As a teenager, I was a 400-metre hurdler and combined-events athlete, a juvenile Irish team sprinter with some potential who hoped to develop into a decent senior athlete. My old training partner Thomas Barr managed it with pure class, sprinting into a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics in 2016, winning a medal at the European Championships in 2018 and representing Ireland in Tokyo this summer. But I didn’t make the speed gains necessary to transition into a competitive senior athlete. The hardship and commitment required to compete at that level – pushing to puking and into lactic torture zones regularly – could no longer be justified while I began feeling like I was only making up the numbers on race days. I fell out of love with competing as a sprinter and quit the sport I had devoted a decade of my life to.
I discovered that I don’t do sitting around all too well, and student nights out were only fun for so long. I floundered a little, thinking how to fill the void. Then, my dad suffered a stroke, and it kicked my arse into gear. I naively signed myself up to try to run 35 marathons in 35 consecutive days for stroke and sports charities. With little to no long-distance experience, I’d attempt to become the first person to run a full lap of Ireland – affording myself only eight months of training prior to the undertaking.
To start my journey, I thought a litmus test would be helpful. I foolishly ran the Dublin City Marathon, following a self-made four-week couch-to-marathon training plan. It may come as no surprise to you that I found myself bed-ridden for three days after my trek on the concrete. It was an eye-opening crash course. Four hours and 10 minutes clocked in agony, with only seven months remaining to prepare for the 1500-kilometre mammoth charity adventure challenge.
I found the high-volume road miles unforgiving on my body and often dreaded the jogs on the streets of Dublin. Dodging speeding cars, pedestrians and cyclists along the harshly illuminated busy roads wasn’t too pleasant for the mind or the soul. Unable to afford a GPS watch at the time, I took the same monotonous straight road because the many roundabouts acted as distance markers. I knew I needed a change to stand any chance at completing the over-ambitious training plan.
I was a student, scrubbing pots and pans part-time in a hotel. I vigorously saved up my minimum wage pay until I could afford a GPS watch. This device gained me access to the nearby trails and released me from the torment of calculating my mileage based on laps of roundabouts. With the training distance ticking up on my new watch, I became free to roam the trails of Dublin’s Phoenix Park to my heart’s content. This switch from the concrete to the muck injected fun and adventure. It was a game-changer for me.
The more forgiving natural surface didn’t feel like it impacted my joints as much as the concrete, while the new surroundings made the training miles flow by, not wanting some training runs to stop. Instead of the glare of oncoming traffic, exhaust fumes and revving engine noises, I was amidst the park’s resident deer, stags, rabbits and hedgehogs, hurdling the tree trunks and tuning into the dawn chorus each morning.
Training can be a slog at times, but it can and should be enjoyable, too. Finding trail running opened that aspect up for me, the wilderness enticing me from the warm duvet. Trail running became a love, enabling me to clock the consistent miles needed to make the start line of the 35 consecutive marathon odyssey.
Alan Corcoran was a respectable sprinter in his youth who was switched to ultra-distance running when his father suffered a stroke. Deciding to run 35 marathons in 35 days to raise money for charity, his training grounds eventually switched from road to trail. He has released the book Marathon Man - click here for details.