Dedicated, passionate, inspirational, fearless, fit are just some of the adjectives that spring to mind while browsing a summary of what Alan Corcoran has already attempted and achieved in his life.
Running 35 marathons in 35 days at the tender age of 21 – a gruelling 1,476km lap of Ireland – isn’t something most of us could achieve even in our wildest dreams. Neither is a 500km swim of the length of Ireland, or an attempt (albeit a doomed one) at stand-up paddleboarding 1,500km around Ireland.
Extraordinary? Definitely. Bonkers? We had to ask.
The Waterford man told Irish Runner: “I definitely underestimated [the physical and mental toll], but I wouldn’t say I was mad. I originally got marathon running on my radar when I was 13 or 14 watching the London marathon on TV and seeing Paula Radcliffe trying to break records but then you see the average person doing it for their own cause. That’s when I originally said I would like to do a marathon but I said I’d put that aside for when I’m finished with my sprinting days.
“But when I was 18, I saw Eddie Izzard and he was running 43 marathons in 51 days for charity and I was just like, ‘oh, I never even thought of doing sort of running from A to B, multi stage’. So that sort of brought that up on my radar as something different.”
Marathon man as he’s known is an ironic moniker considering Alan had never actually ran a marathon before he decided to run almost 15,000km around Ireland in 35 days in 2012 to raise money for the Irish Heart Foundation Stroke Action campaign, the National Rehabilitation Centre and the Football Village of Hope charity after his beloved dad, Milo suffered a stroke in 2011.
He was undeniably fit having been a sprinter in his local athletics club during his teenage years and even won the under-19 Irish Championships in the 400m hurdles, as well as a few juvenile internationals. But after second year of college he ended up quitting and moving to Scotland on exchange to Dundee University. And that’s when his dad had the stroke.
Alan recalled: “That was the trigger to go for the lap of Ireland run. And then I was thinking running a lap of Ireland might not be enough to raise money for charity so I thought ‘Why not do it as consecutive marathons?’ I hadn’t ran even a half marathon at that stage, never mind a full marathon, but I had committed to that notion in my head.
“Weirdly, when I was in Scotland, just before my dad’s stroke, I was introduced to a character called Terry Fox. He was a teenager when he was diagnosed with cancer, had his leg amputated, and then tried to run across America from east coast to west coast. So then when my dad had a stroke within a few weeks of finding out about Terry Fox, and with Eddie Izzard too, they sort of raised my gaze from just one marathon and I thought if these guys can do it, maybe I can too.”
To the uninitiated runner, this might seem like an easy transition. If you’re fit and can sprint, that’s the important part?
Not so fast, says Alan. “I suppose there’s an extreme sort of intensity to trying to compete at national championships and internationals and make standards as a sprinter, but the one thing that’s the same with both is just the discipline of showing up. I remember texting one of my old training partners after a 30 miler and saying that was a lot easier than some of our 400m sprint sessions on the track where we’d be puking up and crawling off the track. It’s not about intensity, it was just about knowing I wasn’t trying to run the world’s fastest marathon. I was just trying to get from A to B, a lap of Ireland was the goal.”
Alan also turned to acclaimed author and ultra-athlete Gerry Duffy, of ’32 marathons in 32 days’ fame, for guidance on his mammoth challenge. And the Mullingar man had one key piece of advice: Don’t let your ego get involved.
He recalled: “Gerry just basically said don’t forget that you’re trying to run a lap of Ireland, but not really fast. So that’s what I had to just keep telling myself. Just get to the finish line and not injure yourself, or injure yourself as little as you can for the next one.”
Putting pen to paper
It’s almost a decade since Alan completed his gruelling charity challenge and fittingly he has just released a book titled Marathon Man, not so much as a diary account, but more as an homage to those who inspired him.
Alan explained: “I just thought that with a book I could reach more people and hopefully connect to them and inspire them to do something else, or give them some sort of motivation. Even if it’s not running, just whatever your goal is. People might talk about things and think it’s unachievable and then relate my challenge to their own goal and then chip away at it.”
Unsurprisingly, Alan’s 35 marathons in 35 days weren’t plain sailing. Yet it wasn’t the gruelling physical challenge that threatened to derail him, but rather the logistics of what he was trying to achieve.
Alan said: “I suppose I signed up for a charity run, young and naive thinking a charity run just means I have to run. But there was a lot of physios, food, accommodation, support teams, support car. So you’re trying to organise all that and it’s falling through and you’re thinking ‘what am I going to do?’ I considered sleeping in a tent and living off energy gels and protein shakes. But with the run itself, I was just single-minded that I was going to get there. I was stubborn enough to finish it off.
“That said, I think one of the wobbliest days I had was day 17 bang in the middle but after 20/22 days, your body is adapting and I just levelled off and was able to find the sweet spot of just consistent, pain-free kind of running.”
It’s an accomplishment most people couldn’t even dream of. But that doesn’t mean Alan has no regrets.
He revealed: “I was doing something like 300 kilometers a week for five weeks straight so I regret not maybe taking two weeks or something after to recover and then doing speed work to do a fast marathon just for my own head really, just to see what I’d be capable of. But I think that ship has sailed now.”
Hell and High Water
Speaking of ships, Alan decided to take on a second charity challenge a few years later when he attempted to swim around Ireland. His first shot failed in 2017 – because his boat sank – but he got back in the water and completed the 500km length of Ireland from the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim to Tramore in Co Waterford over 52 days in 2019.
Coincidentally, it was a book that inspired that challenge too, Hell and High Water by Sean Conway to be specific – another reason why Alan decided to put pen to paper for his own tome.
But having had no swimming experience, surely that feat was much tougher than the marathons?
“I was a runner so that was lot more natural,” Alan said. “I wasn’t starting from square one. Before I jumped into the marathon training, I had eight months to get ready from being a sprinter to standing on the start line for the lap of Ireland. But then when I went into the pool, there was no way in hell that I’d be able to swim the equivalent – a marathon swim is 10 kilometers – and I’d get maybe 20 meters and have to stop as I’d be out of breath. It was just totally different on the system, a different technique so it was back to square one.”
Perhaps somewhat of adrenalin junkie, Alan then tried to stand up paddleboard around Ireland in the summer of 2020. But that doomed attempt ended on day one when their boat hit rocks – and that put paid to that.
While he hasn’t ruled out a second shot, he’s currently focussed on releasing a film about his 500km swim. Unsinkable will be submitted to film festivals this year and publicly released in 2023.
Still a keen runner in his new home in Canmore in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains in Canada, Alan hasn’t ruled out another gruelling challenge in the future.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. Now that I’m here and the runners are back on and the spikes are on, you never know. But I’m not sure about re-attempting the paddle boarding and also I’m in the mountains here so I’m landlocked and far away from the sea. It’s still a bit a bit raw anyway!
“But I joined up with the local running group in Canmore and we do trail runs in the mountains every Tuesday and interval on Thursday nights.
“I’m more of a sea baby seeing as I grew up on the beach in Tramore so I didn’t really have much of an interest in the mountains. But now that I’m here, they’re winning me over slowly.”
‘Marathon Man’ is sold through Amazon, Audible and Alan’s website www.marathonman.com. It’s also available in all great book stores and libraries.