Daddy Day Care started out brilliantly with real enthusiasm by all of us. I looked at it as a once in a life time chance to catch up on time missed out in the previous 6 years with our three boys. And they too seemed equally excited about the prospect of having Dad around a lot more. It started great: bit of school work, home made play dough, home made scones, arts and crafts, obstacle courses and football. Impressive eh? But like my first few years of running marathons as a novice I set out at a pace I wasn’t able to maintain. All runners will know this feeling all too well. I hit the wall mid way into week two of lockdown, far too early into this metaphorical ultra marathon.
Very little has been normal during this period of social distancing. A daily run was the one normal link I maintained with that previous life we all had taken from us on March 15th. But with all road races and marathons for 2020 cancelled it was just about getting out and putting in some miles, some escapism after a long day juggling a 6, 4 and 2 year olds’ individual needs. With social distancing and a 2km radius restriction on travel I was navigating different local loops to abide by this, a challenge in itself. But what about a bigger challenge? Something to work towards and give me focus while out of work, a purpose other than my new career in child minding. Although as I’m told by my wife it’s not child minding when they are in fact your own children.
It was one evening while out for a run the churning wheels in my over occupied head (not all useful) began to sprout the initial green shoots of a plan. Two more conversations guided it further. Firstly I had been chatting with local radio station KFM on tips for the elderly to try to remain active while staying at home. A lot was being spoken about the increased vulnerability of specific groups during COVID-19: those with underlying respiratory conditions, undergoing treatment for or a history of cancer and those on immunosuppressants. The over 65’s were another group. Speaking with an old friend that same evening he spoke about a befriending voluntary service he was involved with with the organisation, Alone Ireland. His role? To simply call a person he had been allocated to once a week to check in and chat. “We just chat about GAA and farming”, he said. “I love it. Sure I miss it myself at the minute and I’d be doing it anyway around the village…spares the Mrs having to listen to me going on about it“. I’ve known him since playing football together in our teens and later living together in college and I’d never known he did this. What a lovely thing to do. And that was it decided. I was going to put my focus into trying to raise money for Alone Ireland, and with the service providing help for those over 65 this number would be key in deciding the remaining variables to this project: a 65km ultra marathon, alone, just me, with a fund raising target of €6,500. The last question was where.
There have been some off the wall challenges going on in the running world during the lockdown. From running marathons in back gardens, back and forth across balconies, to running the same 42km distance around a dining room table. I’m more than up for a challenge but there is a line. And to keep within the regulatory 2km radius from home that line was to be a 650m distance from one canal bridge to another at the bottom of the country lane we live. Extreme lengths to go for a few hours off from my new found child minding/home school service job but challenge set: 65km for Alone. I immediately regretted the fund raising target. Knowing it was a serious stretch particularly when only giving myself 3 weeks to try to hit the figure. But I wanted every aspect of this to be sporadic and both physically and mentally challenging; in the same manner in which many businesses (mine included) were forced to close; in the same way those vulnerable in our society were forced to self isolate; and in the same way that children had to come to terms with not being able to meet their friends, hug grand parents and have to adapt just as much, if not more than us parents did, to the idea of home schooling.
I could not have been more overwhelmed by how quickly people supported the cause. I flooded social media feeds with details of the event. Others with higher profiles on social media shared on their platforms to spread the word. Local GAA and athletic clubs, Kildare GAA and the players, as well as local news paper and radio all plugged the event. And slowly but surely the money began to come in. But what about the little matter of the 65km? A distance I’ve never ran before and with not even a semi decent marathon preparation period under my belt.
You build up a robustness to running over the years, and a tolerance both physically and mentally to shear hardship. Personally I think this also carries over into real life scenarios. You need to be organised, focussed and disciplined to fit life around marathon training (or indeed vice versa some might say). And over years of practice you learn to endure the hard work involved. I don’t mind the hard slog of putting in miles. I enjoy it. It is a zen-like state I find myself in when I run; my daily dose of mindfulness. I’ve solved lots of little problems while out running. And even those I don’t resolve I’ll probably feel more accepting of afterwards. Training plans should be progressive, realistic, with an end goal in mind, should avoid spikes in the amount of training and in an ideal world if plotted on a graph should look like an incremental gradient over a period of time. Real life can look different; depending on injury, sickness, work or time restraints the lead up to an event can sometimes get hampered. I had a decent baseline fitness, with a weekly routine of somewhere between 50km and 60km. So with three weeks out it was about cranking that up a notch for two higher volume weeks then gradually reducing again in the week leading into the run. My weekly mileage jumped from 58km to 80km, then leaped to 90km. Then 95km, my highest weekly mileage ever even when in marathon PB shape. This is not a progression I would recommend and I pursued it flirting with an increased risk of injury. But it was a calculated risk and one I was willing to take.
