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Getting back on road made me feel on top of world


Deirdre Donnelly overcame ill health to run a race in Arba Minch, Ethiopia.

Deirdre Donnelly overcame ill health to run a race in Arba Minch, Ethiopia.

The race in Arba Minch, Ethiopia which Deirdre Donnelly competed in.

The race in Arba Minch, Ethiopia which Deirdre Donnelly competed in.


Deirdre Donnelly overcame ill health to run a race in Arba Minch, Ethiopia.

I was never incredibly sporty but always had a keen interest in fitness. I had a particular focus on recovery following injury after a car accident in my 20s. At 30 I was diagnosed with a condition called sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease. This respiratory condition left me with scarring of the lungs and ultimately swollen joints which developed into osteoarthritis.

In 2009 I reached the nadir. I could barely walk, my right knee was swollen to almost twice its normal size. I had gained weight and had not been exercising. That autumn, I decided to do something about it and signed up for the weight loss class.

Within a few months my weight was down, I felt a lot fitter and the knee problem had cleared up. What was also interesting is that my regular check-up in St Vincent's Hospital showed a remarkable improvement in my respiratory condition. The following year I did my first 5k race in years, which gave me a tremendous boost.

It was later that year when I first I heard about the Great Ethiopian Run, an annual 10k road-running event that takes place in Addis Ababa at an altitude of 8,000ft. I had hoped to travel to Ethiopia to do a radio documentary and thought that it would be a great idea to run the race as well.

Last year I applied for Simon Cumbers Media Funding. Administered by Irish Aid, the aim of the fund is to promote more media coverage of development issues in the Irish media.

I was commissioned by Newstalk to do a documentary on disability and development in Ethiopia and felt that it would be an added challenge to run the race on rough terrain and at a high altitude.

It's true – preparation is key! I met with my physiotherapist, Stefanie Sheppard of Riverview Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinic. She gave me some basic exercises to do and emphasised the importance of core work. By activating the core I was taking pressure off my knee joints.

I developed a treadmill routine and began building up the training in blocks of five minutes – jogging for four minutes at 6kmh followed by a one minute sprint. I would do this eight times and then end with a five-minute jog and stretches. This was recommended every second day and a class (bodypump or rpm) on the other day.

A great emphasis was placed on improving muscle strength by attending the David Lloyd Body Balance classes. In the past I would have dismissed this combination of pilates, yoga and tai-chi as too passive but I was amazed how it improved muscles, joints and posture and boosted my training.

I still remember that feeling in October when I actually completed a full 10k run in the gym. It took 71 minutes – a long way to go before the 60-minute mark, but I still did it. It was encouraging to have finally completed that distance without breathing difficulty or joint problems emerging. Although all the training had been done in the gym on a treadmill with a relatively low incline I was getting ready for an even bigger challenge.

In November, about a week before I was due to go to Addis Ababa, I heard that there had been a localised terrorist threat and was advised not to take part in the race. Most of the Irish charities who had fundraised decided to pull out and make alternative arrangements in different parts of Ethiopia.

I took the opportunity of travelling with Orbis Ireland, an organisation that helps fight blindness in the developing world, to the southern city of Arba Minch where an alternative race was organised. Despite the changes I still decided to take part and record the event for radio. I had only run flat on a treadmill in the gym and the rough terrain, hills and heat did prove challenging.

But there was a wonderful atmosphere. Given Ethiopia's incredible record at producing some of the world's top distance runners, it was a unique experience to run alongside some of the athletic champions of tomorrow.

The training and participation in the event means that I am now bitten by the running bug and I look forward to returning to Ethiopia later this year and taking part in the Great Ethiopian Run on rough terrain and high altitude.

Deirdre Donnelly travelled to Ethiopia with funding from Irish Aid.

  • A documentary on Deirdre's Ethopian adventure will be broadcast on Newstalk 106 at 6pm, this evening, after George Hook.