Ex footballer completes 48 hour fitness challenge in support of friend diagnosed with cancer

FORMER footballer, Vincent Sweeney completed the last leg of his 'emotional' 48 hour running challenge barefoot on a gravel pitch in an effort to support his good friend who was diagnosed with lung cancer.
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The ex-Derry City, Cliftonville, Crusaders and Ballymena United striker decided to take up retired US navy seal and best selling author, David Goggins' challenge to run four miles every four hours for 48 hours to raise money for his Co. Meath friend, Gary Morrell who was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Vinny, who played for Derry City in 2010, also explained how thoughts of his former Candy Stripes teammate, Mark Farren who died with a brain tumour in February 2016 and his own mother, who passed away following a battle with cancer in May the same year, gave him the strength to complete the energy-sapping test.

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The sleep deprived 39 year-old also paid tribute to the 'inspirational' wife of the late Derry football coach, Thomas Burke, who joined him for the final eight miles to the finish line at Sainsbury's on Derry's quay on Sunday afternoon.

Vinny Sweeney pictured with Bronagh Burke and her two twins, Adam and Aoife.Vinny Sweeney pictured with Bronagh Burke and her two twins, Adam and Aoife.
Vinny Sweeney pictured with Bronagh Burke and her two twins, Adam and Aoife.

A tiler and owner of Derry gym, The Fitness Box, Vinny felt he hadn't done enough to help Derry City's record goalscorer, Farren when he was going through his battle with terminal illness.

And so he wanted to do something which would lift the spirits of his friend Gary who had made him feel so welcome when he moved to Australia after his professional football career came to an end after suffering his second ACL injury nine years ago.

Sporting huge blisters on his feet, Vinny said the aches and pain were all made worthwhile when he saw how it put a smile on the face of both Gary and Bronagh who have experienced so much hurt over recent weeks and months.

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"It all came about for Gary," he explained. "He was a fella I fell in with in Perth. He looked after me. He started up East Perth Football Club with his own money and was looking after boys coming over from Ireland, getting them jobs.

Vinny Sweeny all set to get his challenge started.Vinny Sweeny all set to get his challenge started.
Vinny Sweeny all set to get his challenge started.

"Gary took 20 grand out of his own pocket to build the club. He had a dream and went with it. Now everyone that flies over from Ireland contact East Perth FC to help them settle in. That's how big a community he's got.

"He's just a happy-go-lucky guy and loves helping people. He would do anything for you. He's one of a kind!

"That's what hurt me the most when I heard he was diagnosed with cancer. I was pretty close to Mark (Farren) when I was at Derry but never really thought we would lose him.

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"When I first went to Derry he was the first person to come up to me and welcomed me. We had a close bond but I always felt I didn't really do enough for Mark.

Vinny pictured in action for Derry City as his good friend, the late, Mark Farren watches on.Vinny pictured in action for Derry City as his good friend, the late, Mark Farren watches on.
Vinny pictured in action for Derry City as his good friend, the late, Mark Farren watches on.

"This is why it hurt me more and now another friend has got cancer. I'm just trying to give him as much strength as I can.

"If the 48 hour challenge I did gave Gary something to take his mind off his own fight then that's all that matters but it all brought back thoughts about Mark. A young man in his prime taken too soon."

The challenge has become a new craze with Ireland international, James McClean, his brother Patrick, ex-Northern Ireland winger Stuart Dallas and another of Vinny's former Derry teammates, Danny Lafferty all taking it on in recent days.

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And while Vinny began to struggle with the lack of sleep after the first 24 hours, when he reached out to local nurse, Bronagh Burke, who lost her husband and father of her young twins last month, it was just the lift she needed at the perfect timing.

Meath native, Gary Morrell and his wife, Ashy.Meath native, Gary Morrell and his wife, Ashy.
Meath native, Gary Morrell and his wife, Ashy.

It certainly helped Vinny find that extra bit of energy needed to dig deep and go again.

