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Running for my life

The tragic death by suicide of his father spurred Sean O’Farrell into lacing up his running shoes to take on the Dublin Marathon for the first time in 2013. Not a runner back then, Sean has since embraced this sport and the positive physical and, more importantly, mental impact it is has had on him

“The pain of running relieves the pain of living.” I read this quote some time ago, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate set of words to describe my life up to now. Let me explain. Some of us are lucky enough to discover it naturally. Others, like me – and, I’m sure, countless numbers of ordinary people – discover their passions through adversity. I come from a family of runners, a brother who is vastly more athletic and talented than I am; a sister who has herself ran in one Dublin Marathon; and a father who ran in the first eight Dublin Marathons. I still remember the bronze plaques from the early days of the race, their pride of place above our hall door, and they always held a certain mystique for me. It was through the tragic loss of my father to suicide in 2003 that I first contemplated the thought of lacing up some running shoes with a blind ambition to honour his memory by running in the 2013 Dublin Marathon, on the 10th anniversary of his passing. Running was to give me something that I needed, at the time in my life when I needed it most.

Finding the answer

I’d never run the distance before, I don’t think that I’d ever run more than a few miles in fact, but little did I know the effect that this decision would have on my life. I believe that the power of running, with the immeasurable mental and physical benefits that it offers to you, saved my life. In the intervening years following my father’s death, I was a man devoid of meaning. A man struggling to find his soul. Suicide does that to a family. The endless questions, in my case, were only quelled at the bottom of a beer glass. I was unfit, I was unhappy, and I was searching for an answer. Any answer. The answer, and so much more, came by committing to run that marathon. All that was required of me was to start. 

My first run on the road to the Dublin Marathon in 2013 is one that I’ll never forget, a miserable one-mile mile jog on a cold, wet, typical winter’s night in Tallaght. I ran in the dark for two reasons: I was embarrassed by my physical shape and the darkness helped hide the tears that I shed. Over the years, I became proud of that run, because it was the basis of everything I’ve achieved since then. I wasn’t to know then, but that seemingly insignificant run was the catalyst for a lifelong love of our sport. I was aware of the pain and sacrifice that would be involved in getting to the start line, but my resolve solidified, and I embraced the challenge. In order to copperfasten my resolve, I signed up for the Race Series along with the marathon and the road map to my start line was laid out in front of me. That, along with the support of a brilliant family and girlfriend, gave me the fortitude I needed to see this plan through.

Getting to enjoy the journey

In the following weeks and months, the runs became longer and more frequent. There was a growing sense of achievement when placing a strike through the various short runs I completed. The long nights out were replaced by the dreaded long, slow weekend run. Training plans were produced and adhered to; following the novice’s thread on Boards.ie became a daily obsession; massages became the treat I most looked forward to; and slowly but surely, I started to believe that I was a runner. I was a runner! A wise person once said that if you don’t enjoy the journey, you’ll never enjoy the destination. There’s never been a truer word spoken. Ironically, the expected texts about heading out for a few pints were eventually replaced by texts from friends telling me that they were proud of me and delighted to see the change in me. Those texts coupled with the comments on social media gave me the will to carry on when the desire to pull the runners on might have been waning. I’m not an overly spiritual man, but when times on the road were tough, I firmly believed that my Da was on my right shoulder saying, ‘Keep going son, I’m with you all the way.’

Following in the footsteps

Being new to running at that stage, you’re always worried about injury and getting to the start line as healthy as you can. Am I running enough? Am I running too much? What will the weather be like on the day? Questions that consume your thoughts on an hourly basis when you’re in the training process. If I were to offer any advice, it would just be to relax, follow the plan and everything else will look after itself! I recall being at the Expo, ignoring the advice of seasoned pros and spending way too much time soaking up the atmosphere and taking as much from the experience as I could. I was ready, and I was eager for the starting pistol the following day. Being my hometown marathon, I felt it was a privilege to run on those streets in the footsteps of many who had gone before me. People eulogise about the support from the people of Dublin, but I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. Their support lends strength to so many runners during the day, of that there is no doubt. From running past the GPO, through the Phoenix Park, conquering Heartbreak Hill, to seeing the Gooch and Ray D’Arcy in Dundrum – the whole event is seared into my memory. Rounding Trinity College, the tears came again as I sprinted the 400 yards or so towards the finish line. My whole family were there to share in my achievement, and the thought of my Dad taking those same steps in years gone by was enough to place some extra wind in my sails and get me across the line. 

The draw of Dublin

So, here I am, six years later and no longer living in my hometown. Life has moved on and priorities have changed. Running has become more difficult, but no less rewarding. That, I blame on the years on the clock more than anything else! I’ve learned more about diet, exercise and mental-health care in the intervening years and on October 27, I’ll plan to join 22,500 fellow runners in toeing the line for the KBC Dublin Marathon 2019. I haven’t been involved with a marathon since that day in 2013, I’ve run plenty of other races but no other marathon calls to you like the one in our fair city. I’m not training on the same roads as I did before, swapping rainy Tallaght for sunny Pennsylvania. But the distance is still the same, and the asphalt never refuses the miles of a willing runner.

I’m thankful for what the marathon, our marathon, has given to me, and what running has given to me in general. It offered me a gateway back to happiness. It outlined to me that life was worth living, and there was joy to be found in the suffering. I’ve met lifelong friends through running, but, more importantly, I rediscovered the spark in me, which, for the longest time, was extinguished. A huge part of me wants to give back and extoll the virtues of the effect that running can have on you. If my story can help one person to either lace up their shoes and follow in my footsteps, it’s a story worth telling. It wasn’t always easy, and there were times that I wanted to give up. But what you give to running, it returns to you, and then some. I’m living proof of that.

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