Lessons from the lockdown: John McAvoy Q&A

Former criminal John McAvoy is no stranger to lockdowns. Here he talks coping strategies, and why he's dedicated his life to making sure others learn from his mistakes

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While lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic is an unsettling period for many, it’s still a world away from the years John McAvoy spent in solitary confinement, serving out time for a criminal past that rewarded him with two life sentences. The reformed triathlete, whose story from a life of armed robbery to an escape through sport, is told through the much lauded Redemption: From Iron Bars to Ironman, joined 220 columnist Tim Heming for a Q&A on his current and future plans, including sporting goals a trip to No. 10 and how to take the positives from the coronavirus restrictions. 

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How triathlon helped former criminal John McAvoy turn from crime

As we catch up with John, he’s just finished a 7hr ride on his turbo trainer for another 200km leg of his virtual Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge where he’s raising money for the Trussell Trust, a charity that supports a network of over 1,200 food banks in the UK.

220: Hi John, how are you feeling currently?

JMc: Amazing. This ride has opened my eyes to how fit I am – it’s just a shame I can’t race! The first day of the challenge I rode about 250km and more and more people started sponsoring me as I was cycling. I hadn’t realised they actually would! I’m planning to get it done in 4.5 days and I’m meant to finish on Thursday. But I should have cycled across America to make more money!

220: Why did you decide to attempt this challenge now?

JMc: I was becoming frustrated with updates from mates who are working with vulnerable people in care and at food banks, and I was feeling guilty. I realised how much more comfortable my life is now compared to others, and I was just sitting indoors. What could I do to have an impact? My whole racing season was decimated, email after email saying: cancelled, cancelled, cancelled… It’s the first time in years I’ve been in this kind of shape, so I thought I’d use my body to do something. I haven’t used Zwift before, so the first couple of days were really bizarre. I’m used to sitting on a Wattbike looking at the numbers and suddenly these little avatars are flying all over the place.

220: How are you coping with lockdown?

JMc: I’ve experienced the extreme end of isolation. I was locked up for years for 24hrs a day, so with that perspective, it hasn’t affected me that much. But I do appreciate how others can be really struggling. Most of us have never had our freedoms taken away before; the ability to do what we want, when we want.

220: What advice do you have for anyone who is struggling?

JMc: My biggest tip is to keep a routine. Don’t start going to bed or getting up later than you’re used to, keep active, read books, educate yourself and use this as a moment of growth. The analogy I use is that everyone has had their lives put on pause and in this moment you have time to assess. Old habits and routines have been broken, so when you press play again you can start afresh. It could be an amazing opportunity to grow and come out the other side as a better, well-rounded individual and lead a happier life.

220: What is it about triathlon that still excites you?

JMc: Even though there’s physicality, strength and fitness, I love that it’s mind over matter. You only realise how important the psychology is when you do long-distance tri. I’ve been around a lot of world-class athletes who could not comprehend sitting on a turbo trainer for 7hrs, or riding 180km then getting off and running a marathon. Even though they’re mentally strong, they cannot break it down in their minds to accomplish the distance. It’s not like rowing for 2,000m where you don’t have time to think, you just know you’re in a lot of pain and it’ll be over in 6mins. Nothing comes close to when you’re on the Ironman marathon, and have to keep yourself in the moment. You learn so much about yourself.

220: Since your release in 2012, life has transcended sport. You’re now helping youngsters not to repeat your mistakes. How are you finding the experience?

JMc: I’m very driven and always thinking of the next thing, so I don’t often take stock. But eight years ago, I was sitting in a prison cell and last April went to 10 Downing Street. It wasn’t for a garden party, I was there to talk about opening up schools as community hubs to allow sports organisations to help children from lower socio-economic backgrounds keep active during the summer holidays.

Because they’re inactive, don’t go on holiday, sit in front of computer screens, and eat junk food – if they’re eating at all – the cardiovascular fitness of kids from these backgrounds regresses by 77% and their academic learning by 12 weeks over the summer. When they go back to school, they’re playing catch-up.

We were lobbying Theresa May’s government, and I was championing the argument. After the meeting, one of the political aides was a little gobsmacked, said he couldn’t compute that I was in prison and asked if I’d like a quick tour. He showed me where Winston Churchill declared war on Nazi Germany and walked me past the Cabinet Office. It’s mad to think that the 22 people sat around that table can control the lives of 70 million, and it made me realise how far I’d come with my own life.

A decade ago, I hated that establishment, and it did everything it could to bury me in Belmarsh prison. All these years later, I’m back advising what can be done to stop young people failing in the system. The programme was allocated £750 million and this summer, with UK Active and Nike, we’re opening up four schools to young people across London for proof of concept. After this situation with the virus, it’s going to be even more valuable.

220: Finally, do you still have sporting ambitions to aim for?

JMc: Hopefully. As it currently stands, I still have Alpe d’Huez long-course race at the end of July, and Ironman Hamburg if it’s moved to autumn and not cancelled completely – knowing what Ironman are like, they’ll probably backload the season. The lockdown has also allowed me to focus on my running, so I’m attempting the London Marathon in October. If I train purely as a runner from the end of the summer, I’ll have a good crack at it. On the back of a long training week, I ran 2:54hrs in Battersea Park recently and it felt relatively easy. I’d like to run a 2:30-something in October. I also still want to record a sub-8:30hr Ironman, and if Hamburg does take place in September, it could be perfect. I’m just going to stay in good shape and be ready to rock ‘n roll and race as much as possible when the curtain’s lifted.

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You can support John on his virtual LEJOG for the Trussell Trust here:John ‘s Zwifting from Lands End to John O’Groats