There are many ways to get to know the talent of Nick Griggs. You could put yourself in the stands of Morton Stadium last June, sitting alongside Rob Heffernan, as the former world champion watched the 16-year-old distance runner for the first time.
Unbelievable,” Heffernan repeated as Griggs skipped clear of athletes two or three years older to smash the Irish U-20 3,000m record.
You could sit amongst the Irish crew at the European U-20 Championships in Estonia a few weeks later as Griggs smiled across at them during the 3,000m final – the youngest athlete in the field unleashing an astonishing 55-second final lap to make Europe’s best teenagers look positively pedestrian.
Or you could sit in on the conversation between Seamus McCann and Mark Kirk last May – two wise men of Northern Irish distance-running – who refused to believe that Griggs had done what he was claiming.
At that point the young athlete from Newmills, Co Tyrone had never broken two minutes for 800m, never broken 4:10 for 1,500m, and had zero 5,000m form. Yet here he was, telling them he’d recently clocked a 14:26 5k in training and asking to be put in the A-race at a top-level event in Belfast.
“He’d no pedigree,” says Kirk. “We were thinking, ‘There’s no way you’re going to run that; you’ll make an eejit of yourself’.”
But the kid knew what he’d done, and he knew what he could do.
“They were all like, ‘No, this isn’t true, he’s not done this’,” says Griggs. “I don’t blame them.”
After Griggs sent McCann a video of himself doing a 3,000m time trial in 8:20 on a horrible day in Magherafelt, McCann agreed to give him a shot. “He said he was crapping himself before that race because we were all watching and basically thinking he’s going to fail,” says Kirk. “The rest was history.”
Griggs ran 14:15.98 for 5,000m, the fastest time in history by an Irish U-18. Now people were starting to believe.
But amid his triumphs on the track, Griggs had to come to terms with tragedy off it. In early June, his older brother Josh (19) died in a workplace accident.
“He was always my biggest influence and my biggest supporter,” Nick told BelfastLive last month. “If anyone ever doubted me, he always told me I was good enough. When I came back from a mini marathon in London and told him I didn’t think I would ever be as good as some of the guys there, he said, ‘Keep training and you will be’.”
In the aftermath of Josh’s death, he stayed true to those words.
Griggs didn’t just win that European U-20 3,000m title in Estonia. He won it with ease, and word of talent like his tends to travel fast. That night a horde of the highest-paid, highest-profile US college coaches were scrambling to get a contact for Griggs’ parents, trying to secure his services with a scholarship offer.
Griggs, though, is adamant his path will be paved at home, with UCD his intended destination. In his childhood GAA was the big passion, with Griggs lining out for Brackaville Owen Roes GFC since the age of five. Shortly after his European gold, he was back playing again, making a 20-minute cameo off the bench, but after aggravating a back injury he figured he’d “hang up the boots there.”
“I love Gaelic football, but now it’ll just be running. With the time (commitment) and with injuries, it’s so different, so high-intensity and I’m so prone to injury so I can’t be doing that if I want to be good at running.”
What happened next is something that rarely occurs in Irish sport, with his coach at Mid Ulster AC, Barry Holmes, recognising he didn’t have the coaching skill-set to take him to the next level and passing him on to someone who did.
Mark Kirk admits it was “a hard thing to say no to” when the offer came, and since August Griggs has made the trip to Belfast twice a week to train with Kirk’s group. His training volume has climbed slightly to 55-60 miles a week but the intensity has decreased, with Kirk ultra-conscious of keeping him healthy.
“You could say, ‘He’s a talent, let’s get him doing X, Y and Z, racing seniors and running 80 miles a week,’ but I’m trying to do things gradually,” he says. “I really want to make sure he progresses well and fulfils his potential.”
Anyone who watched Griggs in the summer knows that potential could be just about anything. When Kirk put Griggs through lactate testing and he could barely believe what he saw, the youngster hardly producing any lactate when reeling off 5:20 miles.
“Physiologically he’s unbelievable,” says Kirk. “He’s a real aerobic animal, there’s no doubt about it.”
But it’s not just endurance. On a warm-weather training camp run by Athletics Northern Ireland in October, Griggs fared best in a max speed test over 10 metres and also came out tops in tests measuring maximum force – this despite Griggs never lifting weights, his only strength work being an eight-minute core circuit he does each night.
On Sunday in Abbotstown, he’ll face the biggest test of his fledgling career, taking on a field of immense calibre in the U-20 race at the European Cross Country Championships. Still a week shy of his 17th birthday, Griggs will again be one of the youngest in the field so there’s no pressure, no expectation.
“To pull the Ireland jersey on again and represent my country is the biggest goal of the cross country season,” he says. “It’s a completely different environment to the track so I’m just going to do my best, stick with the front and see what happens.”
Wherever he ends when he reaches the finish, you get the feeling it’s only just the beginning.