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'I broke my collarbone during a 160km mountain race in Tennessee. No help was coming, it was a matter of survival'

Cork’s Eoin Keith on his distinguished career in ultra running, winning the UK’s ‘most brutal race’ and taking part in the Netflix-famous Barkley Marathons last year.

Ultra runner Eoin Keith has held the Irish 24-hour and six-day records.
Ultra runner Eoin Keith has held the Irish 24-hour and six-day records.

“I KNOW IN my own head that it’s only a game.” Eoin Keith sits back in his chair and smiles, explaining why he repeatedly puts himself through what many would deem a tortuous, psychologically mind-bending exercise of pain and suffering. “It’s all just a bit of fun, really,” he grins.

The 50-year-old Cobh native is currently Ireland’s most decorated and prominent ultra runner and has helped push the sport on leaps and bounds at home and on the international stage over the last two decades, since undertaking his first marathon shortly after his 30th birthday back in 1998.

Ultra running, by its definition, is classified as any footrace longer than 42km, the distance of your average, traditional marathon. An IT analyst in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin’s city centre, Keith has risen to become one of the greatest runners ever produced in this country. Not in terms of speed; endurance and distance are the star qualities concerned here.

Mental resilience, distance covered and being able to withstand an unhealthy dose of pain during some of the toughest running and adventure races across the entire globe, that’s the name of the game.

Broken bones, pulled muscles, dehydration, literally going days without sleep (52 hours is his personal record), suffering wild hallucinations — pain is simply par for the course, he says. All of this combined together to not just compete in and complete events, but to succeed, strive to achieve excellence and, above all else, be a winner in his discipline.

Eoin-Keith-Jan-2019 The Cork native won the UK's most brutal race 'The Spine' in 2016, which is 431km, in a time of 95 hours and 16 minutes.

His trophy cabinet is packed full of records, medals and silverware. Keith has been crowned the 24-hour and six-day Irish running champion. He placed first at Britain’s ‘most brutal race’ – The Spine – back in January 2016, where he completed the 431km course in just 95 hours and 23 minutes, shaving a whopping five hours and 22 minutes off the previous record.

He took glory again in June 2016 at the inaugural Northern Traverse race, which sees competitors take on the gruelling 300km ‘Wainwright route’ that starts on the west coast of Britain, passes through the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors before finishing on the east coast.

Keith completed the whole course in only 51 hours and 37 minutes, finishing an astonishing five hours ahead of England’s John Knapp in second place.

On top of this, he also holds the record for the 50-mile Wicklow Way race, finished an incredible fifth in the World 24-hour Running Championships and has placed fourth in the European Championships too. “Fifth in the world, for someone who’s used to coming 50th was incredible from my point of view,” he smiles.

In May 2017 he also set a new, unique world record by running the entire length of Ireland, 555km from Mizen Head to Malin Head, in just three days, three hours and 47 minutes, smashing the previous record by more than 12 hours on a gloriously sun-drenched morning in Donegal.

His feats are nothing short of astonishing in a sport designed to push a human body to its absolute limit. Extending the boundaries of what is possible for one person to run, all the while testing one’s physical and mental endurance to its extreme periphery. A sport designed to make or break you, essentially.


Source: Niall Sheerin/Vimeo

Keith was never much use at traditional sports like football, rugby and GAA growing up in Cobh, he confesses, casting his mind back. One of the most appealing aspects of ultra running is that absolutely anyone can take part, no-matter of your physical ability, muscle mass, speed or background. All you need is a true and genuine desire and you’re good to go, he says.

“Getting into ultra running, anyone can do it. There is so much to get out of it, because it isn’t necessarily about the racing, it can just be about competing. Competing is a target and an achievement in and of itself.

I come from a non-sporting background; nobody in my family in Cork is into sport at all. As a nerdy, science-y child I wasn’t into sport except a little bit of pitch-and-putt, and I only did my first marathon at 30. So you don’t need any background whatsoever, you just need to want to do it. The one thing that is going to get you anywhere in life is desire. That yearning is definitely the big thing.

