Merciless Friends Get to Tattoo Their Names on This Man if He Can't Run a 5K in Less Than 16 Minutes

Credit: Courtesy of Colin McCourt

Here’s some advice from a former professional runner.

If you are too fat to fit in your dress shirts, only button the top button, then wear a baggy sweater over everything. It looks acceptable for a business casual office job, but you won't have fabric squeezing against your gelatinous belly.

It’s not a trick Colin McCourt ever thought he’d have to learn. He used to have a six-pack, run 50 miles a week, and compete at the world’s largest indoor and outdoor track competitions. Except the Olympics.

The Olympics are what made McCourt quit running, and may be the reason he gained nearly 70 pounds. In the summer of 2012, he had a New Balance sponsorship, lodging in London with some of the U.K.’s swiftest distance talent, and legs that could carry him through 1500 meters in 3:37—a time he hoped would make him competitive enough to represent his country on home turf at the London Olympics.

What he didn’t have was the mind to do it. “I was in amazing shape, but I just couldn’t connect my shape to my brain,” McCourt says. “I was not in a very good place.”

He’d have a phenomenal track workout one day, and assume the next would go just as well. A bad speed session could put him in a funk for two weeks. At the Trials, he finished the 1,500 in 3:52, not even fast enough to make the final heat.

MORE: The Best New Running Shoes of 2017

That evening he walked off the track and packed away his spikes and singlets. By the time his friends marched through London Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies, he’d taken a full time job at a bank, overseeing mortgages. He didn’t run another step for almost five years.

In January 2017, McCourt didn’t look like a rail-thin miler so much as a regular at the corner pub. Which he was. The weight snuck up on him: a few beers after work here, some pizza for dinner there.

“A few weeks became a few months became a few years,” he says. In that time, he met his current partner, Rebecca. They had a baby and McCourt found himself getting winded walking up stairs carrying his son.

He bought a new phone last February and started transferring thousands of pictures to the device. An old photo from his professional running days cropped up—he didn’t remember where it came from. In it, he’s in the midst of a fluid stride, muscles pulsing in his arms and legs. He realized just how far he’s let his body go.

He shared the photo on Instagram then went for a run.

Hours later, he posted a new photo. This time, with his shirt off to display the full extent of his weight gain—a beer belly sagging over shorts and an extra chin scrunched below his beard.

Most weight-loss experts say the key to shedding pounds is building a strong support system—friends who will encourage and motivate you. McCourt’s friends are not those people.

In a group chat with 17 of what McCourt calls, “the boys,” they heckled him—pointing out his man boobs, his wobbly chin, the belly button that spilled over his pants. His friends were all runners, some still professionally.

“I had to leave my phone alone for a few hours,” he says. His partner kept tabs on the conversation, though, and saw a troubling topic emerge. The boys had a challenge for McCourt: they’d each give him £100 (£1,700 total) if he could run a 5K in under 16 minutes by December 31, just over 11 months away. If he didn’t do it, he would have to get a tattoo of each of their names in Times New Roman font somewhere on his body.

He said yes. The chat went quiet. That’s when he started to worry.

Sixteen minutes to complete 3.1 miles is fast—guaranteed-to-win-most-local-races fast. It’s an average pace of 5:15 per mile. At the time of the bet, McCourt could hardy finish two miles in less than 20 minutes. He would need to double his pace to avoid the permanent ink.

“It’s mad,” he says. “After I agreed to the bet I thought to myself, ‘I’ve effed up, I am a total idiot.’”

Then he got to work. He’d wake up a 6 a.m. every morning and run or walk for 20 minutes. In the evenings, he’d go for a four-mile walk with his baby son. He stopped drinking every night and replaced pizza with salads and healthy protein. The weight melted off that first month.

MORE: The Best Workouts for Weight Loss

Each successive month he added more mileage. He started doing sprint workouts on the track and running 10 miles in the mornings to work. By September 1, he’d lost almost 60 pounds and could knock out a 10-miler in six-minute-per-mile pace.

“The boys started saying, ‘Just send over your bank information now and we will wire you the money,” he says.

Of course, they were not going to go down without a fight. For months in the beginning of the bet, they sent him Domino’s Pizza and Chinese food on a weekly basis. He gave the food to neighbors. He moved from Southern England to Scotland in March, and refuses to tell them his address.

“I start my Strava a few blocks from the house so they can’t figure out where I live,” he says. “They desperately want me to fail.”

He very likely wasn’t. He had lost more than 50 pounds and was well on pace to break 16 minutes. But in the beginning of September, in the middle of a normal evening run, he collapsed in the street. Doctors diagnosed him with a viral infection. He had to take several days off from running, and has not been able to train hard for the past month.

“My friends think it’s hilarious,” he says. “I had to tell them, ‘You do realize I passed out in the road, right?’ They told me, ‘Yeah, but you are fine now.’”

Barring death or a major accident a few days before December 31, they expect McCourt to hold up his end of the bargain. He has less than 90 days to complete the challenge. He estimates that right now, he can finish a 5K in 16:30. To chisel the time down, he plans on racing 5Ks every weekend.

“I am starting to get a bit nervous,” he says.

If he does do it, he plans on using the money to take his son and partner on a vacation. If he doesn’t, well, his friends are already using Photoshop to see how their names will look on different parts of his body.

“I have a friend named Johnnie, and he wants the ‘o’ to be my belly button,” he says.

Regardless, McCourt says he doesn’t regret taking the bet. He’s planning on continuing to run through the next year, seeing if he has potential to be competitive for his age again.

“No matter what happens at the end of the year it will have been worth it,” he says. “When I look at myself in the mirror, I will be proud of what I have accomplished.”

In that reflection, he may just also see the 17 names of his best friends scrawled across his skin. They really hope he will.