Marathon Mondays: Six Marathons in Six Days in the Sahara: David O’ Keeffe

With 13 full weeks to go until the SSE Dublin Marathon kicks off at 9:00am we have decided to try and help you on your way towards that looming goal.This week we look at one of the maddest Marathons.

David O Keeffe has been in involved in athletics with Togher A.C for many years, starting off running with his school Douglas Community School. Enjoying good success with his school team and even getting to participate in the World Schools for the Irish Team, David found himself looking for a cause and decided to take up the Marathon at the age of 19. Mad enough to run 26 miles at such a young age, David decided to try the Marathon Des Sables, a six-day, 251 km (156 miles) ultramarathon, which is the equivalent of six regular marathons. The longest single stage is 91 km (57 mi) long.

Dave raised an incredible €6,340.50 for the Marymount Hospice Cork for his incredible effort.
Read more about the Marathon Des Sables here

Read all about Dave’s Epic Journey here

How did you get into athletics?

David O Keefe finishing in 34 Hours 11'00 minutes

David O Keeffe finishing in 34 Hours 11’00 minutes

I got into athletics when I was 12 I quit swimming around then and was looking for a new sport. I went out for a run with the Douglas Community school athletics team who are closely linked with Togher AC. I got hooked on the sport and have been running since.

What was your background in track and field, what events did you do?
I did a good bit of track running when I was younger between the ages of 12-17. I was a strong runner but nothing too impressive I favoured the longer distances such a 3000m. But I also enjoyed the mile and steeplechase.

What made you take up the Marathon?
Marathon running was something I had always wanted to do since I started running. I loved the idea of the challenge of a marathon. I always knew I could finish a 3k or a cross country race my time might be slower than I wanted but I would finish the race no matter what. The marathon distance introduced an element of uncertainty, it such a gruelling distance that finishing is not guaranteed. It was the uncertainty and the challenge of a marathon that brought me to run my first marathon in Dublin in 2010 when I was 19 years old. It was a great experience and the sense of accomplishment crossing the finish line was something I had never felt before.

You had ran a good few longer races in the last few years but this was certainly a new step. What made you want to try the Marathon Des Sables?
In the last three years I have ran 5 marathons, the idea of an ultra-had always been in the back of my head. I was sitting at home one evening and started googling them. Initially I looked at the badwater 135, a 135 mile race through death valley in California. The race required a qualification standard of running at least three, 100 mile races previously, which ruled me out. From there I looked into more and more races, eventually I stumbled upon a documentary on James Cracknell competing in the Marathon Des Sables. After watching the documentary I made the decision that I was going to do this race. I went to training the next day which was March 2014 and told the lads what I was planning. Of course nobody believed I Would follow through and everyone was a bit shocked when in May 2014 I paid my entry fee, after that there was no turning back.

How did you prepare for it?

David O Keeffe)third from left) with clubmates from Togher AC

David O Keeffe)third from left) with clubmates from Togher AC

Preparation was tough it involved a lot of long lonely runs during cold winter nights. For training I reckon ran anywhere between 15 to 25 marathons. I use to leave work at 5.30 and run for 4 hours around cork city with a bag on my back by the time I got home I was exhausted cold and hungry. It was days like that I questioned would this challenge be achievable. I went out for a 40 mile run one day which was probably the toughest day of training for me both physically and mentally, I did eight 5 mile loops so I knew exactly what was facing me for each lap I did 25 of these miles on my own and at the end there was no reward to speak of. There were no crowds, there were no medals it was just a personal achievement. My last big training weekend consisted of back to back marathons, I did one in clonaiklity and one around cork city, this was the first time I ran on extremely tired legs and it broke me mentally. It was definitely the most valuable day of training I had as it allowed me to experience what I would go through on a daily basis in the desert.

Give us an idea of your day during the Marathon des Sables?
Every day in the MDS was nearly identical. You wake at first sun light and stretch out your tired muscles. You boil some water to eat your freeze dried porridge or cereal and then you set about packing the bag for the day. You collect your water ration and then it’s off to the start line. The start of the race was the same we were told about the course, the dropouts from the previous day and sang happy birthday to those poor souls who decided to run the MDS as a present to themselves. The race always started with highway to hell from ac/dc blaring in the background. From there it was quite running on difficult uneven terrain in the blistering heat upto 45 degrees Celsius. The first 10k of each day was a taster and usually the easiest. The next 10k was usually very technical with steep climbs or descents or some sand dunes. The last 10k was always hard and always seemed to be uphill, when you reached the summit of the last hill of the day you were given a glimpse of the finish line which was still 3-4 kilometres away. The hardest day by far was the long stage of 91.1K there was one big climb at 30 kilometres and over 30k of sand. I don’t remember the last 10k of this day and don’t remember finishing, my body shut down and I went into a trance of just taking one step at a time. I enjoyed every day, the sights I saw in the desert were amazing from never ending sand dunes to isolated villages to oasis that appear out of nowhere.

