For Tullamore Harriers athlete Michael Murphy, last month’s national senior championships in Morton Stadium signified a return to a level he has been so desperate to reach after two years of ongoing heart issues that had threatened not only his future in the sport but perhaps most significant of all, his health.
Living in Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, Murphy was first introduced to Tullamore Harriers at the age of seven by dad, Mick, who himself is an accomplished masters athlete in the famous blue and white colours of the Offaly club.
Murphy’s senior debut came in the B race of the men’s 5000m on a tempestuous June evening that far from lent itself to fast running. For Murphy however, the experience was a huge positive as he toed the line in his first ever national senior championships, barely six months on from a successful surgery on his heart at the second time of asking. The 20 year-old on the final laps of a two year comeback, ran 15:27 for 11th position in Santry, in turn marking a defiant line in the sand and kickstarting what he hopes will be a successful journey towards achieving his first Irish vest in the near future.
“It was great, there were people coming up to me after, telling me it was great to see me back. When I came across the line, I didn’t care about where I finished, it was just unreal to be back up there, I was delighted overall”.
Heart issue rears its head
It was May 2020, while under the coaching tutelage of Rob Denmead, that Murphy suffered the first of what he refers to as ‘episodes’ with his heart while doing a session of 5x2km. Only 400 metres into the final rep, the then 18 year-old began to experience worrying symptoms as his body began to flood with lactic acid and his vision became blurred.
“I was thinking what is going on here. I looked at my heart rate and it was through the roof, up close to 250 beats per minute”.
An advocate of training by heart rate having been tested by Bernard Donne and Dr Neil Fleming in Trinity College Dublin, the number which Murphy was seeing on his watch was almost 50 beats higher than his maximum. That reading, accompanied by the feelings he was experiencing in his chest, resulted in a quick transit to Tullamore Regional Hospital with his mum, Teresa.
“I could feel it in my heart, it wasn’t a beat, it was more like a vibration. My mam brought me straight to A&E”.
Struggling for answers
Eleven days and a plethora of tests later, Murphy was released from hospital, none the wiser as to what the issue was, with results proving inconclusive. While in the hospital ward, Murphy vividly recalls filling out his CAO form as his blood pressure was taken at intervals, attempting to maintain some normality in such unconventional circumstances for an 18 year-old. After returning home, the episodes began to become a regular occurrence, on one occasion arriving after running up the stairs in his home following a training run.
It wasn’t until Murphy contacted local GP Dr Ray Campbell in February 2021 in relation to receiving the covid vaccine, that the ball began rolling towards receiving a diagnosis, with Campbell referring him to cardiologist Prof. Kevin Walsh in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, for a second opinion.
“Walsh knew straight away what it was and diagnosed me with Supraventricular Tachycardia”.
SVT, as it is more commonly referred, is an irregularly fast or erratic heartbeat that affects the heart’s upper chambers and to rectify the issue, Walsh suggested an Ablation procedure, attempting to zap nerve endings around the heart to eliminate the arrhythmia. Initially, Murphy admits he was ‘iffy’ about the procedure, although around that time witnessing Denmark’s Christian Eriksen collapse and suffer a cardiac arrest during a game at the European Football Championships swayed him towards having the surgery.
“I didn’t know if one day I’d just collapse out the road and not wake up. My mam and dad were so worried. Dad was coming on the bike with me for most of my runs”.
Only a mere five weeks after undergoing the procedure, Murphy was struck down with yet another episode, recalling one coming on while in the middle of a session with fellow DCU athletes Keelan Kilrehill and Ieuan Lagan, the two friends urging Murphy to not push beyond what was wise at the time. However, at that point, the repeated kicks were beginning to cause a wane in belief that he would ever overcome the issue and return to full fitness.
“’I’m thinking, this is the end of it now, I can’t do the sport if this continues on. The danger is sudden death syndrome or if it happens in a race, you’ll just have to keep dropping out.”
