Ciara McCullough, who only took up running in 2018 has set herself the challenge of completing a half-marathon a day throughout the first two months of 2020, covering a total of 1,000km of national and country roads. On a recent rest day, she told Bernard Potter why she is undertaking this feat.

Ciara has been running for less than two years, spurred on by the desire to care for herself and her mental wellbeing. “I started running for my own mental health. I had got stuck in a rut of negative thinking. I live with a mindset that can work against me at times and I find that running helps me ‘beat’ that mindset. 

“On days where I’m not feeling great, when I get outside and run even one or two kilometres, I can feel the positive impact; my head clears, and the negative emotions ebb away. Running, getting up and doing something really helps me to turn negativity around, to flip the script in my head.”

Ciara did her first official 10km in May last year. “After I’d done it, I remember thinking, who in their right minds would do a marathon or a half marathon? At that stage, 10km seemed like the ideal distance.”

But she had caught the running bug and, within another five months, she did her first official, timed half marathon. That was when she came up with the idea of running a half marathon a day for two months. “I had watched countless documentaries about endurance events and always thought I would love to try it. One documentary about an endurance swimmer who was also a cancer survivor, really inspired me and made me think, why not try something more ambitious?”

The Children’s Grief Centre

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Ciara decided to do this run to support the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick City because, she says, her own life experience has shown her the importance of the work they do

“I first became aware of the Grief Centre through a friend of mine, whose husband had passed away. Her  boys had gone to the Centre to get some support and help and I saw first-hand how much of a positive impact it had on her two kids, how it helped them cope with their grief and talk openly about their dad in an extremely positive way.

“I had lost my dad when I was quite young and there was no facility like the Grief Centre available at the time. The old Irish way of not talking about our grief was still fairly widespread in the early 90s. So, I know what it’s like not to talk about grief.  That’s why I’m wholeheartedly behind the work of the Grief Centre, I understand the implications of not talking about grief and I see the positive impact that open conversation can have.

“I battled for a long time with my own mental health trials and tribulations. I have made three attempts on my own life and I know what it is like not to talk about your own feelings or the realities of what’s going on in your life and the damaging impact that has. Now, through my own recovery and through speaking about grief, I understand that talking helps. It has real benefits for children and for their futures.

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“At the moment, there are over 200 children on the waiting list for help at the Grief Centre. It needs more space and they’re looking to open new premises to cope with the level of demand. I’m hoping what I raise will contribute to covering a significant proportion of their annual running costs and let them focus on their fundraising efforts on opening a larger facility.”

Planning and preparation

“I looked up the idea of the half marathon a day and felt that it was realistic and doable. I opted for the two-month, 1,000km objective because I wanted to take my time, give myself enough days of rest, and try to enjoy the experience as much as I could.”

From a mental perspective, she thought about the challenge in bite-sized portions. “Instead of thinking about it as a two-month task, I decided to focus on the particular day’s run. Scheduling eight rest days over the two months was important – a rest day is something to look forward to and helps keep you going.”

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In terms of motivating herself to get out on the road on a cold January or February morning, Ciara is pragmatic and believes there can be too much of an emphasis on feeling motivated: “You can wait and wait until you’re motivated, until everything feels ‘just right’. In reality, the most important thing is to make a decision and act.”

Physically, she got into readiness for the two-month schedule by running every day: “I tried to do an hour every day. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I targeted longer 20km to 25km sessions. I went to classes with a strength and conditioning coach, and had a one-to-one session with Linda Bracken, who helped me strengthen my core. She also coached me in Pilates exercises to help with flexibility.”

‘Rambo’ legs

At the time of the interview, Ciara had completed just over two weeks of the run and had got into her stride after a tough first few days: “The initial three days were difficult, with the first day of running being probably the toughest. I was on the route from Derry to Letterkenny and running into 35km winds blowing rain in my face for at least 20km. The next two days the weather was almost as bad. And my body was in bits every morning when I woke up.

“But a friend of mine said, ‘don’t worry, your ‘John Rambo’ legs will kick in soon and your body will accept this’. And sure enough, by day six I woke without any serious aches or pains. I started to move better and more freely –  the Rambo legs had taken over.”

Two weeks on, she actually feels stronger than when she started: “Physically, I’ve found my zone and I’ve got into a running rhythm. Mentally, I feel much better, too. I could never sit down and do meditation but for me running takes its place and it helps me relax mentally.”

Does she have any special diet for the run? “I keep it fairly simple and have a good breakfast and dinner each day. Other than that, I take a Revive Active supplement every morning. Once I’m out on the roads, I have electrolytes in my water intake to stay hydrated. If I need a snack boost, I have a supply of Fitfork pots, which are instant meals and really convenient as I often find myself miles from any shop.”

Wear and tear

So far, thanks to her conditioning work and her Pilates exercises, she’s avoided any serious injuries. “I have had some shin soreness which probably has its roots in my early running days when I ran in bad shoes and got some shin splints which have recurred from time to time. So that has been a niggle but I’m putting ice on my shins every day, making a conscious effort to keep inflammation down and so far, they haven’t caused me any serious problems.”

She sums up her philosophy on injuries: “I try to run through as much as I can, but if I was seriously hurting, I would stop. It’s counterproductive to aggravate an injury if you could do medium-to-long-term damage. I’m due to finish on February 20 but, if I need to rest an injury I will, as I still have nine days to spare, if I need  them,  before the end of the month.”

Help along the way

Ciara is getting plenty of encouragement from people she encounters along the way: “Lots of people seem to be aware of what I’m doing thanks to Facebook and Instagram. We have a van with a big sign that says ‘Run with Ciara’, so people recognise it when we’re passing through. I was invited to guest on a local radio show in Connemara this week and afterwards, a lady from Clifden messaged me and put me in touch with a physio who gave me a treatment session free of charge. Doing this has reinforced my view that Ireland has some of the friendliest, most generous communities in the world.”

She’s also getting virtual support thanks to the Run with Ciara app.

“It’s lovely to be able to check in on the app every night to watch the leader board and see the counties competing. And those taking part are not only from Ireland. For instance, when I last checked, I saw that there’s a lady in Barcelona running with us.”

What’s the first thing she plans to do when she’s finished the final day of the run? “We’ll try and get as many people as possible joining in with me on the final mile to Kinsale and then, I think we’ll have a party.”

Run with Ciara

To take part in a virtual run with Ciara, you can register online for €25 at www.runwithciara.com and download the app. You can nominate the county you want to represent, and the app will log your miles. A live leader board is updated online every 15 mins each day. The money raised by your participation will go to the Children’s Grief Centre.

The Children’s Grief Centre

The Children’s Grief Centre is a free support service for children and young people aged four to 18 years who have experienced a loss through bereavement, separation or divorce. It offers children and young people who have experienced a bereavement a ‘listening space’. For more information, go to: www.childrensgriefcentre.ie

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