There is no shortage of praise for Derry man Conor McIlveen, and it’s richly deserved.
Conor lives to run. When he’s not running he’s supporting Manchester United through bad times and good and spending time with his family, friends and girlfriend Catriona.
Last year, Conor, from Woodbrook, ran the Walled City Marathon. He ran it in a competitive time of three hours, fifty one minutes and fifty seven seconds. He’s also competed in the Waterside Half Marathon, the Omagh Half Marathon and a number of smaller races and cross country events. The 24-year-old now has his sights on a few personal bests as he looks ahead to this year’s competitive running season.
Conor has Cerebral Palsy.
That fact is worth such a short sentence because that’s about as much as Conor lets the condition get in his way.
He concedes that there are points when he does think about the future, and whether his illness will allow him to continue to run as he does for the rest of his life, but these moments are few and far between in the busy day to day.
When he’s not training or running, Conor works for Springtown based All State, where he’s a security engineer.
Last year however, he became a member of local running club Foyle Valley, and since then life has become significantly more packed.
“I was always into sport and had played a bit of football and gaelic, but the truth is I was just never very good at those sports,” says the former St Brigid’s School pupil.
“Then around 2007 I decided to get into running but it was only last year when I joined Foyle Valley that I really began to take it seriously, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Conor took great inspiration from Irish middle distance runner and paralympics champion Michael McKillop.
“He competes in the T 37 classification and has the same form of Cerebral Palsy as me,” says Conor, “When I saw what he could do I was just blown away and I think that gave me the kick start I needed. Joining the running club has had a massive impact too, it’s given me motivation and I’ve gained a lot of friends. There’s always plenty of banter too. My friend Declan is one of the head coaches and he was one of the reasons I got involved. I saw Declan doing schedule after schedule and I knew if I worked hard I would get to the same level.”
Last year, after weeks of intensive training, Conor finished the Walled City marathon and he’s determined to run the marathon this year again.
Sadly, one of the people who made Conor believe he could compete against all odds was his late grandmother Margaret Doherty, who died last year.
“She was just amazing,” he says.
“She just loved to see me running, and she was the first person who really showed me that I could do it. I’ve decided to compete this year in her memory. I’m so lucky really that I have a fantastic support network behind me.”
Conor says that without his parents, Susan and Martin and his girlfriend Catriona Lam, he would have found his efforts last year impossible.
“They were with me the whole time, always 100 per cent behind me and that’s what kept me going.”
Very much aware of the restrictions his Cerebral Palsy has the potential to impose on him, Conor has a very simple mantra.
“I just never give up. It’s as simple as that. For me, it’s about keeping going. If you have the heart for it, you can do anything. I did have doubts at times about whether I could do the full marathon and I’ve had runs that haven’t gone well but I’ve always just believed that I was strong enough to do it.”
Looking back to last year’s marathon which had huge popular support, Conor says crossing the finishing line was one of the best moments of his life.
“It was such an experience, there was a real buzz around the town. It was something else and everyone taking part was made to feel pretty special. It was great to see Derry take its place as a brilliant place to run a marathon. Local people who’d competed in Dublin and New York said that Derry was the best and I can’t wait for it this year again.”
Conor’s adamant that his condition will not stand in his way as he moves forward and hopes to achieve more success in the future.
His coach at Foyle Valley, Billy Orr, has nothing but praise for him.
“Conor is a very popular member of our training group and he’s an absolute pleasure to coach. Whilst always to the fore with the banter during the warm up and cool down runs when the hard training starts he commits totally to the session and never slackens.
Conor was with the club for several months before he told me that he had Cerebral Palsy, and I must confess that had he not mentioned it I would never have known. What impressed me greatly was that he disclosed this in a very ‘matter of fact’ manner, and not in any way as an appeal for modifications to be made to his training.”
Likewise, his running mate Denise Ward, who Conor credits as being a great motivator, adds:
“Conor is a decent runner who trains very hard.
“As a close teammate I can see improvements in his running over the past six months.
“Not everyone knows Conor has Cerebral Palsy (CP) as this is not overly apparent when he is running.
“He does have a unique running style though, but don’t we all. He certainly does not use his CP as an excuse if he isn’t happy with his race times, he simply sets himself another target and pushes for it. His ‘go hard or go home’ attitude is very uplifting, it never fails to energise me when I am having a bad training day.”
Conor’s not one for soaking up praise or resting on his laurels. He says he’d like to think his story might convince others with similar conditions that nothing is impossible.
“If you have the right attitude, I genuinely believe you can do anything,” he says.