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Opinion: 'I created a short couch-to-marathon-runner plan - it's not a thing for a reason'

Alan Corcoran, who once ran 35 marathons in 35 days, documents how he came to run his first Dublin City Marathon.

Alan Corcoran

OCTOBER SEES A surge in races before winter hits. The marathon draws millions of intrigued runners and non-runners to its start line – participants worldwide journeying 42.2 kilometres on foot to cheering crowds.

This month brings the Dublin, Belfast, London, Boston and Chicago Marathons, to name a few.

Watching the spectacle of the London Marathon as a young teenager piqued my interest in the strange endurance event. It was attention-grabbing because of the sheer volume of participants and the range in their abilities, attire and reasons to partake.

In one shot, the commentators would talk about Paula Radcliffe trying to break the world record, showing her sprinting past with her characteristic head-bobbing. Next, we see a man dressed up as a toilet waving to the camera. Following the running toilet would be a famous actor or chef stopping to talk about their aches and charitable cause.

Determination

I told myself I must run one marathon someday. I was a competitive track sprinter back then, so I filed the notion away.

A year after hanging up my track spikes, my dad suffered a stroke, and it hit hard. Aged 20, I needed a positive outlet. My passion for running seemed to be the avenue to focus my energy – getting outdoors, moving forward, and raising money for stroke and sporting charities.

Although the London Marathon planted a seed, Eddie Izzard and Terry Fox genetically modified it into a monster. I witnessed Eddie run 43 marathons in 51 days on TV for Sports Relief. I was overwhelmed with emotions watching Terry Fox’s story on YouTube – a young Canadian cancer patient with an amputated leg trying to run across Canada.

With their inspiring stories, I naively dared to aim higher. I told myself, my family and chosen charities that I would be the first person to run a lap of Ireland – 35 marathons in 35 consecutive days.

There was a slight problem, though; I’d never run a marathon or even half a marathon.

‘Four-week couch to marathon runner’

After my dad’s stroke, his life seemed on tenterhooks, the sand in the hourglass flowing uncomfortably fast. I gave myself less than a year to prepare. There was an urgency to my mission.

Eight months from my 35-marathon start line, I thought it best to learn where my baseline was. I signed up for the Dublin Marathon with four weeks notice.

I concocted a four-week ‘couch to marathon runner’ programme. I had to create one because, despite all the information available online, apparently, a four-week marathon training plan is not a thing. That should have been an obvious sign.

Chancing it, I hopped on the Luas on the 31 October to join the crowds on Fitzwilliam Street Upper, at the start line. I was apprehensive, like before a test I hadn’t studied for, but the crowds and buzz of anticipation nullified the nerves with adrenaline.

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The skies were clear on this fresh morning, my breath visible in the air. I was kept lukewarm by a tatty jumper and tracksuit bottoms over my running shorts and t-shirt, fidgeting from one foot to the other in the shade of the Georgian red-brick terraces.

The start gun blasted, and I hurriedly discarded my decrepit outer shell on a railing. By the halfway mark, I wasn’t in a good place at all, at all, having significant doubts about finishing the remaining 21 kilometres.

With 15 kilometres left, I was becoming feral, mentally stripped back, the pains and fatigue growing. I was getting emotional from the encouragement of the strangers lining the roadside. I remember a guy in a wheelchair, holding a sign saying ‘keep running for me’. Jesus, he had me fighting back the tears. I was in a downward spiral. Trying to spit, it landed on my t-shirt, but I couldn’t have given less of a feck how I looked at this stage. It was survival. Appearances were irrelevant.

Nearly done

I was in a much better headspace once the finish line seemed in reach. That’s 36 kilometres; we’re getting there, Al, yes boy. It proves the power and importance of my thoughts.

My muscles, tendons and joints were fine at the start, screaming in the middle and then feeling better near the end. The only reason it felt easier was that I knew I was going to finish. ‘You got this,’ I told myself.

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I felt part of something bigger than just me. The supporters were cheering and holding out Jelly Babies and tubs of Vaseline. Runners were patting other runners on the back if their demeanour looked negative. Re-entering the city centre, I was fully bought into the powerful experience and on a high. I was converted.

‘You’re doing great, nearly there, bud,’ I huffed, encouraging some random lad who had slowed, looking like me a few kilometres earlier. We were in this struggle together, and we were going to make it through together.

‘Ugh,’ was the exclamation of relief when I crossed the line in Merrion Square. I wrapped myself up like a turkey at Christmas in the complimentary finisher’s foil blanket, attempting to retain some heat.

All I desperately wanted was to be warm, dry and horizontal. I looked pitiful. I knew because of the way by-passers were looking at me, pulling their lips inwards, raising their eyebrows and giving me a short nod, as if to say, There, there, you’ll be alright, young fella. I certainly did not feel okay as my rain and sweat-soaked shorts and t-shirt stuck uncomfortably to my now shivering fragile body, as I gingerly shuffled forward.

The brutal reality of untrained marathon running had well and truly set in, along with a fair degree of concern. Better late than never, I suppose. At least I discovered what my baseline was and what to expect if I ran with no foundation.

That knowledge would stand me in good stead and scare the bejesus out of me, ensuring I did my best to build a foundation capable of withstanding the lap of Ireland run.

If you’re interested to see how I got on with my lap of Ireland run, my new book – ‘Marathon Man’ – is available on Amazon and Audible or through your local book store.

Best of luck to all those autumn runners. Well done on making it to the start line. Make sure to run your own race and absorb the experience.

Alan Corcoran is a runner and author. His new book Marathon Man is out now.

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