'After running for 31 hours my mind was playing tricks on me... I saw Santa Claus in the trees and ants on my legs'

'After running for 31 hours my mind was playing tricks on me... I saw Santa Claus in the trees and ants on my legs'
Conor O'Keefe, Greg O'Keefe, Mark O'Mahony, Mark's girlfriend Claire and JJ O'Mahony.

IT WAS during a regular conversation with his friend that Cork native Conor O’Keefe made the decision to take on the biggest challenge of his life.

Himself and pal Mark O’Mahony weren’t long after completing a 100-mile running challenge when they decided to tackle the next stage.

“Like every other big decision I made in my life, it was a throwaway conversation with a friend of mine,” he admitted.

“We both signed up on a whim to do a 100-mile race last year with seven weeks training. In December in 2018, he said ‘oh I’m going to do a 200-mile race actually’ and I said ‘yeah, sure look I’ll do it with you.”

The pair soon embarked on another gruelling training session to get themselves prepared for the arduous task ahead.

For O’Keefe, this involved going out for 30-kilometre runs at 4:30 in the morning before heading to his job as a car salesman and then either going for another run, a swim or to the gym after his shift.

Finally on Friday, May 17, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the race started and O’Keefe, alongside Mark and three other men began their Enduroman 200 Mile Ultra Run.

By the halfway stage, there was only O’Keefe and a fellow endurance runner left with O’Mahony forced to withdraw with an injury.

“It was only me and this guy Steve left,” recalls the Glanmire man. “We were sitting down having breakfast it was 5.30am and we were both fairly mentally and physically fatigued.

“He asked me what I wanted to get from this. Did I want to become one of the select few that ever finished this race? Did I want to lay it all out on the line and push myself for the next 26 or 27 hours to get this done?

“It just clicked with me in my head at that moment that I was either going to go home in an ambulance or I was going to cross that line and finish the race.” 

First, the opening half of the race, O’Keefe, paying attention to his heart monitor, took a steady pace as he made his way along the Bournemouth countryside.

Following that chat with Steve, who dropped out 10 miles later, he soon abandoned his initial plan and charged towards the finish line, running at an impressive speed of a mile every 15 minutes.

But having only slept for 30 minutes in 38 hours, 31 of those hours he spent running, the effects were soon starting to take its toll on his body. And also his mind.

“My stomach was under enormous pressure to eat,” he adds.

“I had to eat every 20 to 25 minutes to keep the calories in, so my body could keep going and that my brain could keep thinking.

“It was when night came in and I was using my head torch the light and the darkness and that sleep deprivation really played a lot of tricks on my mind.

“I thought I saw inflatable Santa Clauses lined up along the trail but they were actually just trees. I thought who is after putting them out in the middle of May? I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

“I had my legs shaved for the event and I thought the stubble had turned into ants and I thought I was seeing faces in the puddles.

“But I kept telling myself that these are tricks that my brain are playing on me because I haven’t slept so I just had to forget about it and keep going the last few miles.” 

In those last few miles, plenty of things were running through his mind but his main focus was on finishing what he started with his father Greg playing a major role.

“I wasn’t in full control anymore it was my brain just telling me what was going to go down,” said O’Keefe.

“I thought of one million and one things while I was running, I was thinking about everyone who had donated and had wished me well.

“I thought about my family, my dad who was there supporting me and how proud he would be when I get across the line but most of all I just wanted to see if I could do it.

“I could not have done it without my dad. Not only was he there to feed me and give me water and do the normal duties of a crew member, he gave me emotional and mental stability during the whole thing.

“That was something that I really leaned on and it really, really dragged me through the whole thing.

“Everybody said what a fantastic job he did at being a crew member and if there was an award for the best crew he would have got it.”

On Sunday the 20th of May at four in the morning, O’Keefe crossed the line with a time of 59 hours and 45 minutes to become the second man in history to finish the race in under the 60-hour limit.

“I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore,” he remembers.

Mark O'Mahony, Conor O'Keefe, race organiser Ed after the race.
Mark O'Mahony, Conor O'Keefe, race organiser Ed after the race.

“As soon as I crossed over me and my dad just hugged it out, we cried into each other’s arms.

“Later on the next morning, he said when he hugged me after the 200 miles it was like he was holding me for the first time again in the hospital, that’s how he felt, it was a beautiful moment.

“To finish this race inside the 60-hour limit, I’m incredibly proud of myself.” 

O’Keefe also raised over €3,800 for the charity Pieta House and donations can still be made with the information up on his Instagram account (cokeefe).

And as the body and the mind recovers from the race with each day that passes, O’Keefe has started to contemplate the next challenge to meet head-on. That decision is likely to be made during another conversation with his friend Mark.

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