Clodagh is working out as hard as ever!

Clodagh Llewhellin

For most mere mortals right now, training schedules have been curtailed.

Yes, there are home workouts and the opportunity for a daily run or cycle, but in the absence of gym access or club training, maintaining fitness levels isn’t easy.

But then again, Clodagh Llewhellin is no mere mortal. Her current regime entails working out six days a week, with Olympic bars, sandbags, kettle bells and hill runs all factored in. In her words, there are no excuses.

“My family are very lucky where we live as we have farmland all around us,” she told me via telephone interview this week.

“I have training equipment at home and a hill on the driveway so it’s just about adapting.”

Many athletics challenges already faced . . .

To those who know her of course, the above will come as no surprise. After all, a woman who won national medals in cross country, 3000m and 400m hurdle races in Ireland, represented both Ulster and the Scarlets in regional rugby, once tackled a coastal half marathon at a week’s notice and now runs her own fitness company is probably more adept at variation than most.

From County Donegal to the county town of Haverfordwest, her sporting career has never dealt in half measures.

Competitive running began for Llewhellin at the age of six, when she joined the Finn Valley Athletics Club in Millbrae. It was a case of the outdoor track in the summer, the indoor one and cross country in the winter, and little by the way of respite.

“That’s what I liked best about the club, you did a mix,” she explained.

. . . And success achieved!

“I loved the hard work and learning the techniques. Athletics is a sport where you have to push yourself all the time and it’s the club where I got my hard training ethic from.”

And that ethic paid off. Guided by excellent coaches like Neil Martin and Mark Connolly, Llewhellin would go on to compete at a high level of racing for 22 years, with numerous achievements along the way.

There was a bronze in the Irish Championships in 400m hurdles, before her focus switched to longer distances. She was part of the four women team that won national 5k relay gold, before going on to compete in the European Championships in Brussels. And in what proved significant moments in the history of her club, Llewhellin was integral to her team winning the All Ireland League in both 5k and 10k cross country.

Change of distance brought more success

And the change in events didn’t come about by accident. Whilst studying in Liverpool from 1998 to 2001, during which time she represented Ireland over 10k at the World University Games in Spain, she worked with a coach called John Owens. The pair then forged a partnership that led to one of Llewhellin’s proudest achievements.

“John questioned why I was doing hurdles; he thought I was better suited to 3000m.

“I was struggling at the time with shin splints and stress fractures and I felt like I was picking up injury after injury. So John worked with me through rehab and my training totally changed – I started doing a lot more interval and fartlek training, and the track sessions became more intense.”

Llewhellin duly returned to Donegal after University, but kept in touch with Owens as she set her sights on the 3000m at the Irish Indoor Championships in Belfast. But although a lot of her previous running and training had been with teams, the prospect of preparing as an individual didn’t daunt her.

She would return from Belfast with bronze, and safe in the knowledge she was up there with the best long distance female athletes in Ireland.

Lineout ball taken by ClodaghChange of sport and change of life

Llewhellin would go on to compete until the age of 28, but by then was being hampered by a hip problem that had required regular cortisone injections. She took a break from running and her sporting career, not to mention her life, then headed in a different direction.

Her and now husband Jonny had already met several years earlier in Liverpool University. When Llewhellin, then named Clodagh McCool, decided to undertake a rugby coaching course, their paths crossed again.

“Jonny had a job in Donegal working as a rugby officer for the IRFU,” she explained.

“There was no woman’s rugby in our area and I wanted to try something different. My background was completely in athletics.”


Loved rugby from the start

So as well as gaining a coaching qualification, Llewhellin started playing and made rapid progress. She played on the wing in a Derry side that won the All Ireland League, and was promptly called up by Ulster Ladies. Her debut was one she’ll never forget.

“We played Leinster in what was the first ever Ulster Ladies game at Ravenhill. I was named on the bench and remember being absolutely piping during the first half - I was desperate to get on.

“Early in the second half I got the call and ran onto the pitch. I wanted to get involved and scored a try within a couple of minutes. It was great adrenaline rush.

“I was loving the buzz of rugby so all of a sudden I didn’t miss the running.”

Llewellin was also called to train with the Irish national side, who were then preparing for the 2010 World Cup in England.

“I was honoured to be asked but unfortunately didn’t manage to break my way in. The squad was quite settled and with a World Cup coming up I guess bringing in a ‘newbie’ would have been seen as a risk.”

Coaching rugby was a smashing new step

Her coaching career was also blossoming, as was her relationship with Jonny. The pair married in 2009 and 12 months later, moved to his spiritual home, Pembrokeshire.

By this time they were expecting a first child but Llewhellin, who had been helping coach the under 15 and 18 girls at Letterkenny RFC, was keen to continue developing youngsters.

She had worked alongside what she dubs a ‘great’ team in Teresa Dunn and Tessa Bennett, both of whom had come over from the Southern Hemisphere and remain close friends.  

And after moving to these parts, the first port of call was an easy one.

“I was pregnant but had plans to get back to playing and coaching afterwards,” she said.

Setting out in Haverfordwest

“Jonny’s dad Mike played for Haverfordwest and both captained and coached the senior side. Jonny followed that and in fact both of them can now say they’ve coached league winning team there.

“So we went to see Delyth Summons and Graham Dalton about the idea of setting up under 15s and 18s, and then hopefully a senior ladies’ side from that. I’d learnt it was important to get a structure in place first and have youngsters coming through.

