Good NewsInspirationalHow Running Transformed a Prisoner into an Ultramarathon Champion

How Running Transformed a Prisoner into an Ultramarathon Champion

John McAvoy’s life reads like the improbable plot of a Hollywood blockbuster.

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It tells of a young man spiraling from a troubled upbringing in a notorious crime family, arrest, conviction, and a lengthy stay in a maximum-security prison for armed robbery.

But this is where McAvoy’s story twists – a tale not just of hardship but of redemption and the capacity of humans to transform.

From a young age, McAvoy found himself channeling his energy into destructive channels. A lack of positive influences and the allure of the criminal underworld – led by his uncle, Micky McAvoy, who co-orchestrated the Brink’s-Mat robbery in 1983, the infamous theft of over £26 million worth of gold bullion, diamonds and cash – saw him spiral out of control.

McAvoy’s mugshot after his arrest.

He recalls a moment when an associate of his uncle’s roped him into looking after a bundle of cash. “That was the moment,” says McAvoy. “I thought to myself, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He embarked on a career in crime, rising through the ranks from a lookout to actively taking part in robberies.

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Until one day, he found himself on the run from the police, hiding in a telephone box.

As he looked around, he heard the screeching of tires and was quickly surrounded by a swarm of armed officers in flak jackets.

He was sentenced to at least five years in jail.

The BBC article detailing his arrest and sentence.

This is where McAvoy’s story, then aged only 18, could have gone down a predictable path of reoffending.

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But unlike so many criminals, the isolating confines of his prison cell during a second stint behind bars gave him an opportunity to change everything through sport.

Fuelled by broadcasts of the Tour de France and the boring confines of a prison cell, McAvoy decided to embark on a physical transformation – a glimmer of hope in a seemingly hopeless space.

The cell became his gym, the relentless repetition of calisthenics and strength training his escape.

A cell similar to the one McAvoy was locked in for 23 hours a day.

“They used to just give me 23 hours of lockdown so I used to be in isolation. When I wasn’t in isolation, I used to just stay in the cell just training,” McAvoy recounted to RSNG.com.

With every hard-fought repetition, McAvoy wasn’t just building muscle fibers; he was rebuilding his sense of self-worth.

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But the final catalyst he needed happened in November 2009 when McAvoy received news that a friend of his had been killed during an attempted armed robbery in the Netherlands.

Channeling that anger and sadness into his gym work, and with the help of a prison officer, Darren Davis, who spotted his sporting potential, McAvoy attempted to break the British record for the marathon distance on a Concept 2 rowing machine. He beat it by seven minutes.

McAvoy after setting his first record.

‘I realized I could use my body to do something positive in my life and achieve something good,’ he told Runner’s World magazine.

Upon his release, McAvoy refused to be defined by his past.

He set his sights on success. Records seemed to crumble before him; he set three World Records and eight British Records while in prison alone.

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His rowing turned into running marathons which turned into ultra-marathons. Triathlons segued into grueling Ironman tests. This former inmate embraced the kind of freedom only endurance athletes truly comprehend – the relentless forward movement, the ability to redefine what the body and mind can endure.

From rowing to trail runner and triathlete.

“[Sport] taught me discipline, respect, and how to work towards goals, which in turn showed me that I didn’t need crime to give me an adrenaline rush,” John explained to Positive News.

His transformation caught the eyes and hearts of many – including Nike, who made him an ambassador in 2017.

Yet, what elevates John McAvoy beyond being merely an athlete is his unrelenting mission to make a difference.

McAvoy became a Nike athlete in 2017.

Impacted by his own experience, he founded his own initiative, the Alpine Run Project. Working specifically with troubled young people, many with similar backgrounds to him, he set about helping change the next generations’ lives through sport.

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He said: “I felt it was my obligation to create opportunities for young people who would never normally get to come to these places.”

Running, fitness, and mentorship became the cornerstones of his program. He plans to take a group of inner-city kids to compete in the iconic UTMB trail running event in Chamonix.

McAvoy coaching runners in prison.
McAvoy coaching runners in prison.

And he doesn’t plan to stop there: he has set the back at getting 100,000 young people across Europe into trail running by 2027.

“I want to help other people experience this place. I want to unlock doors for these young people to see how big and beautiful the world is – to show them that it’s obtainable,” McAvoy said to Positive News.

Through pairing aspiring athletes with world-class endurance coaches, he’s created a roadmap for them to enter professional sport and turn their lives around.

McAvoy believes “sports and running can actually break this cycle of crime… [it] provides them with confidence, structure, discipline, goal setting… all tools that people in crime lack”.

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