World Indoor Athletics Championship 800m finalist Jimmy Watkins is reaping the physical and mental rewards of returning to running more than a decade after turning his back on the sport.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Runner
Just two years after taking on the world’s best in Moscow back in 2006, the former Welsh 800m champion hung up his spikes and picked up his guitar to pursue his other passion – rock music.
But having spent the next 10 years living the rock and roll lifestyle playing in a series of successful bands – including, Future of the Left - Watkins realised his health was beginning to suffer.
At the end of 2018, he decided it was time for a change, and he turned to the sport where he had made his name as a hugely promising Welsh and Great Britain international.
Since lacing up his trainers again, the 39-year-old has experienced huge benefits, including improving his mental health and restoring his appetite for competition.
After starting slowly by jogging, Watkins progressed to taking part in some 5ks and 10ks, before finding himself back competing on an indoor athletics track for the first time in more than 10 years at the end of 2019.
Watkins says: “I was around 16 stones last year, definitely drinking too much, definitely partying too much, I wasn’t living the healthiest lifestyle.
“I promised myself I would start jogging again to get fit. I spent about two months running for fun, just to get rid of the beer belly.
“Then something just happens, the racing brain comes back and you want to test yourself against other people.”
Watkins’ former coach Arwyn Davies suggested he should try running a 600m race at the Cardiff Metropolitan University Christmas Classic indoor meeting at NIAC, last December.
“I never thought I’d get back on the track,” said Watkins. “It started off just doing some racing on the road, which I did, a couple of 5ks and a couple of 10ks, then it was suggested to me by Arwyn, ‘why don’t you come up here and do a 600’?”
Watkins found that returning to the track where he last competed indoors in 2008, brought additional benefits.
He says: “I got fit and healthy for other people because it makes me easier to live with when I’m healthy, so I did that for my family.
“But for the first time all year, rather than running for other people, this was the first thing I’ve done just for myself.
“This is where I did my last ever race, so I just wanted to come back down here. I felt that I left on bad terms, so I just wanted to finish some business.”
As well as the physical benefits of returning to running, Watkins says it has also boosted his mental health and would urge others to try running in order to improve their all-round well-being.
Watkins says: “Maybe it’s something I didn’t notice so much in my 20s because it maybe wasn’t such an issue for me then, but running benefits mental health.
“Not that I was down, but I would be really up and then I would be like what you would consider a normal person – those spikes were just mental.
“Running has helped in that I’m not as up as I used to be, I’m more like a mid- level, between the average person and one who’s had 10 coffees. I’m like Jimmy Five Coffees, now! I’m in between.
“A lot of people don’t stick at running because they are doing it for the physical benefits. Then, after four weeks they find they haven’t lost the weight they wanted and they lose confidence.
“But I can honestly say that after one run you will have some mental benefit. If you just think of it in terms of what you are doing for your health and well-being, it only takes one run.”
Watkins has even started up an on-line running club called Running Punks, described as a “tribe of unique, incredible and awesome individuals with a punk mentality and a thirst for life and self-improvement”.
His return to running has attracted interest from around the globe with a film crew from London documenting his road back to fitness and World Athletics recently featuring his story on their website.
Watkins has also started a podcast with the intriguing title “Megabus to the Ritz”.
Explaining the name, Watkins says: “Imagine this Megabus on the motorway, coughing exhaust fumes everywhere,”
“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.”
Next stop for the Megabus is the Welsh Indoor Championships – the event where Watkins won the Welsh 800m title back in 2005.
The Llanelli-based athlete says: “I’ll do the Welsh indoors and I think I could maybe do a mid one-fifty for 800m.
“I think I can do it. If you had said that to me at the start I would have laughed until my teeth fell out. But I think I can.”
Having decided to quit elite level athletics back in 2008 because he had fallen out of love with the sport, Watkins says the spark has now been well and truly re-ignited since returning to running for his health and pleasure.
“I started doing it for my weight then I realised this is doing me a world of good mentally as well.
“So I’m back into it for the long haul now,” says the man who has been dubbed ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Runner’.