Making big strides
On being diagnosed with MS, Liam Delahunty plunged into depression. But, as he tells Joy Orpen, taking part in adventure races have given him a whole new lease of life
When, earlier this year, Liam Delahunty, 35, told his friends he was going to compete in an adventure race, they laughed and pointed out that he couldn't even run from one end of the room to the other. But he has proved them wrong and, right now, he is in the throes of competing in a string of physically tough races.
What makes this even more surprising is the fact that Liam has multiple sclerosis (MS) and, until recently, he was deep in the doldrums because he was certain his life was spiralling downhill.
But it seems he has not only surprised everyone around him, he has also surprised himself.
Liam, who grew up in Co Kilkenny, studied engineering before becoming a sales manager. Then, in 2007, things began to change.
"When I developed a twitch above my left eye, my GP said it was probably a muscle spasm," Liam explains. "He suggested Botox to stop the twitch, and that didn't surprise me, because I knew it had uses other than cosmetic. However, when he was about to give me the injection, he asked me why I was clutching my leg. When I explained that I sometimes felt numbness and got pins and needles, he stopped the Botox and referred me to a neurologist."
Liam saw the specialist within a few weeks. An MRI scan revealed tell-tale lesions on his brain. Spinal fluid was then taken during a lumbar puncture. It was later confirmed that Liam had MS.
It was a very challenging time for him and his new wife, Aisling, as they had just returned from honeymoon. "I was told there were different kinds of MS, with different severities. Overall, I was given a pretty gloomy prognosis," Liam recalls.
A trawl online didn't help, as most of the stories were pretty negative.
"The internet is a dangerous place," warns Liam. "It can suck you into the wrong articles."
So, it's not surprising that, soon after, he deteriorated emotionally.
"I started feeling depressed. I was on the road a lot, with too much time to think," he says. "We'd bought a new house and I thought we'd have to move to a bungalow because of the MS.
"And, when I was pushing my son around in his buggy, the thought crossed my mind that, one day, he'd be pushing me in a wheelchair. Depression can be a part of MS."
Eventually, Liam made the brave decision to get help and he called Multiple Sclerosis Ireland, the national support and information organisation for those living with the condition. He says they gave him invaluable advice when it came to dealing with his physical symptoms. But they were also there for him when he needed to talk. They suggested he participate in a programme called Getting the Balance Right.
Ava Battles, chief executive of MS Ireland, says: "Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative, neurological condition of the central nervous system.
"It can affect the motor, sensory and cognitive functioning of the body. Common symptoms include fatigue, visual disturbances, lack of coordination/mobility and altered feelings in the arms or legs."
She goes on to say, however, that appropriate treatments, regular exercise, a healthy lifestyle -- including nutritious food and supplements -- and good emotional support all help to reduce the impact of MS.
Liam signed up for the Getting the Balance Right programme at a local leisure centre.
"Before I started, I was very down. I couldn't sleep, which sounds ridiculous when you think I had chronic fatigue. Everything was affected -- my marriage, my friendships and even my work, because I couldn't concentrate," he says.
Just five weeks into the course, which was supervised by an accredited physiotherapist, there was sound evidence that Liam had improved. "There was a huge difference in mobility," he says. "The fatigue was much less, while the tremors had decreased."
So life for Liam was looking brighter, thanks to his new routine.
Nonetheless, soon after the 12-week programme ended, he slipped back into his old ways and stopped exercising. So he was ill-equipped when, some time later, he lost his job. "It was partly due to the downturn, but I also feel I wasn't performing," he admits.
Liam then became even more depressed, and says there were times that he thought of ending his life, but his growing family -- he and Aisling now have four children -- wouldn't allow him to take such drastic action.
Then, earlier this year, Liam decided to take inspiration from a much-loved relative who, in spite of having cancer, continued to have a wholly positive outlook on life.
"It dawned on me that there was just too much negativity around MS. So I decided to go back to the gym and get fit," says Liam.
He started a campaign called Run With Liam, where he set himself the challenge of competing in 24 "adventure races" to raise funds for MS Ireland over 18 months. He says that, while these events are less structured than triathlons, they incorporate running, hiking, biking and kayaking. He has already completed several of these races.
Now Liam -- who is, thankfully, ensconced in a new job -- goes to the gym at 6.30am; he also goes cycling or running after the children have gone to bed; he eats six small, nutritious meals a day and takes an omega-3 supplement. He says, as a result, his life is back on track.
"When I go to the gym in the morning I am all set for the rest of the day. My fatigue is almost non-existent and my tremors have decreased," he says.
"I have already competed in five races, and it was great for the kids to see their dad doing so well."
Liam says the most important piece of advice he can give anyone living with MS is to talk, talk, talk about the problems they face. He appeals to men to open up.
"I realised too many Irish men don't seem able to talk about their feelings. There was a time I was bottling things up and even suicide crossed my mind. But that's no solution -- that's just too devastating for everyone left behind," he says.
"The first person I started talking to was my wife; then it was my mother and my friends. The worst thing is to have this huge weight on your shoulders and not talk about it."
Liam, who now glows with health, is definitely giving his MS a run for its money -- and he's on the winning side.
"I'm feeling fantastic," he says. "I'm even feeling better than I did as a teenager."
MS Ireland, 80 Norththumberland Rd, D4. MS Helpline, tel: (1850) 233-233. For more information on the organisation or on Run With Liam, see www.ms-society.ie