Conor O'Keefe has been forced to press pause over the last couple of days.
A torn chest muscle is the price for the punishment the ultra-runner’s body took last month.
The initial plan for April was to run 32 marathons in 32 counties. That, of course, was before Covid-19 stepped in, the pandemic lockdown rendering Project 32 a non-starter.
But rather than bow to the virus and its attendant restrictions, O’Keeffe plotted an alternative undertaking.
Working within his 2km radius, the 28-year old Glanmire native set himself a series of daily tasks, all of which would be tackled to raise money for Pieta House, which provides counselling for people who are suicidal.
O’Keeffe’s recent diary entries make for an exhausting read.
On April 9, he knocked out 320 push-ups as part of his 10,000 end-of-month
target, 13 consecutive minutes of burpees as part of a 14-day burpee challenge, and, just as a gentle warm-down, he pulled a car for 1km.
On April 19, he ran 66km.
By this point, though, his body was in torment. A stabbing pain burned inside him. He was dizzy and light-headed. Walking up the stairs left him breathless, a most unfamiliar experience for an ultra-runner.
The white flag was eventually hoisted. Temporarily, mind you. His final undertaking — running around the back-garden patio for a minimum of 24 hours straight — has been pushed back by one week to this Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9.
For a young man who thrives off such a hectic and limit-pushing existence, the forced inactivity of the past week, coupled with the world around him also being on hold, is rare.
There was a time when this unhurried pace of life would have greatly unsettled O’Keeffe. He’d have sought to outrun it, as he did for most of his 20s. He’d have turned to booze; anything to avoid being left alone with his thoughts.
He no longer drinks; he hasn’t since January 26 of last year.
Depression no longer stalks him.
“The last couple of days, I’ve gone from pushing a people carrier for 1km to being buried inside in my duvet for hours on end but, through it all, I have been able to keep myself on a fairly even keel,” O’Keeffe says.
“I am capable of enjoying the highs of completing some mad idea, but, equally, I’m capable of living without those highs. I can be right there in that middle ground.”
It wasn’t always so. For far longer than O’Keeffe would like to remember, he was on a rollercoaster of euphoric highs and crashing lows. There was no in-between, no balance. His graph was incapable of maintaining a steady trajectory.
“When I crossed the line after my first marathon and 100-mile race, there was this huge surging high followed by this steep come-down.”
“People always say, you have to be able to manage the time you’re feeling down, but you also have to be able to manage the time you are feeling really up, because these ups are not going to last forever. You have to be comfortable with life being just humdrum.
“Because I am so grateful for my life and so grateful that I am still here, still breathing, I can never be too down about any particular day. Each day is a day I am still here and a day that is full of hope and opportunity for me.”
Such appreciation stems from O’Keeffe having contemplated taking his own life.
He harks back to the final months of 2018, his lowest ebb. And in keeping with his story, this turbulent period arrived directly after yet another notable accomplishment.
At the age of 17, O’Keeffe scaled Kilimanjaro. By the time he was back on home soil, though, he felt nothing but emptiness.
In October of 2013, his ascension in the world of Muay Thai boxing — his background was in taekwondo, winning European gold as a teenager — secured him an Irish title fight in front of a packed Neptune Stadium. No joy. A left hook in the final round knocked him unconscious. In the days after the bout, he was again hollow.
A benign cyst on his brain, discovered years later, would bring the curtain down on his endeavours inside the ring.
Chasing a new escape, he turned to running.
Not one for baby steps, he jumped straight onto the start line of the 2018 Cork marathon.
Ten weeks later, he completed the Connemara 100-mile road race.
Contentment, though, continued to elude a mind forever critical of the person it held captive.
“After Connemara, I dropped off. From August to December, I leaned heavily on alcohol. There were a lot of things around that time that led to an awful lot of alcohol abuse.”
“I was, yet again, after coming to this point where I thought doing a 100-mile race was going to get me back on track. But it did the complete opposite. It left me with this hollowness. It took me a long time to learn that these events will neither make you nor sustain you.
“My lowest point was probably New Year’s Eve 2018. I was after drinking really heavily that night and I just felt like this — and by ‘this’ I mean life itself — is not for me. I was like: ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore’.”
“When I woke up the next day, the first day of the new year, I said to myself: ‘This is make or break, you either fucking grab your life with two hands or you let go’.” He went the first 25 days of 2019 without alcohol and although there was a brief, one-night lapse, it hasn’t since passed his lips.
A week or so after his final drink-fuelled write-off, O’Keeffe was out running by the Lee Fields. Preferring to get his kilometres in before work, he typically sets off from the Kingsley Hotel car park around 5am. On this particular winter’s morning, he was 300m or so gone when his Bluetooth headphones flatlined.
“When the music stopped, I heard three things: My footsteps, my breath, and my thoughts. I began to think. Why am I out here running at this ridiculous hour? Why am I deciding to change my life? Why have I decided to kick alcohol?
“When I started to ask those questions, it brought me back through my whole life and I began to process all of the big things in my life. “All the moments that used to give me this really potent reaction weren’t giving me that on this morning; they weren’t giving me that raised heart rate. I wasn’t hurrying them out of my mind anymore.”
“I was letting them sit there, letting them have their say. I was listening to the Conor that had been through those times and what he had to say about it. When I started to do that, I started to make sense of myself and my life.”
That morning’s 30km run took three and a half hours. Not exactly a clipping pace, but O’Keeffe felt as if he were out on the road for no more than 45 minutes.
So enthralled by this newfound clarity, and so fearful of losing it, he put back on his sweat-covered gear after work that same day and churned out another 10km.
Several demons banished, O’Keeffe was crowned Enduroman champion less than four months later. Not only was he the first person since 2016 to finish the 322km run in the south of England, he became the second-ever athlete to complete the course inside the 60-hour limit.
The parkrun distance of 5km seems unbelievably minuscule when set against a 322km ultra event and yet it is the monthly gathering at the Lee Fields — O’Keeffe and whoever turns up run 5km at 5am — that stands among his proudest achievements.
His first 5at5 was in July of last year. Prior to the lockdown, it was attracting up to 40 people each month.
Dawn runs with old friends and completing Project 32 are top of O’Keeffe’s list for when we get out the far side of this pandemic.
“All those who show up for the 5am run do so for different reasons. But we are all joined together on that particular morning. It is creating a community.”
“It could be lashing rain, but after the run, we’ll stand under a tree, chat, and drink coffee, very kindly supplied by Tony Speight of West Cork Coffee. It’s heartening to see.
“The races, they are fantastic, but what makes me smile the most is to know that people are actually getting something from what I am doing and are thinking about their own lives in a positive way.”
O’Keeffe concludes: “For Project 32, I’ll have a weighted vest, which will hold 32 1lb packages when I set off on day one. After each marathon, I’ll take a pound off. It’ll end up with me running with 1lb on the last day. The weights symbolise the weight that negative thoughts had on my mind for so long. Mentally, I have already shed that weight. I want to lose it again, physically, and hopefully, I will be losing it with anybody who felt like this resonated with them.”
- The link to Conor O’keeffe’s donation page is idonate.ie/tfs323232