My alarm was set for 5am for a 6am run start. I snuck downstairs trying not to wake the rest of the family. I failed: our oldest boy apparently too excited to sleep. I would later find out it was the Haribo sweets he’d helped me pack the night before he was mainly excited about. I drank my morning coffee, topped up my carbohydrate stores with a bowl of porridge and packed the car with fuel for the mornings mission. The sound of the closing of the boot door triggered something and it hit me just how nervous I was. I didn’t see that coming. No pressure for a personal best, no crowds around, no medal or finishers t-shirt. But the fear of failure was clearly the one thing I hadn’t prepared for. I’ve never DNF’s (Did Not Finish) before. With people donating money to the challenge that wasn’t an option on this day either. Another failure was the possibility of not reaching that planned €6,500 target. As I made my way down the meandering boithrín I spotted a car parked around where I intended to set up my fuel and water station. As I got closer I could make out who it was. A week before Brian from Pop Up Races mentioned he might drop down in the morning to set up a timing mat, something to break the monotony of 100 stretches of 650m. There was a downside however. He was also live streaming it on their website and it seemed with people so desperate for any sports to view it gathered quite the audience as the morning progressed. After giving Brian an idea when I planned on finishing he bid me farewell and said he’d see me towards the end. And off I went.
Fifteen kilometres passed by without too much a fuss. Time to take on some fluid and fuel, and shed the long sleeves and wooly hat I’d worn in the chillier earlier hours. It was brightening up nicely. A quick look at the watch to make sure I wasn’t making my usual mistake of going too fast. Nope, not today. But as time passed my pace picked up. I tried to slow it, I really did, and having to turn every 650m didn’t make it easy to maintain a pace. Just as a nice rhythmic stride pattern was developing it was brought to an agonising hault by a sharp stop and start each end. I swear I saw a tractor and trailer carry out a 3 point turn at one of the ends quicker than I did during the morning. Only in the last 2 years have I managed negative splits in marathon distance; where you run the second half of the marathon faster than the first and key to this is not going out too quickly reserving some energy for the business end of the marathon. 25km down, then 30km. Almost half way there. And just when I needed something to keep me going. Family. With the run taking place so close to home I knew I would see Kate and the kids at some point. At 9 O’Clock they arrived and what a lift they gave. Not just them but my parents, sisters, brother, in-laws. Neighbours stopped by to give encouragement, with some joining in for a 650m stretch or two, all while still being very mindful of social distancing of course. Homemade signs and drawings brought me close to tears. It takes very little for me to turn on the water works when so physically and emotionally drained. This all kept the pace steady, with no signs of fading despite the repetitive sharp turns either end I found myself in a rhythm that just worked. Brian from Pop Up timed his return to perfection with just 5km to go. And it was then I got the news that really kicked me into over drive. Over €7,000. Between people sharing updates on social media, I’d surpassed that one time unimaginable target I’d set a few weeks ago… and with that news I got a little faster finishing the 65km in 5 hours and 20 minutes.
We will learn a lot from this unique period in time we find ourselves in. What I will take from it is our power to adapt to situations thrown at us, that we can make tough decisions and make short term sacrifices to help others. But most of all it has brought out the genuine goodness in humankind. Ask for help and the initial reaction people will have is to want to help you. This may become even more important in time in the aftermath of all of this. Who knows how our children’s social development will be affected. We will undoubtedly face into a fallout of unemployment and the economic and social consequences of that. But what I now know is ask for help and people will support in whatever way they can. To those who supported by donating, by sharing, by talking about the 65km challenge and spreading the word of the work that Alone Ireland carry out, thank you. That was the point of all of this: increasing awareness. We are now more aware of hand hygiene and correct hand washing procedures. People walking and running more during this period, more aware of the benefits of exercise. We’ve learned how much we dearly miss sport, community and social gathering. And hopefully just a little more aware of the work of Alone Ireland.