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A Kerryman's 36-day, 5,000km coast-to-coast trek Stateside for a cause close to his heart

‘What I went through for 36 days was nothing compared to what they’re going through. My cousin Mary has been battling through for over 36 years, never mind 36 days.’

5D4_7431 Shane Finn celebrates in New York with his cousin Mary.

AS THE PHRASE goes, a picture paints a thousand words.

And in this case, it couldn’t be more true. Above, you’ll see Dingle ultra-athlete Shane Finn celebrating finishing a 36-day, grueling 5,000km coast-to-coast endurance challenge alongside his cousin Mary Evans at the Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. 

The smiles on their faces say it all. 

“It’s one to treasure,” 26-year-old Finn smiles when the picture is mentioned. “We have a big version of it up on the wall at home. It’ll definitely be there forever more.”

However brilliant the picture is, the story behind it is one to share far and wide.

***

You might recognise Finn’s name as the man who ran 24 marathons in 24 days across Ireland in 2017. In doing so, he raised €142,000 and an unprecedented amount of awareness for Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI).

Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus are both rare, lifelong conditions with no ‘cure’, as such. The former is a spinal condition which severely affects mobility and the latter sees too much cerebrospinal fluid building pressure in the brain. Finn’s cousin, Mary, suffers from both conditions.

She’s his inspiration, his why.

To trace it back to where these endurance challenges all started, you’d have to rewind the clock back to Finn’s childhood.

“From an early age, I saw that life was different for others,” he tells The42. “I saw how difficult things were for Mary. I knew, even when I was young, that I had better opportunities.”

As he grew, his awareness did too and he remembers announcing that he wanted to run the Dingle Marathon for SBHI in his teens.

9M8A6007 Kerry endurance athlete Shane Finn.

An entrepreneur and accomplished motivational speaker now, he laughs as he casts his mind back. Against all odds, he did it just after turning 18, having just about ran six miles before completing his first marathon.

“I nearly died but I got through it. I still to this day don’t think I’ve ever felt as much pain. That first marathon was the most pain I’ve ever been in in my whole life. Look, I got it done. I raised like €8,000 for the organisation and literally I haven’t stopped since.

“At the time, I had dropped out of college and was a little bit lost I guess. I was kind of looking for something and maybe that first marathon was a little bit of a catalyst to a new chapter of life.

It’s a pretty cool dynamic that I get to do what I love and push myself but I get to help other people as well along the way. That makes it all a lot more worthwhile as well.

Since opening that new chapter, Finn hasn’t looked back. The 24 in 24 was a huge success and an incredible experience, evidently, one that came as his first step into the ultra endurance racing he’s doing now.

After that first step, he then took a giant leap and decided he’d push the limit much further this year Stateside.

Delighted with the incredible amount of money he had raised for SBHI and still on a high after running 24 marathons in 24 days, Finn got some bad news two-and-a-half months later. 

He was actually in America at the time, teaching part time at the University of Connecticut, when he got a call which kicked it all off once again.

“I got a phonecall from one of the guys in the organisation,” the Kerryman recalls, “and he told me that the charity’s funding had been cut by about €50,000 for that next year.

shane finn 5b With Mary after the 24 in 24. Source: DECLAN MALONE

“Obviously that pissed me off, the funding cut was annoying. I sat down in a cafe and decided that I was going to bike and run across America.

I suppose the way I am and how close I am with my cousin Mary, I was angry and pissed off but I was like, ‘Well, listen, if we’re not going to get help from anybody, we’re gonna have to do it ourselves again’

“The person that I am, I might have been looking out for something else. I might have been looking for another challenge. It came at the right time as well.

“When I went around Ireland, that was a big deal but when I finished it, I was like, ‘That’s not really your limit, you can go again’. It kind of just took off from there.”

A year-and-a-half or so of planning, organising and intense training ensued, the final strategy in place to start in California and finish in the Big Apple. A 36-day challenge which would see him cover 5,000km, alternating between running and cycling across the vast continent that offers many contrasting terrains and climates.

The 24 in 24 had seen him run pretty much every back road in Ireland. But this was different. No home comforts.

After some ramped-up training Stateside, Finn left the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on 29 March and embarked on his greatest adventure yet.

“It was non-stop really,” he beams, retelling the account in his own words. “It was four days on the bike and then two days running, it was pretty relentless to be honest.

We were out of our comfort zone. There were times when we had no phone coverage or anything for three or four days in-a-row. It was definitely a different style of a challenge to anything I’ve done before but it was very much enjoyable.

Like nothing he had done before, indeed, but that added to it. The plan was to cross through 12 states en route to NYC, but a detour one night saw Finn and his support team venture into West Virginia.

The stories are endless: the fear in Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, how the hills in Pennsylvania caught him by surprise, how he was excited to hit Kansas for the flat ground but that was actually boring in the end. From snowstorms to injuries, it had it all.

5D4_7508 A delighted Finn.

The small but solid crew was headed by his ‘main co-pilot’ and father, Tim. “He’s been with me for everything I’ve ever done,” he smiles. “To be honest if my Dad couldn’t have come, I wouldn’t have done it. It could only go ahead if he was available to go”. With his physio Ali McCann there to keep him together, they travelled and lived in two camper vans for the voyage of a lifetime. 