“Ultra running can be a lot easier than shorter running because you have to run slower,” Keith continues. “It suits different types, some people are born sprinters, I’m the complete opposite. Ultra running can suit people who are slower, but might have better endurance. Running isn’t all about speed or how quick you are.

“Having that physical and mental endurance combined together is a serious skill-set not to be underestimated or undervalued. I’d recommend that people shouldn’t be afraid to give it a go, because it might suit them. You should never be afraid.”

Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2017 Eoin Keith pictured at the 2017 Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Looking at the cold hard numbers and distances would send a chill down anyone’s spine though. Particularly last year’s challenge at the infamous Barkley Marathons, a race with a cult-like following popularised worldwide by a recent Netflix documentary describing the event as “The Race that Eats its Young.”

Far from an exaggeration, the Barkley sees participants run a 32km loop through the soaking, muddy Frozen Head State Park five times with a cut-off point of just 60 hours. Only 15 people have completed the course in its 25-year history. Eoin Keith became the first Irishman to ever receive an invitation to the prestigious event, which only allows 40 participants every year.

It is known as the hardest trail race in the entire world, with course designer Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell jokingly described as an unforgiving and evil sadist for devising such a torturous, relentless and impossible trek.

Barkley’s design draws inspiration from the escape route taken by James Earl Ray, Dr Martin Luther King’s assassin, who fled from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977.

Runners were only allowed to bring a map and a compass. Not one of the 40 participants completed the course, with 2018 known as “The Year the Barkley Won” (nobody completed it in 2019 either). Eoin Keith bowed out last April after two 32km loops, breaking his collarbone and battling on despite the pain. He wanted to maximise the experience of a lifetime being at one of the most famous and genuinely prestigious events in ultra running.

It was an incredible experience,” the Cork native recalls. “I absolutely loved every aspect of it. An awesome experience and one I felt really, really privileged to be part of. It’s one of those lifetime experiences because so few people actually get to do it.

“Fifteen people have completed the Barkley in history and only 40 per year get to take part. It’s a high standard to get in, especially now because everyone has seen the Netflix film and more people want to enter.

DdpURxvU8AIZ6Qq The 50-year-old works as an IT analyst in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

“To find yourself in the middle of the race was like a dream come true. Standing at the famous yellow gate, it honestly felt like the set of a movie. I just couldn’t believe I was actually there. The race director Laz calls everyone ‘idiots’ because we want to do it. Being idiots, we all think in the back of our heads that we can actually finish.

“I certainly went to Tennessee thinking I had the ability to do it, but reality intervened,” Keith laughs. “I threw everything at it. Once I had the invitation, nothing was going to stop me from doing the best I could. Money was no object, whatever time and training was needed, I did it.

I slipped on some wet rocks and just came crashing down on my full body weight,” he recalls of his injury. “I had to complete most of the second lap of this 160km mountain race with a broken collarbone. It’s just one of those things where you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

“There’s a heavy rainstorm, too, so what are you going to do? Even if you wanted to be rescued, you would have been sitting there for a couple of hours. The motto that year for Barkley was: ‘Help is not coming.’

“Bizarrely the safest thing to do was to keep going. It is literally a battle for your own survival, which is the greatest motivation of all. You know deep down your primal instincts are kicking in telling you that you cannot stop no matter how much you want to. There is a real fear of hypothermia setting in.

Source: barkley movie/YouTube

“The pain was mostly fine. I think I had 13 or 14 falls after I suffered the injury. I was trying to make sure that if I did slip in the mountains that I fell on the correct side, the non-broken side. I probably did teach the American runners a few new Irish curse words,” Keith smiles. “Even that second lap with the broken collarbone, I enjoyed it. Very much so.

“It’s an integral part of any race, not just the physical difficulties but the mental difficulties too. I do think that Irish people deal with that mental aspect of these events pretty well.

