SIX DAYS.... 362 MILES..... Derry doctor's amazing charity bid to run the length of Ireland!
Malin Head’s rugged beauty has been a gift enough to visitors across hundreds of years, a last sight of Europe for trans-Atlantic travellers and even a base for galaxies from far, far away.
Amid the sweeping hibernian landscapes and postcard perfect cottages, there’s a small plaque to famed Tipperary cyclist Jim Tuohy, commemorating his 2008 solo cycle to the village from Mizen Head in Co. Cork, the furthest two points on the island of Ireland.
It garners little more than an admiring glance from most visitors, a nod of appreciation at a remarkable 19 hour, 17 minutes feat of endurance. Yet for one Derry visitor, the small white plaque rekindled an audacious idea first born on a family holiday in Kenmere, Co. Kerry. I mean, cycling the 360 miles is remarkable, but what about running the length of Ireland?
“It’s a hell of a jump from an idea, a crazy concept, to actually doing this and I would be lying if I said when I first thought about it I was serious,” smiles Quayside Medical’s Dr. Gavin McAteer, who will attempt to realise his “crazy idea” from September 6th to 11th, running approximately 60 miles per day - the equivalent of two and a half marathons - for six consecutive days to raise funds for two causes very close to his heart.
But first, rewind three years to 2018 to discover what makes someone take on the type of challenge that would make even Forrest Gump think twice!
“I had been running for a few years and trying unsuccessfully to get my foot on the start line of a marathon, mainly due to injury,” explains Gavin, “I managed to get a good block of training behind me for the 2018 Derry marathon but it was my first marathon and just didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to.
“It was back to the drawing board after that but that same summer we went down to Kenmere on holiday. We were trying to decide on a day out and I was playing about on Google maps trying to decide somewhere but for some reason I just zoomed out and zoomed out until I was looking at the whole map of Ireland. I don’t know why but while looking at it I thought, ‘How far is that? I wonder could you run that?’
“I considered it for 24 hours and then I realised what I was actually doing. I was trying to find an excuse not to try another marathon because of how Derry had gone.”
Gavin did eventually get the marathon monkey off his back in October 2019 when he ran 2:50 at the Dublin showpiece but a seed had been sown by the visit to Kenmere and Tuohy’s plaque was about to reignite it.
“It was July 2020, in the middle of the first lockdown,” adds Gavin, “We went to Malin for a day out and I noticed a plaque up on the wall, one that tells you the distance, and I was immediately taken back to that idea in Kenmere and I couldn’t let it be.
“I was just looking for an ‘out’ back in Kenmere because I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to at the Derry Marathon but the idea was still there somewhere in the back of my head. Visiting Malin brought it right back and here I am. It would be a lifetime achievement, that’s the way I’m looking at it and the opportunity to raise as much money as possible for charity.”
The 43-year-old Waterside resident is no stranger to top level sport. Before Quayside Medical, he’s been club doctor with Newcastle United, Northern Ireland and Derry City over the years, looking after the health of football stars like Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and the late Gary Speed to name but a few and he retains his links to the Toon Army to this day.
Boasting a Masters in Sports Medicine, ignorance can’t adequately explain the logic of setting yourself such a herculean task. There needs to be something else and for Gavin, that something else is a brave 14-years-old boy.
Niall O’Doherty lives with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a progressive, degenerative muscular disease which is life limiting. His father, Kevin, is a close friend of Gavin’s and a member of his core running group so Action Duchenne was an obvious choice for his charity effort. Top of the Hill Youth and Community Group, another cause close to Gavin’s heart, will also benefit from the money raised.
“With Top of the Hill, it was just the chance to give something back to a community club that has given so much to our family through my son, Caolan. I’m very proud to be able to do that because it’s a club that means so much to people in Top of the Hill and does so much good work for the area and its youth.
“As regards Action Duchenne, any time we run a marathon, or half marathon, anything at all, we always wear the Action Duchenne vests and try to raise a bit of money and awareness. To take on this challenge and to think that I can use it to raise money, there was no other place I was ever going to look than that.