“Both of them were amazing and so supportive. After a couple of years we got a senior team going and I remember our first game when we took about six players to Lampeter and had to borrow people from them. After that we grew and never looked back.”

Silverware followed alongside a great team spirit

An enjoyable few seasons followed. Under coaches Gareth Charles and Ben John, the side won the WRU Bowl in 2015 and a season later, were promoted from Division 2 as champions. As the club cemented themselves in Division 1, Chris Begen then took over and the progress continued.

Llewhellin, whose love of tackling saw her pack down as a flanker with the Blues, loved every moment.

“The banter we had was brilliant. We had people like Nina Bishop-Colville and Charlotte Wood who could really play and me and hooker Maria Phillips had a reputation for making ‘double whammy’ tackles together. Those girls I played with are now among my best mates and that’s the thing about rugby, you make friends for life.”

Haverfordwest RFC Ladies

Regional honours with The Scarlets

Further regional honours also came for Llewhellin, and a host of teammates, as they represented the Scarlets. But her biggest sense of pride didn’t derive from her own performances.

“The best bit was seeing girls I’d coached in under 15s and 18s, people like Jasmine Joyce, Lisa Neumann, and Sarah Lawrence go on to become internationals and so many others have done well too.

“That’s why it’s so important to start with a proper junior structure.”

During this period, Jonny also coached at Haverfordwest and needless to say, there was no shortage of rugby conversation at home. But by late 2017, the pair had two sons, Carwyn (9) and Cai (7) – and Llewhellin was in the process of setting up her own personal training scheme, titled True Fitness.

Clodagh and pals

Hard decision to retire – but she went out in style

In short, life was busy. And it led to a difficult decision.

“I played my final game at the start of the season against Pencoed. I wanted to get one last match in and thankfully we won.

“But the boys were getting older and starting to play themselves. Our away matches would often take a whole Sunday up and the thought of missing them play mini rugby was heart breaking.

“I get more pleasure now watching them and it means a lot for me and Jonny to be able to continue the association with Haverfordwest.”

Fitness training followed – and is a huge success

Her association with training still burns bright too. Her sessions and running clinics started at venues like the Racecourse, STP, and the Hook Social Club. Then in August last year, she set up a partnership with the new S7 complex on Withybush Road and True Fitness classes became an integral part of the gym’s timetable.

“Sully (Chris O’Sullivan) was very supportive and I’ve found him great to work with - the staff at S7 are brilliant and my clients love the facilities. Before the lockdown we were hitting maximum numbers and I’m now running circuit and HITT sessions online for all members.

“I run classes for them every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because it’s important to keep things going for people. It was something I was really nervous about doing but they are a great group.”

Plans are also afoot for the online sessions to double up as a fundraiser for NHS staff.

“Between the classes and my personal training I have about 30 hospital workers who train with me so it’s more important than ever now to show them the support.”

What had intrigued me throughout this hour long chat was learning about the ethos that drives Llewhellin. She isn’t one for over complication. Her goals are clear, her ideas are effective, and her basis for achieving isn’t built on complexities. Her main weapon is the most obvious one in the book – hard work.

“You see so many fitness gimmicks now with social media and so on,” she said, semi-aggressively.

‘True Fitness’ is hugely popular

“Sometimes you can have too much equipment. It’s mainly about work ethic and effort and that’s what the slogan True Fitness is built around. When you break it down at the end of the day it’s basic stuff, but it’s how much people put into it what counts.

“I see people starting off who know little about the techniques needed but they make massive improvements straight away. They might only be able to hold a plank for 10 seconds to start and next thing they can do 30.

“They see the benefits and are buzzing from it. Seeing people get confidence from developing physically, maybe losing weight or gaining muscle, makes me so happy.”

Competitive nature still there

But while coaching others is now her prime focus, was a woman with so much history in competing going to quietly slip away from the endurance scene? Obviously not.

Just to prior to her rugby retirement, she took part in the Ras Dewi Sant coastal marathon after being ‘dragged in’ by Jonny and her brother Darren, an ultra-runner himself. She had less than a week to prepare, hammered the steps by the Bristol Trader a couple of times, and duly clocked one hour 46 minutes.

“It was strange as I had no intention to race – but as soon as I was on the start line the competitive nature kicked in. I followed a well-known marathon runner round and I was determined not to let her pull away.”

She’s also helped fundraise for a poignant cause, Belle’s story, which has seen her complete the Broad Haven 10k, and the Cardiff Velothon and half-marathon. She finished the latter race in around 90 minutes.

And finally . . .

Throughout this conversation though, Llewhellin had re-iterated one concept. One it appears, she couldn’t do without.

“Jonny has been so supportive and is at the heart of everything I do. He guides me all the way and corrects me when I think I know best. His parents (Mike and Judy) have been incredible as well and I couldn’t run the business without their support – and that goes for my boys as well.

“Mind I think they know that without my hour of exercise a day I can turn into a witch.”

In the nicest possible way, I don’t doubt that.

So for now, Llewhellin is content. It’s not an ideal time for any personal trainer of course, but she’s adapted to fulfil her own fitness needs as well as those of her clients. She is clearly grateful for the family around her and when normality is restored, she’ll be ready to hit the ground running.

But will she still be fitting in the odd competitive event?

“It’s not something I’m striving for. Unless I’m roped into anything I’m alright.”

For the first time in the whole phone call, I didn’t believe her……