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The Cork ultra runner targeting 32 marathons in 32 counties in 32 days

Conor O’Keeffe will start his Herculean task on 1 April with 32 pounds on his back, removing one pound each day. For him, it symbolises the weight of depression and his battle with that burden.

Marathon man: Conor O'Keeffe.
Marathon man: Conor O'Keeffe.

CONOR O’KEEFFE LIVES as he speaks, urgent and unrelenting.

His starting point is adolescence: “Three main areas of life that you want to be successful at when you’re a young fella: school, sports, girls. I was average at all of them. And I wanted some element of success.”

There was a time – intense and austere – when Thai boxing shaped a world of temperance. He remembers eating steamed prawns and egg white the day of his conferring. The next day held greater import on the combat calendar: a major bout at 69.5kg. Standing 6’3, his torso has nowhere to hide. So he stripped behind a towel and stood naked on the scales, bearing flesh pulled taut from a punishing regime.

Five months before, this uncommon figure from Glanmire had completed Law at UCC. O’Keeffe graduated with Honours, 2:1, which was a remarkable thing. He had abandoned those studies midway through his final year. Turbulence presaged a slide into despair.

O’Keeffe, then 22, suffered a crushing defeat in October 2013. Stamina was his stamp, the mark of an obsessive trainer. Entering the final round of an Irish title contest he had dominated, his staying power would surely see him to victory. Only this time, his lights went out before the bell. A door closed, slamming shut, plunging him unconscious. He woke with his head in the clouds. Never before had concussion entered the frame.

His recollection of the aftermath is surreal: “I was getting my eyebrow sown and I asked the doctor: ‘Is everybody having a good time?’ I thought it was my 21st birthday. That had been a year before that fight.”

He continues in candid fashion: “My career really finished that night. My love and passion was gone. I had built this identity as Conor the Thai boxer. I gave every single thing I had.”

That moment of sporting loss spiralled into habits of excess that made O’Keeffe unrecognisable. November brought more heartache: the end of a five-year relationship with his girlfriend. Single, he took to his new status with the same zeal he previously approached training. Nights out swam heavy and late.

“I’d drink to get smashed,” he admits. “If I was going for a pint, I was on it for the whole day. I’d be going to college buckled from the night before. Falling asleep in lectures. Go to the New Bar in UCC, have a few pints and off again. I was 22 but really had no experience of going out in nightclubs with girls.”

Another lifestyle took hold. A rapid and radical transformation from student athlete to campus layabout was complete by year’s end.

“New Year’s Eve, I broke my humerus in an arm wrestling contest,” he relates. “The arm snapped, a horrific break. I couldn’t do anything. Early January, I decided: I’m out of college. I was in such a deep depression, I didn’t see myself finishing out the course. I was lost. Sleeping in. Eating shit food. Put on a lot of weight. Lost all interest in caring about myself.”

For three months, he languished. March blew in and he breathed out again: “I remember sitting down in front of the TV, watching The Simpsons. My mother was in the kitchen. ‘I’m going back to college there,’ I told her. I got in touch with my college mates. I had two months to get myself in order for the exams.”

He reclaimed the lost ground through long days of study, 14 hours at a stretch. Exams complete, O’Keeffe returned to training with his club, Siam Warriors. Back on track, his path cleared.

***

Depression is not a loose concept but it takes skill and courage to render the pain of that affliction; to make it real for those who hear your story.

Conor O’Keeffe steps out onto the stage of a Dublin City nightclub. On this Saturday in November, the floor is full at 9pm, an audience in thrall to their final speaker.

“Has anyone ever made a New Year’s resolution?” he wonders, midway through his latest public talk. Arms rush into the air.

O’Keeffe reframes his query: “Has anyone ever failed a New Year’s resolution?”

The majority keep their hands raised.

Tramline on D’Olier Street – its industrial atmosphere hewn from hard edges and strip lighting – feels intimate with O’Keeffe at the microphone. He is addressing Socialmind, a corporate style event founded on noble intentions. Through the lens of social media, a diverse group of speakers discuss mental health in broad terms. Models mix with make-up artists, rugby players fist-bump runners, and a former UFC fighter nicknamed Hooligan holds everyone rapt exploring the world of inner chimps. Some fascinate and some come over as self serving, as if this sensitive topic is a construct for commercial gain.

