ON Saturday Conor O’Keeffe will run the marathon distance in Co Clare, as part of an extreme challenge called Project 32.
It began in Dublin last month, and over the course of 32 days the Cork man is running 32 marathons, one in each county.
He ran the first one with a 32lb weighted vest, that is being decreased by 1lb for each marathon run. The extra weight symbolises the difficulties that come with carrying mental health problems, and one of the goals of the run is to raise €100,000 for Pieta House.
Well known from appearing on RTE’s Ultimate Hell Week earlier in the year, he was also on the documentary series ‘I’m Fine’, which aired in 2021.
On top of this Conor has been regularly involved in podcasts in Ireland and started his own called ‘Flip the script’ where he explores a variety of themes relating to sport, mental health and motivation.
When he spoke to the Clare Champion last week he was just after his 16th marathon.
“We’re exactly half way through, it’s that strange time when you have done 16 and all you have to do is another 16,” he joked.
Physically, he said he was coping better than he expected.
“Because I was starting with the 32 pound vest and dropping a pound a day, I found it very heavy for the first five days, very heavy, and it was very slow going because of that.
“When it got to about 26 pounds I started to feel like my body was adapting and the weight was getting that bit lighter. It started to get a bit better then, I had my issues, but it’s been going well.”
Mental strength is hugely important in long distance running, and he was having his tested daily. “There were about three or four days when I hit the 21km mark, and thought ‘f**ks sake, we’re only halfway’.
“The sun is belting down on top of you, your legs and your feet are full of blood, they’re all swollen and not doing what you want them to do.
“There have been a couple of days when I’ve had to take a bit of time to say, ‘Don’t worry what kilometre we’re on right now, we have 42 of them to do, we’ll do that and get the day over and done with’. There have definitely been times I’ve had to refocus.”
The day he spoke to the Clare Champion was one of the warmest ever recorded in Ireland, part of a heat wave that made the already difficult 42km distances far harder.
“It changes everything, the heat just absolutely saps you. Our start time has changed, the last three mornings we’ve been up at 4am and on the road for 5.30am.
“It gets so hot after 12 o’clock that we just can’t be out there. That causes its own problems, you’re trying to get everything organised for the next day so it gets to be 10 or 10.30 by the time you get to bed so that’s cutting down on sleep time and recovery. That’s been the biggest challenge of the heat, we’ve had to start so early.”
So why has he decided to take on such a serious challenge?
“That’s a good question! There’s a few answers, one of the most straightforward answers is I thought it’d be a great adventure and a bit of craic. I thought it’d be something great to do and I really wanted to do it.
“There’s a message behind the weight and the pounds being taken out after every marathon. It’s tied into the fundraiser that we have going for Pieta House.
“We’re trying to raise €100,000 for Pieta House and the idea behind the weight is that when I did have my own mental health difficulties I did feel there was a weight on my shoulders, one that I couldn’t shake.
“Now that I’m in a good place with my mental health I said I’d put the weight back on physically and I’ll take it off, but I’ll take it off with the rest of the country.
“Anybody that I meet, anybody that I pass or who sees it on social media or the news and who might get a bit of a lift from it, that’s also another aspect of why I’m doing it.
“I’ve got my own selfish reasons, I just wanted to do it, to have this adventure and see if I could push my body in this way.
“Also I wanted to see if we could spread a bit of light to people. In the post-Covid era people are starting to get their lives back together, and I thought this is the perfect time for something like this.”
He had suicidal ideation as a younger man, while he says he struggled a lot in his late teens and early twenties, particularly after quitting Thai boxing, something he was very passionate about.
“When that finished was when I hit the darker times, I didn’t have anything to focus on, I felt kind of purposeless and that’s when I found marathon running and that led me to make a better relationship with myself.
“And that led to this project, combining my love of running with the idea of maybe giving people a ray of hope or inspiration.”
At the time of writing he wasn’t sure about the Clare route, but said he would probably be running in the Lahinch-Liscannor area. On Saturday, he will be accompanied by his father and a film crew.
“My father didn’t cycle a bike for about three years, now all of a sudden he has 16 marathons of cycling done in 16 days. He’s the man looking after everything for me. There are two lads as well from a company called 528 Create and they’re following me to hopefully make a Netflix documentary about the project.”