What was going through your mind in the later days?
As the race went on my confidence got higher and higher the one day I was dreading was the second last day or the long stage. The longest I had run in my life was 40 miles and I was about to take on 61 miles after running 3 marathons in three days. For this day I had one goal get through it without stopping, my plan worked quite well as I maximised the amount of time running through the daylight. I spent about 4 hours running in the dark and it was the toughest four hours of running I’ve ever done. For this day and the last day the only thing going through my mind was that no matter what happened I was finishing this race. I used a technique of running for 5 minutes and walking for 2 minutes to ensure I got to the finish line.

How did you get through it? How did it feel to finish? Any after effects?

The Marathon Des Sables Route

The Marathon Des Sables Route

The last day was very tough on me mentally, I had nothing left in my system and I couldn’t eat the freeze dried food without empty retching. My parents had flown out to see me finish so I had something to drive me to the finish line. The feeling crossing the finish line was hard to explain, I was thankful it was over but I was also elated that I had finished the race. I was exhausted and my body was drained so I couldn’t soak up every moment as much as I wanted, I managed a small celebration but that was all. When I got back to Ireland the reality of what I had done finally set in and I got the buzz I was expecting at the finish line. This buzz hasn’t stopped and I am loving running more than I ever have in my life.

How was the body after?
I didn’t release it after I finished but my body was a mess. I ate my weight in food the day the race finished and I was still starving. My ability to concentrate on a certain task was at all-time low. I was mentally zapped and had very little energy. My ankles were very swollen, I struggled for two or three days to fit my feet in my shoes. I had a nasty cut on the back of my ankle but other than this I had very little visible injuries to show. Luckily my feet held up very well and I only got two bad blisters. Some of the lads in my tent had to pay daily visits to the doctors and by the end of the event their feet were in tatters.

Any Plans to run any races anytime soon? Any further mad races?
At the moment I am getting back to the short stuff doing some track races and short road races. I plan to focus on half marathons for the next year and a bit before attempting to get a big pb in my next marathon. As for mad races I have a few ideas. I would love to try a 100k, 100 miler, the four deserts challenge, mizen to malin and the Enduroman Arch to Arc challenge. At the moment I am looking into attempting the Arch to Arc challenge. The initial plan is to attempt this in September 2018 but a lot could change between now and then. The arch to Arc is a gruelling triathlon which requires an 87 mile run from the marble arch in London to Dover, a swim across the English Channel and a cycle of 181 miles from Calais to the arc de triumph in Paris. This is just an idea at the moment so for now I’m going to enjoy running half marathons and road races.

Any advice for those attempting these races?

World Schools- Dave O Keeffe (Second fromleft) 2007

World Schools- Dave O Keeffe (Second fromleft) 2007

For any person attempting a marathon for their first time I’d advise them to be very conscious of their pace for the first 15 miles, you will feel amazing and like your moving too slowly however a marathon only start getting tough at mile 18 and if you’ve gone off too quickly it could seriously hamper your goals. It goes against most peoples natural tendencies however going off controlled or slower can reap rewards in the later miles and will lead to a better performance. For events such as the marathon des sables or ultra-marathons I would advise people to go in a positive mental place, people around you won’t understand why your attempting it and you can face negativity from lots of people. The best thing to do is turn that negativity into a positive thing and use it to drive you through the tough days of training. Similar to a marathon with an ultra go off slower and don’t be afraid to walk early on. For the MDS I adopted an approach of walking up steep hills and running the flats and downhills. The most important bit of advice for any long distance run is enjoy every step and soak up the atmosphere the whole way to the finish.

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Ronan Duggan

Ronan Duggan

Ronan Duggan is an athlete, coach, athletics fan and, most importantly, was once named Bandon AFC's under-12 Player of the Year. He was once a promising athlete but is now a promising coach, teacher and part-time athletics writer/broadcaster. While an 800m runner himself, Ronan has coached everything from pole vault to 10km with varying levels of bluffing. He has regularly been threatening to do something for years but is yet to deliver. He is regarded as our expert on the American running scene, though has yet, to prove his knowledge in this realm.

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