A cameo appearance with the DCU junior football team served as a brief recess from running for Murphy although resulting in the same end product, confirming that it wasn’t solely running that triggered the issue.
“I primarily wanted to test if it was just the running or any sport that was causing the heart issue. I made a little sprint in a training session and the heart problem happened again.”
Running out of options
A second attempt at the surgery become the last resort with Professor Walsh suggesting that if Murphy could record an episode, he would perform the procedure once more. An unlikely hero in the form of an Apple Watch became a vital cog in the saga, with the built-in ECG function allowing Murphy to record an episode and present the reading to Walsh for analysis. It was on New Year’s day of 2022 that the chance was seized when Murphy did get to record an episode on the watch. A mile further down the road, it happened again.
“The following day, I was easy jogging on the treadmill and it happened again, at this point I knew this was an emergency situation as I had never had 3 episodes in the space of 24 hours.”
After positive discussion with coach Rob Denmead and Joe Ryan, it was decided that a switch to Ryan’s training group based out of Mullingar would be the best option for all parties given the current situation and uncertainty around Murphy’s health. A large portion of his training under Denmead had been on his own.
“It made more sense for me to be part of that (Joe’s) group with the condition. We decided the move was best so that I would be training with people”.
A number of calls later to the Mater hospital, Murphy finally received word that he would be taken in for a second attempt at the surgery in late January. Jumping at the opportunity, he was intent on making sure he left no stone unturned in his recovery, giving him the best possible chance of reaching similar heights to his training partners Darragh McElhinney, Jamie Battle and Kilrehill.
“I was just thinking, now this is the restart.”
Crediting the massive support received from Head of DCU Athletics, Paul Byrne, coach Joe Ryan, training partners and his parents Teresa and Mick, Murphy’s recovery from the second surgery has thus far been a major success. A trip to Font Romeu in April to test the body under the rigours of 6000 feet of altitude presented no issues for Murphy, allowing him to begin building a consistency that has evaded him in the past number of years due to his health.
“I wasn’t hoping to make it back for track, but I was lucky enough to. For the first time in my running career, I’ve been able to be consistent.”
Hopes for the future
Inspired by the gold medal winning performance of the Irish U23 men last December at the European Cross Country in Abbotstown, Murphy has his eyes firmly set on making an Irish Euro Cross team alongside his friends and training partners in the near future. He admits there were conflicting feelings when seeing McElhinney, Kilrehill and Battle qualify for the team last year as he awaited his second surgery.
“I was so jealous, but at the same time I was absolutely delighted for them. I was thinking that it could have been me. But it gave me serious motivation. Seeing all the boys then at Euro Cross with the green vests on, it was unbelievable.”
For now, the National Cross Country Championships at the end of the year will be his target, in which he will attempt to secure a first outing in an Irish vest for the Celtic Cross Country. Something which he sees as an important stepping stone to his ultimate goal.
“This year I’ll put the head down and focus on a top 10 finish in the National Cross Country, which would get me a place on the Celtic Cross team for next January, then I’ll start thinking of Euro Cross.”
National U23 Track and Field Championships
This coming weekend, Murphy will don the blue and white of Tullamore Harriers on his home track in the 5000m of the National U23 Championships. While he carries a realistic medal hope into Sunday’s race, Murphy has gained a new perspective on running following the tribulations of his health scare.
While he admits he would be delighted with a top 5 or to possibly even medal, just being part of championship racing once more and back on the path to seeing how far he can go in the sport with his potential, is the ultimate win, something which struck him before making his way onto the track in Morton Stadium before his senior debut.
“I was in the call room at the back of Morton Stadium and there’s these guys and girls walking by me, really big names and I’m thinking, I’m part of this now. That’s why I’m in the sport, to be racing against and in the proximity of these people. It was unreal.”
This year's Irish Life Health National U23 Track and Field Championships is set to take place this coming Sunday, the 17th July in Tullamore, with action set to get underway from 10am.