In general we’re quite good at dealing with this stuff, people trying to mess with your head. Irish people, we spend our lives slagging each other and I think other nationalities are a bit more serious and straight. We’re used to slagging, so I just say ‘bring it on’.

Ultra running represents a fascinating sport often not appreciated or acknowledged enough publicly for the incredible heights of human endurance it demands of those that take part. The traditional marathon has often been used as a barometre to test human endurance, but for someone to willingly send themselves into an event covering 400km in less than four days takes it to another level entirely.

Keith says that the two are different disciplines, ultra running and marathons, stressing that some people are born capable of competing in faster events, while others like himself flourish when endurance is the aim of the game.

He explains that while ultra running in itself is a “fun hobby”, the competitive element and the drive to win and achieve high-level success is the flame that burns brightest within himself to put his body on the line each and every year.

Eoin Keith smashed the record running the length of Ireland, 555km, in just over three days back in April 2017.

“I was a hill walker before I was a runner,” he says. “Some of my hill walking friends were doing the Dublin City Marathon so I foolishly decided I would join them. I discovered while doing the training that I was a little faster than those people who I had looked up to.

“I realised after a while that I was pretty good at running and from there I was away with it. I just turned 30 when I ran that first marathon. It’s a funny one alright, but ultra running is a good sport in that you can get into it quite late into life.

It’s not like sprinting where your speed starts to drop — endurance holds up quite well thankfully. Even now I can feel my speed is eating away but my endurance is holding up. Competitiveness is definitely a huge part though. That and finding something I am good at.

“The mountain ultras, on the other hand, they can be self-motivated in themselves because there are events to do and different places to see. The scenery can be incredible. My next race will take me to South America for the first time. So that kind of thing keeps you going independent of the competitive aspect.”

Despite his national and world records, Keith says that treating ultra running as a hobby lifts a significant load of pressure off his shoulders compared to full-time professional athletes in other sports. Oftentimes their livelihoods and their income depends on their performances each week, whereas combining running with working in the Royal College of Surgeons means he gets to approach his own discipline from a more enjoyment-driven perspective.

I160115_203827_13216160oTextTRMRMMGLPICT000080436402o He has previously finished fifth at the World 24-hour Running Championships and fourth in the European Championships.

“I always say that I could drop running completely in the morning if I wanted to,” he says. “It is only a hobby. I could be at the starting line of a World Championships and people would say to me: ‘You’re so ridiculously relaxed’.

“But I know in my own head that it’s only a game. It’s just a bit of fun. And knowing this deep down allows you to de-pressurise it. I tend not to feel any pressure no-matter what the situation is, no matter what the race is.

The advantage of having a full-time job is that your life isn’t dependent on the sport. The real world is the real world and at the end of the day running is just for fun, for me. Most people that compete in ultra running aren’t professional. They combine it with jobs in the real world. There are very few people who can make a career out of it.

“At the end of the day it’s just a game, it doesn’t really matter. Sonia O’Sullivan’s dad John, another Cobh man, got it right when he said: ‘Nobody’s died’. You just need to remember that it’s a game and that it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.”

If it’s just a game, then what motivates Eoin Keith and all the other ultra runners out there to put their bodies through such physical and mental torment knowing that potential failure is creeping around every corner?

The Spine Mountain Rescue Challenge Keith has held the Irish 24-hour and six-day ultra running records, as well as the record for the Wicklow Way. Source: Bob Smith

“You forget the pain and put it to the back of your mind,” he explains. “I don’t think I’ve done a single 24-hour race without at some point thinking to myself: ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’

“You always say to yourself ‘never again’ and every single time you say that, every single time you say ‘This is the last one’ — you keep going back. What brings you back is the sense of achievement, the elation, you remember the good parts and forget the bad parts.

It’s always worth it in the end. I like the training, I like the process of it. Training might hurt, especially if you’re in Ireland where if you open the front door there’s a wall of rain outside. But then you get out there and it’s all fine.

“You get used to it, you enjoy it and when you come back home at the end of the day, you know you’ve achieved something. That’s all part of the process. It’s about the competitiveness and the achievement.”

