John Gillibrand is the incredible Vanishing Vicar of Pontarddulais whose rediscovered love of running has turned him into new man.
His story – from frustrated lockdown priest with an expanding waistline – to free-flowing Half Marathon runner is an inspirational one, as joyous as one of his Sunday sermons.
It also serves as a reminder at a time of harsh new year resolutions, that some kinder thoughts about looking after your own mental health are just as vital as any physical aspirations.
The running reverend has gone from over 15-stones down to just 12-and-half stones since he did the Couch to 5K plan and then graduated to Parkrun. But he says he is calmer and less anxious, too.
He has also strengthened the bond with his son, Peter, a regular marathon runner who has helped guide his father’s journey back to better fitness – both physical and mental.
John says that before the pandemic, the life of a West Wales vicar kept him pretty active, but then lockdown and the retreat to online connections began to take a heavy toll – literally.
“As a parish priest, my job involved a lot of informal exercise – a lot of running around as it were,” says the 61-year-old Anglican vicar of the Church in Wales.
“But the lockdown made my routine very sedentary compared to my previous lifestyle. I became aware of how much weight I was carrying and thought, ‘I need to do something about this’.
“It was becoming an issue and I realised I had to do something to change.
“The other thing to realise is that clergy are just like everyone else. We are not exempt from the emotional and mental pressures they everyone felt during lockdown.
“Again, I thought I need to do something. Thankfully, my son Peter told me, ‘Dad, come running with me!’ And that was the start of it.”
A former pupil of Manchester Grammar School, John admits his running days had ended with his final PE lesson.
Even then, he was hardly an enthusiast and preferred the occasional swim to the rigours of school Cross-country.
So, his first steps were to follow the Couch to 5K programme – a nine-week NHS-backed plan that begins with a brisk five-minute walk followed by 60 seconds of light running.
“My first run was a challenge – just getting up some speed,” says John.
“The Couch to 5K programme was enormously helpful. It breaks you in gently, doing a minute’s running and then walking again.
“What was really frightening was that I looked ahead to the end of the Couch to 5k routine to what it was like at the end. I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to do that!’
“But, every time I went out for each individual session. I would think, ‘I can do this.”