Alan Corcoran reveals how his father’s stroke and death five years later due to cancer made him realise just how fragile life can be, so he decided to push his body to the limit, all the while raising thousands of euro for charities
I ran a lap of Ireland — 35 marathons in 35 consecutive days — at the age of 21. I nearly swam the length of Ireland when I was 26 but inconveniently found my boat sunken in the harbour near the halfway point. I wasn’t deterred for too long, though, and went back to the start line. I completed the 500km sea swim from the Giant’s Causeway home to Waterford in 2019. I’m 30 now, and I’m not done just yet, still testing the nerves of my poor mother with imminent plans of further adventure.
Why do I do it? There are lots of elements as to why. Covid dragged one of those to the forefront. If we’re lucky enough to reach old age, our health will likely confine us to our homes or nursing home, old and immobile. We’ll mainly have the memories we created during our life to live off. Luckily, I came to this realisation early on and have tried my best to pursue life with some vigour.
I’ve loved sports and being outdoors from a toddler, training in soccer, Gaelic football, athletics, swimming, basketball — anything and everything.
Growing up, I wanted to be a full-time athlete. These endurance odysseys of mine are somewhat of a workaround for not making the grade. I’m not one to give up on a notion too easily. Rather than earn a living as an athlete, I work as a local authority town planner, scrimp and save up and then dedicate some time to pursue these passion projects of mine.
Significant factors that have shaped my ‘why’ have been the prevalence of premature death of young friends, nearly losing my dad to a stroke when I was just 20 and seeing him die of cancer only five years later. These harsh and life-shattering moments have made me extremely mindful of and grateful for my good fortune to be alive and kicking.
I’ve developed an acute awareness about the uncertainty of life and certainty of death, which brings a degree of urgency and focus to my actions. I want to fill my life doing activities I enjoy, that test me, teach me, and keep me healthy and sane — granted, many will say the actions are insane.
As well as satisfaction in the hard graft itself, self-expression and development, there are broader impacts and contributions that I’m able to create through my efforts. The 1,500km run and 500km sea swim have raised €45,000 for Irish charities so far.
I say so far, as Emagine — a Waterford creative agency — and I have crowdfunded a small budget to create a documentary film about my length of Ireland sea swim, called Unsinkable. Fundraising adds an extra feel-good factor to my work, more purpose and meaning, raising money for causes my family and I have been affected by and are passionate about — stroke, cancer and sports.
The catalyst for attempting to be the first person to try to run a lap of Ireland was the shock of my dad’s stroke. I had just moved to Dundee, Scotland, on an exchange from the Dublin Institute of Technology.
It was the farthest I’d lived from home and most isolated I’d ever been. Despite my dad’s stroke, I was under firm parental instruction to stay put in Scotland until I sat my end-of-term college exams. I felt awful about not being at home with my family, helping out with caring for my father and carrying my fair share. I was terrified of losing my dad, too. I needed to do something, anything productive, rather than wallow in uselessness, sadness and fear. That’s when I committed to myself that it would be worthwhile to get after my dream of circumnavigating Ireland on foot, in aid of the Irish Heart Foundation, the National Rehabilitation Hospital and the Football Village of Hope.
My initiative and commitment worked. I soon felt invigorated and regained a sense of control over my life at a time when life felt like it was happening to me.
I was a runner — a failed sprinter no less — and I had no long-distance training. Foolishly, I planned to run 35 back-to-back marathons with just an eight-month crash course in endurance running. It’s an extremely niche challenge to prepare for, so I sought out Gerry Duffy’s assistance. He had run 32 marathons in 32 counties in 32 days a few years prior. The Mullingar man didn’t let me down and shared his five-month plan, guiding me from January to the May start point.
The problem was that the program required me to run 80km in week one, with the escalating mileage looking like Mount Everest from my novice start point. To even contemplate that high-volume program, I needed further help to build a base during November and December. Sprinting as a teenager for Ferrybank AC, I knew Gerry Deegan. Gerry Deegan competed in 13 World Cross-Country Championships for Ireland and ran a blistering 2:18 marathon time.
He thought I was bonkers but drew me up a two-month plan, wanting to give me a fighting chance to achieve my aspiration. Once the training plans were in place, I was responsible for showing up and executing small daily efforts towards my goal. There were no teammates or coaches to force me to put in the time and work to achieve my ambition. I didn’t lack any motivation, though. Recurrence of strokes are common, and I hadn’t the luxury of time to half-arse it if I wanted my dad to be part of the journey. It had to be now.
To see what all the fuss was about first, I had a half-baked notion of running one marathon in October with four weeks of training. I quickly discovered what happens if you run unprepared — you end up in an excruciating heap and are bedridden for days. Live and learn.
Once I could walk again after my Dublin Marathon torture, I went back to basics. I started laying a brick at a time, slowly but surely incrementing my weekly volume, transforming my body into an endurance machine — albeit a slow one.
Quick times were not the marker of success, just enduring the sheer distance was the challenge. I clocked about 10 solo marathons and ultra-marathons in training. It was such a satisfying experience — being dismal at first but stubbornly chipping away, making fractional daily gains and discovering what abilities discipline could unlock. While it was down to me to show up and follow the training plan, my rehabilitating dad was a huge factor for the remaining 50pc of the task — logistics.
I hadn’t thought much about logistics for a running challenge, but this aspect provided a significant test. There were numerous times the lack of organisation jeopardised the running goal, things like food, accommodation, physio, volunteers and navigation.
Weeks out, there was no time to train as I realised all the fitness abilities in the world would not help unless my family, friends and I were able to figure out the mounting organisational problems.
For the scale of the task, the most challenging part can be turning your initial thoughts into action and then making it to the damn start line.
Marathon Man is available now on marathonman.co and Amazon. See also for trailer and info on Unsinkable