"For some reason I went to get a bit of food late Friday night and I flicked through Facebook to message a friend and Bronagh's status came up. I saw the picture of her and Thomas and dropped her a message.

"I knew her father was from Top of the Hill and she did a bit of running. So I thought it was a way for her to release her emotions and whatever pain she's going through.

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"The message I received back was insane as her daddy had run the care centre where my disabled brother, Martin is. And Martin and Thomas were good friends. Thomas would've taken him out to the bookies and things like that. I didn't realise that connection. So if that wasn't a sign I don't know.

"So that blew me away and made me emotional. It was something she thought she needed at that time and it was the right challenge.

"That gave me a lift at that stage with a lot of her family and friends there to greet her at Sainsburys. The people who turned out for Bronagh, getting her out of the house was the main thing and with all my family being there and my daughter and Laura (his partner) being there, it was brilliant."

The East Perth FC members do their bit 'Down Under'.The East Perth FC members do their bit 'Down Under'.
The East Perth FC members do their bit 'Down Under'.

It was a moment certainly appreciated by Bronagh who admits she was struggling with her mental health.

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"I'm sitting here reflecting on how these past 48 hours have had such a huge impact on me," she said on her Facebook. "I can't even put into words the love, support and kindness of people in this amazing town we live in.

"When Vincent Sweeney reached out to me on Friday night it was needed. I have had a battle with my own mental health for the past five years when losing my daddy but what I have lost in 24 days is just unimaginable suffering.

"Putting on those trainers going out the door and facing this pain I conquered it and I did it for my daddy, my husband and Adam and Aoife."

As if running 48 miles in 48 hours wasn't difficult enough, Vinny decided to make it that extra bit harder as he took off his shoes and ran around St Columb's Park on his bare feet during the final stage in tribute to his late mother.

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"I did the last four miles with no socks on because that's the way my mammy would've gone out to feed the birds in her bare feet. She was a Creggan woman, a tough woman.

"I was tired, dehydrated and I had no sleep but I wanted to see how far my body would go. I was in serious pain with blisters but I did it!

"When I lost my mammy it just changed my whole outlook on life. My life changed the moment I walked out of that hospital when I lost the most important person in my life.

"To go running that last four miles in my bare feet was like an outer body experience. I felt her carrying me through the tiredness.

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"And it was probably my best time. It was under 30 minutes which is insane. That was a tribute to my mammy. My mother was so tough bringing 12 children into the world and the hard she had it. So I wanted to see how tough I am.

"I just closed my eyes and kept saying a prayer and eventually the pain went away. There was glass and stones and I can't even walk properly today but that's the aftermath when the adrenaline went away.

"David Goggins says when your mind is telling you that you're done, that you're exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you're only actually 40% done and that proved to be the case during the challenge."

Vinny raised almost £1,500 for Gary's fight against his illness but it wasn't about the money, more about showing support for his good friend and Bronagh when they need it the most.

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"It's about trying to change people's lives," he said. "Giving inspiration even in the worst case scenario. The situation was more about Gary at the beginning and if it helps Bronagh and anyone else then that's a bonus."

Gary himself, a talented boxer and footballer, managed to do the final four miles in Perth , helped along by the boys from East Perth FC.

"Gary has been overwhelmed by all the support. He has this amazing attitude to life. He's taking it day by day. Gary's never smoked but he has stage four lung cancer. He's generally just a good guy. He definitely doesn't deserve this but life isn't fair sometimes.

"The pleasure I got from it was getting Bronagh out of the house and obviously helping Gary take his mind off his battle for 48 hours."

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Vinny's brother John died by suicide in 1995 and he knows only too well about the mental health problems in Derry and the stigma attached and so he plans on setting himself another gruelling challenge in two weeks time to help raise awareness in memory of his late sibling.

"I'm going to do another challenge in two week," he said. "I'm going to do 100 miles in 24 hours. I've never done a marathon before but I reckon I could go for 24 hours and do 100 miles once I've given my feet time to heel. I'll do it to raise awareness for mental health."