London Marathon: O'Reilly runs all the way to the bank: A hard-working racer has discovered a lucrative working life. Duncan Mackay reports

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MIKE O'REILLY would be a contender for a medal in this year's European Championships in Helsinki, if he was interested. Last year, he was one of the fastest marathon runners in the world and second in the UK rankings only to the World Cup winner, Richard Nerurkar. However, competing in a major championship would get in the way of the Londoner earning money. So instead, he will probably be somewhere else in the world enjoying another pay-day.

He is the archetypal professional runner. 'The British Athletic Federation just want to benefit from the hard work you put in, without contributing anything themselves - they just cream off the top,' O'Reilly, one of the favourites for the NutraSweet London Marathon on Sunday, said. 'All the years that I've been training hard and making progress, no one has ever contacted me and offered assistance.

'The only contact I have had with the British has been indirect - through a journalist, who informed me that I had been selected for the 1990 European Championships in Split. They were short of runners and I was going well.' He declined the invitation.

Down the years, the dual-national O'Reilly has been courted by the British and Irish. The closest he has got to representing either was at the 1987 World Championships when he agreed to run for Ireland, his parents' country, but was injured three weeks beforehand. 'Although I didn't run, I sampled the atmosphere in Rome and it didn't excite me,' he said.

O'Reilly's mercenary attitude stems from the huge risk he took in 1985 when he took the plunge and decided to become a full-time athlete, moving to Boulder in the United States to enjoy the benefits of altitude training. 'I was working as a welder during the day, training twice a day, then working for a friend as a driver in the evening,' he recalled.

The US road-running scene is the toughest in the world and O'Reilly was beginning to think he might have made a mistake when he was down to his last pounds 100. Fortunately, however, he won a race and the pounds 500 prize-money tidied him over. 'If I had had to come home and go to the British Board and explain what had happened and asked for help they would have said I was stupid for going,' he said.

It is O'Reilly's consistency over 26.2 miles that has allowed him to carve out a good living for himself. He has broken 2hr 13min on eight occasions and is near the top of the shopping list of every race director seeking value for money. He will pick up pounds 15,000 for running London.

O'Reilly, 36 next week, stands conventional marathon wisdom on its head. The theory is that each runner only has so many good races in his legs before the performances start to decline. But O'Reilly set his personal best of 2:10:39 in Fukuoka last December in his 20th marathon, 11 seconds faster than Eamonn Martin took to win London last year.

When he is in full training, O'Reilly, who has prepared for Sunday's race by running 150 miles per week in New Mexico, follows a monk-like existence. Two training runs a day are relieved only by meals and 15 hours' sleep. 'The key is being professional. I make a good living out of running and it's a lot easier than what I used to do. I'm proof that you can use this sport to get out of a council house and a crummy job.'