It was very much a team effort, he assures. But surely, on an individual level, it’s the toughest challenge he’s taken on to date. Was it harder than he thought? 

“Going into it, I had literally no idea what to expect,” he grins. “I expected the unexpected.

“Obviously I’m from Dingle, a pretty small town but then you’re over in America and you’re so isolated. I thought we were isolated here, but my God! There were some spots that we went through that were pretty grim. Literally no light, never mind people or phone reception.

The tiredness was one thing. I know I’m used to being fatigued and I’m used to pushing through tiredness, but it was pretty relentless. From double figures onward really, that was a big challenge.”

It got harder rather than easier. Interesting, considering the first 10 days were the hardest in Ireland. He completed his fastest marathon on Day 19, which is pretty bizarre. But this was a different animal, with plenty of cycling involved too.

On the bike on busy roads, you’re on the opposite side to here getting mixed up and confused. Tiredness really was one of the hardest parts. Not just physical tiredness though.

The mental strain, just trying to keep myself occupied was the main thing. It’s funny what the mind goes through when it’s left on its own for that amount of time out on the road. 

“A lot of ups and downs,” he nods when the highs and lows, and the importance of staying level and controlling those starkly contrasting emotions, are put to him.

There were days where you’d feel phenomenal, on top of the world, that you could do anything, and then there were other days you feel you couldn’t do 5k never mind 50k.

“There were challenges, it was just about how I reacted to them when they came. I learned as I went as well. I never have all this figured out, sometimes I have to learn this stuff as I go and try and make the best decision that I can on that day.”

It really is you v you. Mind over matter. To spur him on, he had Mary in the back of his mind always, along with others suffering with the conditions.

5D4_7265 The celebrations in full flow.

The pain he was in was nothing on theirs’. The idea behind 24 in 24 was that the condition is 24 hours with no break for those suffering, and this was similar. But on another level.

I mean, I say it all the time: what I went through for 36 days was nothing really compared to what they’re going through. My cousin Mary has been battling through for over 36 years, never mind 36 days.

“She’s in pain quite a lot of the time. I can suffer for three or four or five hours, not a problem. Imagine suffering for 24 hours for a number of years back-to-back, that’s tough going.

“It’s hard. It’s very hard for her, it’s hard for her family, hard for a lot of families around Ireland. If I could put myself out there, pushed, tried to figure out things and gave them a reason to get behind someone and be hopeful in something, it’s the least I can do.

People might say I’m tough, but my cousin Mary is far tougher than I’ll ever be.

He remembers one tough, hilly day in particular where the thought of Mary waiting at the finish line was the only thing that got him through. 

I’m going to keep moving because my cousin Mary is waiting for me at the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t want to keep her waiting.

“That was my one of my mantras. Just knowing that she would be there and my family would be there, to be honest, kept me going through the tougher parts.”

And that vision became a reality on 4 May. From Fairfield in Connecticut to New York City, mission accomplished. You can almost hear him smiling through the phone.

“Ah, it was phenomenal. That day was fantastic. I’m not the type to get emotional, when I get to the finish I’m like, ‘I’m kinda done’. Kind of by day 20, I was ready for the thing to be over. Now, I still had over two weeks to go which is a long time when you’re ready for it to be done.”

But this was special. Mary and her family, and his own immediate family had flown over to greet him and celebrate the landmark achievement.

It was great. It was fantastic to get it done. Phenomenal. I’m very close to my family, we’re a tight knit group and it was very good to have them there.

unnamed (3) Shane speaking with Mary at the finish.

“Compared to other things before, it’s definitely the most random thing I’ve ever done. Will I do anything like that ever again? I’m not sure. But yeah, it was definitely a incredible experience.”

And what added to it even more is the fact that Mary thoroughly enjoyed her time in America. She absolutely loved it.

“The picture there says it all,” he smiles. “Look, it meant so much to her. It’s been a lifelong dream of hers to go to New York so we made that happen which was great.”

She’s keeping well, thankfully, and at the time of our conversation, Finn was looking forward to visiting her for lunch along with his best friend and business partner, Mark, who’s actually Mary’s first cousin on the other side.

It’s still all go, with donations remaining welcome and funds rolling in from the coast-to-coast challenge. He’s unable to put a number on that at the minute, but after a successful victory dinner in Killarney earlier this month, it’s definitely rising and rising.

Finn has no major plans for what’s next on the agenda just yet, focusing on his own personal training and online coaching for now before inevitably sinking his teeth into something new. 

I’ve had incredible experiences,” he concludes. “I’m always asked will I do it again but I’m pretty sure I won’t do anything like it for a while at least.

Sure that’s probably what he said last time.

There’ll be something bigger and better on his radar shortly, undoubtedly.

Endurance athlete and BRITA ambassador Shane Finn recently completed his American Ultra challenge which saw him run and cycle from San Fransisco to New York in 36 days to raise money for Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland. To donate see www.shanefinn.com

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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