Clearly, O’Keeffe has found a way to resonate. He makes people laugh, he makes them listen. At the end, when he divulges his goal of raising €100,000 for Pieta House by running 32 marathons across 32 counties in 32 days, a donor comes to the stage.

“Tramline will donate the first €1,000,” pledges Doug Leddin, the venue’s marketing guru.

Leddin’s unexpected gesture brings a satisfying conclusion to the show. At its core, Socialmind is a heartfelt attempt to provide public space for these private afflictions. By peeling back his own layers, O’Keeffe completes the connection.

“I woke up on the first of January this year and I was starting to well up,” he discloses. “I was still drunk. That day could have gone either way. A day that brings me up to today or the day it all stopped.”

Frank reflection leads to stark admission: “I was asking myself all the time: Why do you want to keep living? I needed to change my life.”

The previous year, he approached a similar juncture. Then, his solution formed in the shape of the Cork City marathon. June 2018, he cracked those miles in a respectable three hours, 38 minutes. But the satisfaction soon dissolved.

“Went out that night, got absolutely pissed,” he recalls. “I got up the next day and all the sense of achievement was gone.”

The search continued in Connemara. A friend, Mark O’Mahony, had signed up for an ultra race: 100 miles of running. O’Keeffe had seven weeks to prepare for that August date.

“My body gave up on me after 55 miles but I actually ended up finishing it in 28 hours,” he states. “My mind brought me through.”

And yet he came no closer to contentment: “From 11 August to 31 December, I ran once. I was looking for the world to solve my problems and I wasn’t dealing with what was inside me. External achievement didn’t mean anything to me.”

Another year dawned and he set about a greater challenge. Early January 2019, his ultra friend O’Mahony brought news of the Enduroman 200 Mile, set to take place in Hampshire, England the following May.

“Sure look, I’ll do it with you,” O’Keeffe suggested, unperturbed by four months of jars and smokes.

‘In four months, I probably can’t train a body but probably can train a mind,’ he reasoned.

***

Childhood visions of Bruce Lee films inspired his call to combat. Taekwando, the Korean martial art, presented his first opening. With a club close by in Mayfield, he started out at five years of age. Mastery of this discipline culminated in gold at the European Championships of 2007.

By then, the teenage O’Keeffe was eager to move on: “I wanted something more physical where I’d be hitting them and they’d be hitting me.”

Sunnyside Boxing Club, another blue collar hothouse on the city’s northside. drew him closer to that quest.

“It was lawless,” O’Keeffe declares. “Lads would be training in jeans, Rocky style stuff. I loved that. Kieran Joyce, the former Irish Olympian, was the coach there. If he ever had to leave the place, certain lads would hop in, whip the gloves off and start bare knuckle boxing.”

Immersed in this environment, O’Keeffe traded places. At school in Christian Brothers College (CBC Cork), a fee-paying secondary, he moved among the city elite. The transition was not always seamless.

“Sunnyside was completely alien to my world,” he confirms. “I was quite an aggressive, frustrated young man at the time. Suspended 15 times from school. I got into fights walking to my nan’s house. You’d always take your blazer off walking into The Glen but sometimes I’d forget to take it off. A comment would be said and I wouldn’t be one to back down.”

Feeling cramped by boxing’s orthodoxy fuelled his pursuit of a different dynamic. Muay Thai, the combat sport of Thailand, allows for fists, elbows, knees and shins.

“It made sense to me straightway,” O’Keeffe asserts. “Once I started hitting pads, the trainer said to me: ‘What gym were you in before you came here?’ This was my first session. I had no idea what I was doing but from my background in Taekwando and boxing, it flowed. I was looking for success in my life at that time and I found it in that.”

From there he flourished. His life, at 17, consumed the sport.

“I lived this monk lifestyle,” he says. “Training started at 6pm. I would go down to Web Workouts, an internet cafe, and watch videos of Thai boxing after school. I would absorb it into my mind. Train then until 7.30pm or 8pm. Walk down and get the bus home.”

Sunday was scheduled for rest but sometimes he might sprint the Inchydoney sand dunes. No Sabbath, just sacrifice.

He read about Marvin Hagler in George Kimball’s Four Kings (2008) and adopted the Hagler credo: “He used to put himself into jail before fights. I used to take that as my own. Not go out, in bed early. I was famed for my fitness.”