That sense of overwhelming reward was never more pronounced for the Cork runner than breaking the world record running the entire 555km length of Ireland in a little over three days back in 2017. A self-imposed challenge more than a decade in the making, Keith ran from Mizen Head to Malin Head in 3 days, 3 hours and 47 minutes.

Spine Race 2019 The Cobh native says he has zero intentions of quitting, with more races across the world still to be crossed off. Source: Bob Smith Grough Limited

He broke the previous record by over 12 hours and although not competing against anybody else running on his own with no-one but a small support crew there to help, smashing the previous time was a moment of pure euphoria quite unlike anything else he had experienced in his distinguished ultra running career before.

“It just went so smoothly. Even in terms of pacing, I remember running towards the watch tower at Malin Head, towards the finish… I can’t remember what my target pace was… say it was eight on the watch… and I was doing nine and still thinking I could probably do nine-and-a-half!

I was feeling good, it was Donegal with beautiful blue skies and sunshine around. It was a picturesque setting and one of my support team even got me an ice cream. So I was running along faster than I was targeting with an ice cream in my hand with blue skies and sunshine all around knowing I was going to smash the record — it couldn’t get much better.

“Even when I hit the finish, I didn’t feel tired despite the fact that I’d only taken about five hours sleep over the three-and-a-half days. I got to the finish line and didn’t feel tired or even hungry despite eating very little. I felt no real downsides. It felt like the culmination of 20 years’ training.

“Everything clicked into place; the speed, endurance, knowledge, psychology. It was an emotional moment completing the run and I was on a high for a long time afterwards, no doubt about it. I don’t think I was crying, but it was one of those times where I nearly burst into tears with the emotion.”

There are endless other achievements worth mentioning, like the time Keith did finally burst into tears running a historic Greek ultra race called the Spartathlon, where participants run 246km from Athens to Sparta and kiss the feet of a statue of King Leonidas at the finish line.

“People were getting very emotional,” he remembers. “My wife Helen was there telling everyone that I would be too composed and too grounded for any of that. I was coming along about to finish in the top 10 in my first Spartathlon; delighted because it was a big achievement in an Irish context as nobody from this country had ever finished, let alone get near the top 10.

So I was running along, happy as Larry because I really did have to work hard for that top 10 finish. I was running into the finish line, looking up at the historic statue of Leonidas, you can hear the band and the music, everyone is clapping, and I’m grand.

“But then Helen pops up out of nowhere and starts running beside me. I start to well up, crying. The irony of it being she was telling everyone I wouldn’t cry and there I was with tears in my eyes because she was with me crossing the finishing line.”

Running side-by-side with his spouse at the finishing line of a 246km run having achieved a top 10 finish in less than 36 hours, following a historic trail of Greek mythology with tears streaming down one’s cheeks just about captures why the suffering and agony of ultra running is all worthwhile for Eoin Keith.

Spine Race 2018 The Spine is one of the toughest ultra-distance races in Europe and, arguably, in the world. Keith won the 431km event overall in 2016 and finished top of the men's standings in 2019. Source: Bob Smith

There are many more races and events to complete, he says, with another go at the Barkley very much in his thoughts at the moment after last year’s initial attempt in Tennessee.

Now at the age of 50 but with more ambitions than ever before, the Cork runner says he won’t stop until he drops off the side of a cliff and has zero intentions of calling it quits any time soon. After all, unlike with traditional sprinters, endurance athletes can get better as the passage of time wears on.

“I’ll keep going until medically I can’t do it anymore,” he grins again. “If I can’t run, my theoretical back-up is cycling, and if I can’t cycle, I’ll find something else. I don’t want to stop. I’ve said in the past that my ideal pension plan would be to fall off the side of a cliff in the middle of an event.”

Not running out of ways to push his body to its absolute limits in search of the next high, the next groundbreaking success, Eoin Keith promises that the best is yet to come. He may believe it’s just a game and only a bit of fun, but there is no reason in the world to doubt him.

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Aaron Gallagher

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