“Kevin and Niall were both over the moon when I told them,” adds Gavin, “ I didn’t expect the reaction. To me it was just, ‘I’m doing this challenge and I’m going to take the opportunity to raise as much money and awareness as I can’. Kevin and his wife Deborah were completely bowled over but the truth is I’m proud to be able to do this for such a good cause. Niall is such a great lad and hopefully we can raise plenty of money for Action Duchenne.”
So, just how do you go about preparing for the sort of run that would make even elite athletes shudder?
“Every morning I meet a guy called Brian McMenamin who is training for the Belfast Marathon. I meet Brian at 5.30am every morning and we either do eight or 10 miles in the morning. I’d come back, get showered and be in work for 8am. Sometimes I’m able to squeeze in six or eight mile at lunchtime, depending on the day.
“In the evenings I’m over in Gransha or running the town in loop so on a good week day, you’re maybe getting 24 miles but an average day is between 16 and 18. The weekends, the Saturdays and Sundays, are when you use your blocks for big running.
“I will cover anything from 40 to 60 miles on an average weekend. When I am doing my practise days, like last weekend, I hit 80 miles. I ran 60 last Saturday and then got up and ran 20 on the Sunday, just to make sure I can still get up and go.
“The first time I did the 60 mile block it was like a living nightmare. That was about five or six weeks ago but I changed the pace, the recovery and the fuelling strategy afterwards and to be honest the 60 I did last weekend was straightforward. It’s never easy but I’m confident it’s not going to be an issue. It’s still very difficult but I’m confident.”
Gavin will be backed by his two man support team, Paddy Doherty and Ronan McLaughlin, whom he says he is indebted to for their immense support, and tracked by GPS throughout his run. Derry marathon legend James Crampsey is another he’s sought out for advice but the reaction of other runners to his challenge ranges from amazement to nodding heads of disapproval.
“I have always kept myself fit,” explains Gavin, “I was a big swimmer when I was younger with the school and City of Derry. At St. Anne’s we were Irish champions. I also did some cross country and played a lot of basketball, GAA, so I always kept myself fit.
“I suppose it was about 2013/14 that I started to run properly but then spent three years battling injury on and off. I just had injury after injury but had to keep my head down and keep going and eventually I got a bit of a breakthrough in the sense that I was maintaining my fitness and my body was holding up. From about 2018 on, I have been flat out at it.
“The reaction I get from people usually falls into one of two areas. Obviously people in the street go, ‘That’s massive’ or ‘Wow, brilliant’ but, actually, the biggest ‘You’re crazy’ comes from the running community because they know. They have a frame of reference.
“A lot of the elite runners that I would know and maybe train with in the city, they just think I’m absolutely nuts. That’s the biggest reaction you get from people who run regularly. It’s the equivalent of just over two and a half marathons a day for six days. Actually, it is tough when you say it out loud (laughs).
“All the training has gone well from that perspective and I have learned a lot in terms of how I need to fuel, the rest and recovery blocks, and learning about trying to pace yourself. It has all been a bit of a science in that regard because there are so many aspects you have to get right.”
Gavin plans to arrive into Guildhall Square early on Saturday, September 11th and is hoping some local runners will join him on the run in from Newbuildings. A scheduled 20 minute stop in Guildhall will afford the Derry public the chance to acknowledge his huge effort before he sets off on the final leg of a journey that should bring him to Malin Head around 4pm that afternoon.
“At the minute it’s just wanting to start,” he adds, “I have done so much training and covered so many miles and the body has so far held up, so I just want to start. I’m excited, really excited, but I just want to start. I’m not apprehensive but I’m anxious to get going because I’m fit and I am ready. The work is done. Now it is a case of me ticking over and getting to Mizen to get started.”
It’s an outrageous challenge and if all goes to plan, Malin Head might have to make room for another plaque!
If you would like to make a donation to Gavin’s charities, check out www.paypal.me/mizen2malin