The love of the marathon

August 25, 2023

Killian Byrne – Outside the comfort zone

Off we go again. Someone should do a comprehensive study on the psychology of marathon runners and why they consistently lie to themselves. ‘That’s my last one, no more, I’ve definitely run my last race’ - every 26.2 finisher has said it, I’d hazard a guess that most of them then go on to try again after entering ‘one more race’ just a few days later. The Irish have a word for the affliction – ‘Grá’ - it means love; But its more than that, it’s a hankering, a yearn, a longing or an ache. For a marathon runner it’s about unfinished business, it’s the fear but also the draw of the unknown. We all have a grá for running 26.2 miles and the torment it puts us through.

And that’s where I find myself now, a little more than three weeks out from Berlin, one of the famed World Marathon majors, the big stage. But more importantly it will be nearly 8 years since my last, slowest and most painful marathon in Paris where I set out to run 4 hours but ended up just breaking 5, literally bloodied and broken after wearing a new pair of shorts. I know, don’t @ me.

I’ll give you a brief synopsis of my athletic history, I ran my first marathon in Dublin in 2012, Limerick, a couple more Dublins and the aforementioned Paris followed over a few years along with two half Ironman triathlons. It was triathlon that really broke me, literally. A bike crash damaged some discs in my back but the adrenaline of competition blurred my focus to distinguish between competitive pain and serious injury pain and I completed the course, running a half marathon on what turned out to be a prolapsed L5/S1 disc. A visit to a consultant the following day who led me into a taxi to deliver me to the first available operating theatre in the greater Dublin area and an emergency discectomy. Post theatre though, the concern wasn’t really my repaired back, it was the resulting nerve damage, leading to some significant weakness in my right lower leg and foot, commonly known as ‘foot drop’. It does exactly what it says on the tin – I have little muscle control over my right foot, when I lift my leg to walk or run, the foot drops and I risk tripping and falling every step I take.

Like every runner I optimistically asked the medics if I would be able to run the New York/Dublin double I had planned for just 8 weeks after the 2016 Ironman and his resulting efforts to diplomatically let me know that would have to actually learn to walk before I could run gave me the answer we all fear – I was as crocked as you could get. Since then I’ve worked hard to rehab with some success but I’m probably only at 60% of where I was. I wear an elastic brace when training to stop the drop and save any trips and falls but it doesn’t always work.

But I’ve built up the miles over the years and feel I’m back again. In fact, I ‘jeffed’ (a walk/jog race strategy) the New York virtual in 2021 which earned me a spot for the New York Marathon in 2022 which I planned to run with my wife. I got a coach and training went fairly well but I always felt I just wasn’t able to reach my potential. I was slow (which I put down to age and obvious injury limitations) but I was very tired, I recovered badly and I had to snooze daily. I turned 50 so decided to head for a full body ‘MOT’ – 2wks before my second planned New York / Dublin double my consultant called and said in no uncertain terms that I was to stop exercising immediately, not even allowed walk the dog because any excess strain on the heart could be fatal. I travelled to the USA to support Maureen successfully running her double challenge and within two days of our return was having 5 stents inserted to maintain some heart function.

How do you recover from a near fatal heart event? You exercise, carefully. you lose weight (I am as some might say, well ‘insulated’), you nourish your body with good food and you try to repair your body as naturally, carefully and gently as possibly. So of course for me that meant entering the Berlin marathon ballot and setting the goal of finishing my first marathon in 8 years. Don’t ever say I do things by half.

That’s the Grá. It’s the love, the hankering, the desire. I’m returning to the event that could have killed me but has also provided a path to redemption. It’s the route to prove I’m not going to be beaten by my history and that I have both the mental and physical strength to move forward. I’m not as fast as I was, but I don’t want to be. I want to soak in the atmosphere, I want to high five every spectator I meet, I want to both walk and run all the way and I want to finally get my marathon double.

The next time we meet I’ll share my training journey, the emotional rollercoaster of good days and bad, the tears and smiles, the excitement and the pride and of course I’ll have finished Berlin, or will I?

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