Sean Tobin, Ireland’s youngest ever sub four-minute miler got back to doing what he loves best this summer over the historic distance following a three-year wait.
Within weeks of starting an athletics scholarship at the University of Mississippi in 2014, Tobin, only 19 years of age at the time, clocked 3:59.91 to become the first person in the college’s history to break four minutes for the mile and the youngest ever Irish athlete to achieve the highly sought after accolade.
That first year as an Ole Miss Rebel, saw the Clonmel native break the school 1500m record and impressing across indoors, outdoors and cross country. Three years on and back in Ireland for the summer, the 23-year-old broke the 4-minute barrier again, not once but twice, before winning a first senior national 1500m title. And all within the space of two weeks.
Tobin chats with Fast Running about the mile, life as a Rebel, a full Irish breakfast and lessons universities in Ireland and the UK can learn from their US counterparts.
What was it like breaking the four-minute barrier for the first time?
My coach and I joked about going sub 4 before the race but I never thought it would actually happen. It was an amazing feeling. I wanted to break the 4-minute barrier as a junior and be the youngest Irish man to run sub-four.
Unfortunately, I didn’t break it as a junior [just over a month outside], but to become the youngest Irishman to go sub-four was fantastic and even to this day that stays with me.
At the end of 2014, you had a serious enough setback, breaking a metatarsal bone in your foot. Was that a tough time?
It was the first time I got a serious injury, so not being able to run was very difficult. Luckily I had an amazing team and support staff that did their very best to get me back healthy and stronger.
Fast forward to this summer, and three years after your first sub four-minute mile you posted 3:58.70 at the Morton Games and followed that up a week later at the Cork City Sports with 3:57.00. How did those races go?
I was very pleased to run sub 4 at the Morton Games, but after going back I was pretty disappointed to finish 11th. I didn’t really feel race sharp at the Morton Games, so before going to Cork I ran an 800m race in Le Cheile [county Kildare].
I knew if I wanted to be more competitive in the race I would have to be more aggressive from the start and get myself into the race. I got more involved in the race in Cork and didn’t even think of the time until I crossed the line, so it was a great bonus to see I ran another PB.
Back to 2014, was it a difficult choice to make the move to America for university?
I always knew I wanted to go to the states and finding the right place was the difficult decision. After I took a visit to the University of Mississippi I knew it was the place for me though.
After recovering from your injury you have become one the key influencers in the Ole Miss Rebels team. How big a role do you have now?
I have served as the captain of the team for three years now so I do my very best to look out for all members of the team. It is most important that the group is happy and enjoying themselves because at the end of the day if you are having fun they will perform to the best of their ability.
It is important that I am an example, especially for the younger guys and girls. And it’s also vital that they see the lifestyle outside of running is just as important as the training.
What has been your biggest success at Ole Miss?
Winning the national title in the DMR [Distance medley relay] has certainly been the highlight of my Ole Miss career so far. We had talked about winning it for two years so when it finally happened it meant so much.
What are you studying and how have found the balance as a student-athlete?
I am studying General Studies which consists of three minors (Business, Education and Recreation Administration). The balance can be tough at times, but a routine is very important and once you get yourself into that it becomes much easier.
What advice would you give to a young athlete who has been offered a scholarship?
I would advise them to do their research and look for a school that they see themselves being happy. A school with a good team environment and a coach who is willing to listen makes things a lot more enjoyable.
Are there any lessons universities in Ireland and the UK could learn from the US college and athletics system?
Yes, people need to come together! Coaches and athletes need to come together and create groups where athletes live and train as one.
Creating an environment that strives towards working together and performing at the highest level on an international stage.
And the coaching setup?
It is crazy to think that volunteer coaches are expected to provide major championships medals with zero support. It is very impressive what coaches at home have done with their athletes with how little support they receive. Many of the best coaches like my own coach Anthony Moynihan are unknown. If you were to provide someone like Anthony a wage and more support where they can give more time to focus on coaching, we would see greater development in the sport.
Track or cross country?
Cross Country will always come first in my heart because of the team aspect. There is no greater feeling than knowing your fourth or fifth man is just as important as your first.
Favourite racing distance?
I love racing the mile and the idea of doing something that was once said impossible. The general public has a much better understanding of a mile time compared to the 1500m, and I would love to see the mile replace the 1500m at the Olympics and World Championships.
Why do you run?
It’s a question I ask myself every day. Running is always there for you whether it’s good or bad times. It brings great memories, brings you to beautiful places and gives you the opportunity to meet amazing people.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt to date?
In the past three years, I have come to realise how important it is to enjoy the journey. It only happens once so enjoy every minute of it and take the opportunity to get to know your competitors. There are many amazing people you meet along the way.
What do you think are your biggest strengths?
My range and ability to race anything from an 800m to a 10k has got to be one of my biggest strengths. I love racing a 10k over a cross country course and really enjoy having a crack at running a fast 800m.
What is your favourite training session?
I have learned to love long threshold work. I like the idea of working the body comfortably. Each threshold session always makes you feel much stronger.
And what about your least favourite?
Lonely speed endurance sessions can be hard to pull the motivation together to get out there and enjoy it.
How have you developed since you made the move to America?
I have become physically and aerobically much stronger year on year since I arrived in the states.
What does a typical training week look like?
Monday – AM: 6-mile run, PM: 6-mile run and hurdle drills, core and strides
Tuesday – AM: Threshold work, such as an 8-mile tempo, PM 4 miles and weights
Wednesday – 10-mile run, PM: 4-mile run
Thursday – 13-mile run
Friday – AM: Interval work, such as 8x1200m with 400m jog recovery, PM: 4-mile run and weights
Saturday – 6-mile run
Sunday – 2-hour long run
Do you have any advice for those getting ready for cross country season?
– Have fun
– Focus on team rather than individual results
– Take care of your body outside of training
– Get a good block of training in before you race
– Cross country brings you to the most interesting places, so take the time to see more than the race venue when you are there.
Over the next 12 months, what are your goals?
– Run sub 3:55 for the mile
– Graduate from college
– Finish top three in NCAA 1500m or mile
– Make the European 1500m final.
What are your aspirations and ambitions away from athletics?
I want to take the opportunity to travel and try to visit 100 countries in my lifetime.
Favourite post-race food?
I always like to treat myself to some ice cream after a race.
What food do you miss from Ireland?
I always enjoy coming come to a full Irish breakfast.
Do you think Ray Flynn’s 35-year-old (3:49.77) Irish mile record will be broken anytime soon?
I certainly believe that in the right race and the right conditions the national mile can be broken and I would be pretty disappointed if it wasn’t broken in my lifetime.
Will you remain in America beyond your college years?
I would like to stay here and continue to train full time. Where I will end up is something I won’t know until next year.