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Marathon Man

Liam Highfield is combining the baize with the roads this season as he aims to build fitness towards running his first marathon next summer.

Highfield is embarking on his marathon mission with the hope of raising money for a cause which he is closely connected to. The Stoke potter has spent much of his professional career battling Crohn’s disease and he is running the Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on May 24th to raise funds for the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK.

Highfield was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease four years ago at the age of 24. It has had a significant impact on his ability to practise and play in tournaments, but the Englishman has shown huge determination to keep his dream of a successful snooker career going.

“I had my biggest flare up at the beginning of the 2017/18 season and it put me into hospital for five weeks,” he recalls. “I was on a drug which was expected to work within 48 hours but it didn’t seem to be taking effect. The surgeon came to see me and said that if it didn’t work soon that I would need to have part of my bowel removed. Thankfully things improved over the next day or two. I got lucky.

“During that stretch in hospital I really didn’t think I would be coming back to snooker. I needed three blood transfusions, I lost three stone and I couldn’t walk 20 metres without stopping. Any time that I left the hospital it needed to be in a wheelchair. I wasn’t thinking about snooker at all, my only thoughts were about getting better and finding something else to do for work. I’ve pretty much seen the worst of Crohn’s. So to run a marathon for a charity associated with helping people going through the same illness is something I’m really pleased to be doing.”

Remarkably, once he was out of hospital, Highfield enjoyed the best season of his career, putting any thoughts of a career outside snooker to one side. He broke into the world’s top 64 and, in 2018, played on the sport’s grandest stage for the first time, as he qualified for World Championship at the Crucible Theatre. Despite coming up short in a 10-5 loss to Mark Allen, it was an emotional way to end an eventful season for Highfield.

“It was really nice that almost one year on from my time in hospital, I was getting ready to step out at the Crucible,” he smiles. “It was the greatest feeling in the world. Even if I manage to get back to the Crucible again, I don’t think the feeling will ever be like that. Competing in the World Championship was massively emotional. I want to qualify again this season so I can relive some of those memories.”

Highfield is an accomplished runner; his personal best for the half marathon is one hour and 27 minutes and he has run competitively in the cross country team for Newcastle Under Lyme Athletics Club. He believes that the associated fitness benefits can help him overcome the effects of his illness.

“The doctors say running is quite a good thing for Crohn’s,” he said. “I’m hoping that this marathon training will help me and keep it all at bay a little bit. It is definitely nice to go running at tournaments.

“On the tour there is a lot of down time between matches and we travel around the world. We visit some amazing cities and it is good to get about and see them. I’m not really one for walking about places so to be able to go on a run allows you to do the sight-seeing. It is just good to get out of the hotel and clear your head, too many players just sit in their rooms. With running, you aren’t reliant on there being a gym in your hotel, you just need a pair of running shoes.

“I went running in the mornings with Ronnie O’Sullivan at the International Championship in Chengdu a few years ago. Ronnie is a very good runner. He has been through a similar experience to me in that we both went through a stage of being quite obsessed with running. It can be very addictive. I think we both just keep things ticking over and try to stay fit now.

“It is going to be tough, training for a marathon alongside playing snooker, so I’ll need to plan my schedule. It is relatively quiet in January in terms of events, so I’m going to re-join the running club and hit it hard then. I have quite a natural running technique which is fairly efficient, so I think that will make it easier.”

Highfield isn’t the only player who suffers from Crohn’s. Two-time Crucible finalist Ali Carter also has the condition, as well as having recovered from cancer on two separate occasions. The 40-year-old from Essex has been a source of inspiration for Highfield, who admits he would love to emulate Carter’s achievements on the circuit.

“Everyone is different with Crohn’s. Ali has found something that works for him and he seems to have it under control at the moment,” said Highfield. “It is good to have someone on the circuit to talk to. Just anyone who has been through a similar experience. He’s been through much worse things than me and he is still a top player, which shows me it can be done. It can be very easy to think that you have a handicap and a disadvantage to the other guys. That isn’t a good mindset to have.

“Nothing can hold you back if you want it badly. I’m only 28, so I’m still young in the sport. I have plenty of time to win a ranking event and that is what I want to do in the next few years. There are lots of opportunities now, given how many tournaments there are. It would be great to win a ranking event, get that trophy in my hands and just prove that I can do it despite what I have been through.

“I hope that running this marathon will get a bit of publicity and information out about Crohn’s and raise some money. I don’t think people realise how bad Crohn’s can be. At the moment if you saw me, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong. But when you go through a flare up it can be very tough. I just want to raise awareness and help people to see that although it is a very unlucky thing to have, you don’t need to feel sorry for yourself and can still get on with life.”