Source: Paddy Holohan's No Shame Podcast/YouTube

October 2013, he fought in Neptune Stadium. Final Year, an Irish title on the line. Four rounds in, he led the bout.

“Last minute of the last round, I got caught with a left hook,” he says of that loss. “I beat myself up for months afterwards, even though people told me I fought really well. All I saw was that I was knocked out in front of 2000 people.”

The shot that puts you down? The shot you never see.

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***

Conor O’Keeffe tried again. Failed again. Failed no better.

He returned to the ring in 2014 for an eight-man tournament. Severe dehydration was the cost of making weight. Headaches and dizziness plagued him before the fight.

“I took a punch that I would have eaten in sparring and it knocked me out,” he says.

This occasion turned out his last match on Irish soil. Another wild interlude took him off kilter.

He took a job with Kearys Motor Group and quickly rose to manage their Mini dealership in Little Island. For all the rewards that came his way, an empty feeling persisted. Affable by nature, energetic and engaging, his magnetic presence made for easy sales on the forecourt.

“I had one of the most successful bouts that Kearys had had in years,” he reveals. “I was given a big head. That, combined with all the drinking and the womanising, it was a perfect storm of all the stuff that was bad for me. I couldn’t take it any more. I actually ended up leaving there on bad terms. Then I went off to Canada. When you’re leaving some place, running away from it, it’s never a good thing.”

Away from home, O’Keeffe got a start labouring on building sites. The rationale? “It was a job I could show up drunk to. I smoked a lot of weed as well because it’s legal in Vancouver.”

News of a tax rebate prompted his return. O’Keeffe landed back in Cork to collect his cheque from Revenue. With the proceeds, he booked a long-awaited trip to Thailand. Once more into the breach.

“Found out I had a benign cyst on my brain,” he remarks. “My doctor called me in: ‘Nothing wrong, perfectly fine but just wouldn’t recommend that you get hit in the head because we don’t know what that could do to it.’ I was so desperate to get my life back that I went over to Thailand.”

Once more with eerie feeling.

Brave or foolish, O’Keeffe fought and won, which meant another outing. Alarmed by unknown risks but unwilling to lose face, his mission continued: “I was getting oiled up, my gloves on and I heard my fighter was late – I might not get to fight. I felt the one thing you should never feel as a fighter when you’re told that: relief.”

Ten minutes later, his opponent appeared. Two rounds in, O’Keeffe took a knee to his chest. Winded, he dropped to the canvas and contemplated this madness: “I could have gotten up. I was trying to save my brain. Even though I had the right intentions, I beat myself up for about a year afterwards.”

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Physically, he survived unscathed. But inside throbbed with outside and outside throbbed with inside. Socially, he pulsed.

“I was looking for fights,” he confesses. “I had something to prove to myself, that I was still this tough guy. I ended up getting my nose smashed into pieces.”

The night of his broken nose, 2017, O’Keeffe sat in the Mercy Hospital wondering how. Whatever had to give, he realises it could have been his life: “It got to the point where I was going to drive my car into the Lee.”

Running, in time, became his escape. After many failed attempts, the realisation came this year, dropping slowly one dark morning on the road.

“I used to run half marathons before work,” O’Keeffe outlines. “I used to listen to music. 400 metres into my run, my headphones died. I was left with me and my thoughts, thinking back through all my time in Thai boxing, the first time I stood up to a bully at 11.”

His mind, dialling, found a frequency free from hiss: “I was seeing my life from a different angle, in a more honest way. Figuring out why I was starting fights in town. My demons were getting lighter and lighter every time.”

Along this journey, O’Keeffe unlocked life’s coda: “You have to make the time that you really, really don’t want to do something the perfect time to do it, every time. It forced me to forget the aches and pains. I would live inside my own mind. Make my body believe what my mind was telling it.”

This voyage through the hiss turned out a rich resource. Conor O’Keeffe not only finished Enduroman 200, completing the course within 60 hours, he won, becoming the first finisher since 2016. Now he stands alone.

“You gotta have your demons,” he professes. “I put a lot of mine to bed.”

*You can make a donation to Conor O’Keeffe’s 32:32:32 challenge here> 

 

Need help? Support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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