WHEN Conor O’Keeffe says “I was born to do something massive,” he isn’t just talking the talk.
The 28-year-old from Glanmire has set himself a Herculean challenge. He will attempt to run 32 marathons in 32 days in 32 counties... with 32 pounds of weight on his back!
The fact Conor, whose goal is to raise €100,000 for Pieta House, is starting his epic trek on April 1 shouldn’t for a minute make you think he isn’t serious.
The 6ft 3in athlete insists: “I want to discover what I am capable of. I want to do something huge.”
Conor is a law graduate who, as a skilled Thai boxer, fought in front of 2,000 people in Neptune Stadium for an Irish title while still a student in UCC. He has never settled for half-measures.
“I know how to train to do that, to do something huge,” he says, “and now I want to go that extra mile. I might be mad in the head!” adds Conor, who climbed Kilimanjaro in his teens, with a smile.
It wasn’t that long ago that the young ultra-runner, ‘Enduroman’ champion, and supreme Thai boxer felt he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“I want to raise awareness around depression and raise awareness about the valuable services offered by Pieta House,” says Conor of his marathon attempt.
“When I lost my way and suffered from depression, I didn’t know where to turn. My life was a constant battle of ups and downs, huge highs and crashing lows.”
Things are different now. Depression no longer weighs Conor down.
On each of the 32 days of his epic journey, he will shed one pound of weight from his back, signifying he is rid of the ‘Black Dog’ that used to snap at his heels.
Depression plagued Conor in his teens. His sporting prowess gave him only a temporary reprieve.
“School didn’t really suit me,” he reflects. “Even though I achieved good results when I repeated my Leaving Cert.
“I was a chubby kid and I didn’t really feel I belonged at school and I didn’t get on with the teachers. I always had an adventurous streak. I needed stimulation to get me out of trouble.”
He found that stimulation in a boxing club on Cork’s Northside, with the Siam Warriors, excelling at Muay Thai boxing.
“It was a really big deal for me to come up the club’s ranks and get a shot at my first Irish title in 2013,” says Conor.
He prepared religiously for the biggest event ever in his young life.
“I lived this monk lifestyle,” says Conor. “I trained endlessly, watched videos of Thai Boxing and absorbing them into my mind.”
He had the mindset of a champion.
“I could see the winner’s belt wrapped around my waist! My sense of expectation was huge.”
When Conor was knocked unconscious in the last minute of the final round, the fight went out of him. The lights went out before the final bell.
“I went home and I fell apart, bawling in my mother’s arms,” says Conor.
“It was the last hurrah. I thought, we’re done.”
“My career was really finished that night. My love and passion was gone. I had built this identity as ‘Conor the Thai boxer’. I gave it every single thing I had.”
Making up for lost time, he took to partying and living life to excess.
His career had ended and his five-year relationship with his girlfriend ended.
“I’d drink to get smashed,” says Conor. “If I went for a pint, I’d go for the whole day. I skipped lectures in UCC and I stayed in a bar. I drank, I smoked and I chased women.”
Conor broke his humerus bone, located between the elbow joint and the shoulder, in an arm wrestling contest and recalls: “I couldn’t do anything. I decided, I’m out of here.
“I was sleeping in, eating s**t food, putting on weight, bloated from drink. I lost all interest in myself. I was depressed and having suicidal thoughts. My parents had a son they didn’t know.”
Conor, by now working as a car salesman, was earning a lot of money, but blowing it on the ‘good things’ in life.
“I took off to Canada. I had youth on my side and I thought I could repair my body,” he says.
For a while, he rediscovered his first love, the love of the outdoors and physically training. He got the yen to get back into the ring.
“I booked a flight to Thailand, stopping off at home en route for Christmas.”
He got a great welcome home, but he didn’t get good tidings.
“My doctor called me in and told me he wouldn’t recommend me to fight again. I had a benign cyst on my brain as a result of injury.”
Conor felt the fear and did it anyway.
“I was a hot-blooded male and I jumped on a flight to Thailand.”
He contemplated his life on the long-haul flight.
“What was my life if not a fighter?” says Conor. “I needed to re-ignite the flame. This is what I do. This is who I am.”
Applying the Tiger balm and tying his boots before the fight, Conor was ready and fighting fit.
“Then the promoter announced the fight wasn’t going ahead,” says Conor. “In one way I felt relief. Was I really ready for this?”
He had to be ready when the fight commenced 10 minutes later. It didn’t end well.
“When I got knocked down, I didn’t get up again,” says Conor. “I beat myself up over that every waking moment for about a year after.”
Anxiety set in. The old bad habits set in. More body blows were set to knock Conor for six.
“My favourite uncle and godfather died. We had a bond. He used to be so proud of me. I looked up to him.”
Conor still hadn’t found what he was looking for.
“I went back selling cars, spending my money on drink, fags and girls,” says Conor.
“I was looking for the adulation and the acknowledgement I got in the ring.”
His body, once so strong, so resilient, and so enduring, came to the rescue. Through running, he found his true self again.
“I did a January ‘cleanse’ in 2018,” says Conor. “I was still drinking, but not so much. I took part in the Cork City Marathon and I did it in three hours, 38 minutes.”
Then his friend, Mark, signed up for an ultra-race in Connemara and Conor went along for the ride.
“My body gave up after 55 miles,” says Conor.
But he didn’t give up.
“I actually ended up finishing it in 28 hours, walking most of it. My mind brought me through. I got that same feeling after climbing Kilimanjaro.”
Conor then went a step further and entered the Enduroman 200, a 200-mile ultra-distance race.
It was to be an odyssey that took him on a journey of renewed body, soul, and peace of mind.
“I would live inside my own mind. Make my body believe what my mind was telling it. I put one foot in front of the other.”
Conor not only finished Enduroman 200, completing the course in 60 hours, he became the first finisher since 2016.
“You gotta have your demons,” he says. “I put a lot of mine to bed.”
Now he has found his inner Rocky.
“I loved Rocky. I admire Conor McGregor as well,” says Conor. “My friends say I am the ‘new Conor!’”
He is a new man with a mission.
“I feel like this is the beginning,” says Conor.
With his marathon, he is highlighting the vital services of Pieta House and raising hundreds of thousands of euro for the charity.
“Doing what I’m doing is like a duty,” says Conor. “And now I know why I’m doing it. That’s the difference.”
See Conor O’Keeffe’s idonate page to donate.