Tuesday 25 June 2019

Seven days, seven marathons - meet Ireland's running champ

Galway schoolteacher Gary Thornton is the newly-crowned winner of the World Marathon Challenge. He tells Cathal Dennehy how he coped with the physical and emotional demands of the gruelling contest

Gary Thornton in Antartica
Gary Thornton in Antartica
South Africa

When the offer was first put to Gary Thornton, he knew not to hesitate, realising that if he thought too much about the pain ahead, he'd never even make the start line.

Never mind the finish - seven marathons, seven days and seven continents later - where he arrived broken but not beaten, limping but not losing, to become the 2018 winner of the World Marathon Challenge.

Between January 30 and February 5, the 38-year-old Galway teacher ran 183 miles in 168 hours, travelled through 16 different time zones, spent an ungodly number of hours on a plane, before collapsing into bed at a hotel room in Miami a crumpled heap of utter exhaustion.

At this stage, you're probably asking yourself why.


After all, Thornton is 38, married with a baby daughter, and works full-time at Claddagh National School in Galway, a lifestyle not conducive to traipsing the globe as a competitive marathoner.

With a personal best of 2 hours 17 minutes, he's been one of Ireland's best marathon runners for the last decade, but after missing qualification for the Rio Olympics, he toned down his dedication to the sport.

He'd run 70 miles a week instead of 100, but still sate his competitive appetite at road races around the country. Then last October he got a call from Richard Donovan, an Irish adventure runner who organises the World Marathon Challenge each year, offering him a spot in this year's race.

"I didn't give it much thought because if I thought about it, I'd probably say no," says Thornton. "I wasn't confident, I wasn't fearful, I just was going into the complete unknown."

The event gathers a horde of bucket-list types who want to run the world in one wacky week, and they travel together between destinations on chartered planes, sharing battle stories between each marathon.

At his peak, Thornton would run about 15 miles a day in training - some of it relaxed, some at a hard tempo - but now he'd have to run 26.2 miles a day for seven days, in seven very different places, and all of it fast.

South Africa
South Africa

The first stop was Antarctica for 26.2 miles across the snow and ice of the frozen continent, where the temperature was a face-splitting -10°C. Incredibly, Thornton dipped under the three-hour barrier, clocking 2:58:39.

"I put too much into it on the day because in my own head, I thought it was easy after that," he says. "But after the race it was a six- or seven-hour flight up to Cape Town, I got no sleep on the plane, and when we got there it was straight to the race."

In South Africa the temperatures soared over 30°C, and that's when Thornton's body showed its first signs of struggle. "The heat caught me after 15 miles and I suffered. I couldn't get on enough water and I tried to alleviate that by taking gels and tablets, but my body just rejected them. I just had to accept my body was going to be limited."

He nonetheless clocked 3:06:55 for the marathon in Cape Town, but midway through his third marathon - in Perth, Australia, the following day - his knee began to jar. "I thought this could be the end of it, it could be three marathons in three days," he says.

"But I managed to get through it."

He somehow finished in less than three hours, first home again in 2:59:55, but by now Thornton was having a major issue with energy: his stomach was rejecting the recovery drinks and he was getting just an hour or so of sleep each night.

"After four marathons, I thought: I can't do it, it's taking way too much energy. I'd go back to bed and get no sleep, then end up back on the flight. Time went out the window. I was just trying to get through it."

During his fourth marathon in Dubai, Thornton's injury problems worsened: "I was dragging my right leg the whole way, so I tried to take anti-inflammatories, but then I ran out of energy during the last 10k."

Nonetheless, he finished first again in 3:04:29. The following day in Lisbon, Thornton felt a fresh pain in his shin, and another on the sole of his foot, but he gritted through both to finish in 3:19:28.

On the plane to Cartegena, Colombia for the sixth leg, he borrowed every cream and lotion he could from his fellow competitors, tried anything to alleviate the inflammation, but he was running close to empty.

"I was really struggling in Cartagena," he says. "I pulled to the side of the road once or twice. I was disorientated, light on my feet, so I needed to stop, take check, and keep going again. When you're halfway through your sixth marathon in six days, stopping is dangerous because your mind might take over and say you're done."

After limping to the finish in 3:35:31, Thornton was never in more need of a good night's sleep, but he couldn't get one. Still wired from his exertions, he hit the pillow at 1am but couldn't drop off, so got up and lounged around the hotel until their 5am departure to Miami, sleeping for a grand total of 15 minutes.

"I was just fire-fighting in Miami, just getting through it," he says. "My legs were extremely sore, my foot was totally swollen and every injury came at me together."

The final marathon involved five laps of a 5.2-mile out-and-back course alongside the coast, and early in the race Thornton felt like his legs had forgotten how to run. "I was really fatigued as well as being mentally broken down. I felt I was new to running, back to ground zero. It was really strange."

But he soldiered on, eventually reaching the finish elated, exhausted, in 3:21:19 - giving him an average time of 3:12:19.

"I was just relieved when it was over," he says. "I had so little energy left in my body I just sat in a chair and was asking someone to go to my gearbag which was three feet away. After I hobbled back to the hotel, I wanted to order room service but I had no dollars to tip, so I just went into bed for hours. I didn't have the energy to go back out and eat."

Thornton had a day to recuperate in Miami before flying back to Ireland, re-uniting with his proud wife Elaine and baby daughter Cora. Then it was straight back to work at Claddagh National School, where students offered a hero's welcome to their globe-trotting teacher.

"It was a really cool event to do and I'll never turn down an opportunity like that because life is for living," says Thornton, who hopes his students will also take something from the adventure. "If it gives the sport more exposure in the school, that's great, and I hope it teaches them that if you work hard at something then you'll get opportunities."

One last question, though: would he do it again?

"You know runners: we think 'now that I've done it I've a load of insider knowledge for next time', but I'll say no, I'll be in the divorce court otherwise," he says with a laugh. "But never say never."

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