fitzgerald which recommends that 80% of training runs should be slow and 20% hard.
“It made complete sense,” says Watkins. “I found that when I wanted to do the harder sessions, I could run so much faster. It sounds weird, but my biggest improvements came when I ran slower.
“Some people on Strava seem embarrassed to post slow times, but I always like going against the grain. To me it became a challenge to post my slowest run possible, then two days later I’d go out and run as fast as I can, just to blow people’s minds.”
Megabus to the Ritz
Since returning to running, Watkins posts regular updates on social media as a way of charting his progress and inspiring other runners. He also recently launched a podcast entitled ‘Megabus To The Ritz’.
“Imagine this Megabus (a low-budget UK bus operator) on the motorway coughing exhaust fumes everywhere,” he says, explaining the name of his podcast. “It's slightly bloated, it's full of people eating crisps, it stinks of feet. That was me over a year ago. The Ritz is the end goal. It's somewhere everybody wants to go.”
Watkins is still on that journey, but he is getting closer and closer to his destination with each month. He is now down to 17:13 for 5km, 34:37 for 10km and 1:22:56 for the half marathon.
After hearing of his comeback, two film makers from London met up with Watkins with a view to making a documentary about him. Their premise for the film was for Watkins to return to racing the 800m.
“At first I thought there's no way I'm getting back on a track,” says Watkins. “Up until then it was honestly something I hadn't thought about, but I spoke to my old coach (Arwyn Davies) and he said, 'yeah, you can do it – come down and do a session'.
“I did a session and I enjoyed it. I saw a load of people I hadn't seen in years and they were all really excited that I was on the track again. So I thought what the hell, let's do a 600m and see what happens and then take it from there.”
In his first track race for more than a decade, Watkins clocked a respectable 1:30.47 for 600m.
“I thought I could just jog through 400m in 60 seconds and then maintain that, but once I race started, I suddenly realised that 60 seconds is fast.
“Although I've been kind of forced into doing it, I fell in love with the track again as soon as I started running on it.”
Watkins has now set himself the challenge of running a sub-two-minute 800m by the end of the year.
“I've never run outside two minutes for an 800m so it would be really cool to have that long break from running and still run inside two minutes,” he says.
“A sub-two would be the biggest prawn cocktail ever at the Ritz. I would also love a 32-minute 10km. And a 15-minute 5km. Those are my three dishes at the Ritz.”
Watch: Jimmy Watkins' five tricks to stay motivated
The difficult second album
As a musician, Watkins knows all too well that it’s never easy when trying to follow up a successful first album with a second offering.
But, as a runner, he also knows how to find happiness and satisfaction in what he does.
“I would be totally happy simply using running as a way of keeping fit and motivating others,” he says. “But if I get a bit miserable when training isn't going well and then overcome it by running a fast time, that would make me even happier. So I'm motivated by misery and happiness.”
Whether he achieves the running goals he has set himself for 2020, Watkins has already benefitted from getting back into running.
“A lot of athletes who stop early in their career don't want to go back because they’re afraid to open those wounds,” he says. “But for me it has made it so much easier to live with my past.
“Before, the two parts of my life – running and music – just blended in. That combination of a runner's lifestyle and being in a band created a lot of regret. But returning to running has helped separate what I did as a runner and what I did as a musician.
“Everyone carries emotional baggage around with them. By chopping mine into two chunks, it's so much easier to carry. Now I know: that's when my running ended, and that's when I went on that weird rock and roll adventure. It's made it neater.
“It's kind of made me prouder of what I did as an athlete,” he adds. “And it's made me happy that I did walk away when I did. I've had so many experiences that I wouldn't have had if I had kept on running.
“And had I not gone back, I'd have probably looked back on my track career with disappointment at, say, not running a 1:45 or making a major outdoor champs team. But now I look back and I'm like, 'you know what, I did alright there'.”
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics