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Trauma of losing Alanna has given Keith Russell inspiration to scale peaks of human endurance

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Keith Russell and his daughter Alanna ahead of the SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon in 2017. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Keith Russell and his daughter Alanna ahead of the SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon in 2017. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Keith Russell, representing Ireland, comes home in the men's 100 kilometre race, at the 2021 Irish National 50 kilometre and 100 kilometre Championships, incorporating the Anglo Celtic Plate, at Mondello Park. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Keith Russell, representing Ireland, comes home in the men's 100 kilometre race, at the 2021 Irish National 50 kilometre and 100 kilometre Championships, incorporating the Anglo Celtic Plate, at Mondello Park. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

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Keith Russell and his daughter Alanna ahead of the SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon in 2017. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The roots of great motivation can sometimes be found in tragedy – the kind of seismic shock that leaves you with no option but to soldier forward, to just keep on keeping on.

It’s not that Keith Russell ever really chose ultra-running. It’s more that he was forced into it. For the Navan native, running was long something he did solely for the wellbeing of his daughter, Alanna, but when she died in 2017 at the age of eight, the void left behind was as traumatic as it was terrifying.

“I didn’t want to be around anymore,” says Russell. “I just wanted to f**king die. I couldn’t cope with it.”

During the months after, running was his therapy, and Russell would set off on a Saturday morning for five or six hours, unwittingly laying foundations for one of most accomplished careers in Irish ultra-running history. The 39-year-old laughs when he considers that in light of his youth – when he was a gifted footballer without a shred of discipline.

“I’d drive my father mad,” he says. “I had great ability but I never gave a s**t. If there was a match on a Sunday, I’d be out on the beer on a Saturday night.”

In recent times it’s been different, and after Russell surpassed the world record for the Backyard Ultra last month, covering an astonishing 596km across four days, his parents were among the first to express their immense pride. “I get emotional about that,” he says.

His journey into running happened because of Alanna, who was born in 2009 – her twin sister, Isabel, a stillborn. Alanna had spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy and was unable to speak or use her arms or legs throughout her life.

“For the first four or five years, she wouldn’t come to me at all, she was real anxious, screaming crying all the time. But I used to throw her in her chair, bring her out walking at all hours of the night just to calm her down, and then she’d doze off.”

On a visit to Athlone one time Russell spotted someone loading a running wheelchair into a van and that triggered an idea. With his father’s company sponsoring a chair for Alanna, he set a goal: to complete the 2017 Dublin City Marathon, pushing her all the way.

“Once we started running, she became so much more manageable. We built up a really strong bond. I used to go into her on a Sunday morning, grab her by the legs and say, ‘come on, let’s go running,’ and a big smile would come across her face.”

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They raised €60,000 for Meadow’s Children’s Respite Centre in Navan, with Alanna the youngest competitor in the race. Just six weeks later, though, she was gone – Russell discovering her lifeless when he walked into her room one December morning.

“Anytime you close your eyes, you could see that vision,” he says. “I just had to change that; it was killing me.”

The long runs he used to cope became a habit, and they eventually led to his commitment to run the marathon again in 2018 in Alanna’s memory. But soon that wasn’t enough. In March 2019, Russell ran his first ultra and he hasn’t stopped since, his efforts raising 10s of thousands for children’s charities and providing funding for various kids with disabilities.

In May last year, he ran his first Backyard Ultra, a wacky format that requires participants to complete a 6.7km loop every hour, running as fast or as slow as they like once they’re back on the start line within 60 minutes. He set the Irish record on his first try, logging 63 consecutive hours, but he knew he could do better – much better.

Earlier this year, Russell was offered a spot in the Race of Champions Backyard Masters in Rettert, Germany. His training involved three gym sessions and four long runs each week, which could range from two to 10 hours long. Working in sales with a fire alarm company, he’d maximise his free time at weekends, starting to run at 5pm on a Saturday and not finishing until 10am the next day, doing the same two laps of a 3.4km loop around the Hill of Tara in 44 minutes before resting/eating for six minutes – then doing it again and again and again.

In the race last month, he stuck to the same cycle, adding a five-minute sleep when he needed it before rushing back to the start line. Across the four days, Russell slept for a grand total of about one hour each day.

“You start to doze off as you’re moving, then you wake up again and you have to remind yourself where you are,” he says. “You start to hallucinate, talking to someone and then you turn around and there’s no one there.”

There’s a reason they call these events Last One Standing. There’s no finish line, no limit to race length – the event ending only when the last competitor stops.

Russell ran much of the race with Japan’s Terumichi Morishita, the two forming a close bond despite their language barrier, but when Morishita called a halt after 73 laps, it was just Russell and Belgium’s Merijn Geerts left out there.

The pair broke the previous world record of 85 laps then kept on running, pushing into uncharted waters. In the end, all the willpower in the world couldn’t get Russell to finish the 90th lap, during which he turned to Geerts, shook his hand, and told him he was done.

“My whole body was just shutting down. I was getting blisters on my tongue, my skin got really bad, my breathing too – I was coughing up phlegm.”

The Belgian set the new world record at 90 laps, with Russell’s initial disappointment soon fading. “I woke up and thought about it: only two people in the world have ever run 89 hours and I’m one of them. I have to take a lot from that, and I 100 per cent plan to go and do it again.”

After the race he got an email from Athletics Ireland telling him he’d qualified for the 24-Hour European Championships in Italy in September, where Russell’s goal is to cover 250km. He’s come a long way in just a few years.

“In 2015 I was smoking and drinking and in 2022, I’m second in the world of Last One Standing runners,” he says. “It’s a massive contrast.”

And it’s proof, too, of the strength that can be gleaned from suffering; the hope that can be found in heartache – his daughter’s memory giving him the motivation, the inspiration, to go on.


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