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BLESSED ARE THE MAD ONES

Words by Kevin Dooney
Photography by Morgane Bigault

One October night around the dinner table in our rented Dublin City Centre apartment, my brother Conor and I were examining our lifestyles. With slight variations the routine was generally the same: running or lifting before work, a day in the office, squeezing in a run at lunch, or waiting for the evening to come and hitting the roads to dodge pedestrians on their commute home. Such was the daily ritual, with meals crammed in at the desk or batch cooking to be microwaved through- out the week. It wasn’t a bad routine. There were stresses, but we made it work and both ran well.

But there remained this nagging feeling that despite decent results there had to be an easier way than this, an opportunity to put the feet up at three o’clock instead of struggling to stay awake at the desk. The thought had bounced back and forth between us for quite some time. What would really stop us from leaving our jobs and seeing just what we could get out of ourselves? With an Olympics and European Championships eighteen months away would it not be worth diving in, taking the risk and seeing what could happen?

I had balanced working and running for over two years. Conor had done it for five. The time felt right to take a chance. A chance to put to bed any lingering questions of how fast could we run. An attempt to get the most from ourselves and avoid sitting on a bar stool in ten years’ time wondering what could have been. Realistically going full time was not a practical career decision. We were never going to make anything close to enough money from the sport. Instead we’d be burning through our savings while our peers saved for houses. This wasn’t an attempt to go pro, but rather an attempt to go off the beaten path while we still could, chase our dreams and hopefully realize our potential.

With that original decision made, there were still many pieces to put into place. Neither of us wanted to move back into our family home in the suburbs of Dublin. Fortunately our parents have owned a holiday home in a small fishing village called Dunmore East, County Waterford on the South East coast for over twenty years. We had both spent summers down there as kids and more recently used it as a getaway from Dublin when the opportunity presented itself. The move would require many things, firstly our parents’ permission to move into their weekend retreat and be resident for their weekend breaks, secondly a shift for us to adapt to not living in a city.

Thankfully both our parents are international distance runners so after revealing our plans they were fully behind us, even if it meant us living in their preferred get-away location. Moving to a rural location was always going to be a change. Between growing up just outside Dublin City and spending four years each living in New Haven while attending Yale, we have both been in cities our entire lives.

Our decision to go south was part not wanting to regress to the family home and a larger part needing to remove ourselves from the distractions of Dublin. Working full time and training on top allowed a certain amount of mental flexibility when it came to going out and meeting friends. The irony of telling people you were committing to running full time with a pint in hand was certainly not lost on us.

The romantic notion of making the move on January 1st was scrapped when we realized that it would be shock enough without throwing in the added factor of being lashed by the winter winds and rain in the depths of January. Instead we spent the first weeks of the year wrapping up our tasks in our respective offices and informing friends and family of our decision. People wished us well despite a slight sense of confusion as to just what it was we were doing and what we were actually hoping to achieve. Our grandmother perhaps required the most reassurance that—despite leaving stable jobs—she had no need to be worried about what would become of our futures.

When mid February rolled around the days had started lengthening and with notices served we were ready to leave our jobs and hit the road south. The car was packed with suitcases of clothes, a bigger TV for entertainment in the long evenings, all the kitchen equipment we needed and bikes securely hanging off the back. On our first night in Dunmore East, with Manchester United playing, it would have been out of character not to settle in to our new home with a Monday drink in the local pub. A win was just the welcome gift we needed.

We quickly made best attempts to adjust to our new routine. Tuesday tempo runs around the Waterford Eco Park were off to a great start once we made the local walking group aware that we’d be moving around at just over five minutes per mile pace. My heavy footfall came in handy as a sort of warning beacon. Routes from the house were mapped on Strava and with road names being non-existent we had to get creative when describing where we’d be heading. From Dog Road (named and avoided wherever possible), to Bob’s Road, the Fiat Road and Balloon Loop we knew where we were going and that was all that mattered.

We were again fortunate to find ourselves well looked after in the area. Shem Cooper, whose son had raced for Brown against both Conor and I, became a staple for Wednesday nights watching the Champions League. Our father quickly became annoyed that his friend had been hijacked and we got first hearing of all the best stories from the week. We got our gym membership sorted with workouts still being written by the physiotherapist in Dublin who we had worked with for two years. Treatment was provided by James Sullivan, a former butcher who, having spent years handling animals, had shifted his learnings to athletes with great success.

In the first few weeks all the rest and recovery perhaps worked against us. Feeling good on a daily basis, we took off at paces we’d run on the flat, neglecting the hilly nature of the local country roads. We got fit fast and subsequently took turns fighting off niggles and injuries. I went first with a calf flare up that knocked me out for a week, leaving Conor to travel on his own to the U.K. to smash a road 10km. Thankfully I recovered quickly and earned a call up to represent Ireland at the World Cross Country Championships in Denmark, only to see Conor take his turn on the side-lines. The months became disrupted as we did our best to stay healthy.

If you told us the disruptions we would face in the first months when we decided to make this move, it would’ve been a much harder decision. And yet with our die cast we settled for the long haul and made do as best we could. The life suited us. With new recipes to be tried, books to be read and naps to be had, it became clear that the change wasn’t just about running but a reassessment of how we were living in general. People worried that we might get bored with all this time on our hands yet for us it was different, we didn’t know where the time was going.

Fitness and health returned to us. We had often been frustrated getting asked to go on training trips while not having the annual leave to cover them. So with time on our hands, we knew now was the time to make the most of our opportunities. While Dunmore East had become home, the opportunity for sun in Portugal with groups from across Irish Athletics could not be passed up. My ten days in April were marked by plenty of miles and Conor found the Algarve beaches the perfect place to walk barefoot and return to jogging. Leaving the country and being surrounded by other athletes provided the distraction-free environment we in which we operate best.

Still constant talk of running and being surrounded by athletes can be exhausting. There are times when a brief break is needed to create the head space necessary to commit to months of miles, even if it is just a night off here and there. Dunmore is just over a two-hour drive from Dublin, a distance to travel but close enough to be manageable and provide a nice release from each other’s company. We each both pick our own distractions. Conor has his book club with friends from school, while I follow the ups and downs of Cabinteely FC in the League of Ireland First Division. The breaks give us time to catch up with friends and indulge in things that can be deprived of us in our sometimes-isolated existence.

It is hard to strike just the right balance between what is right for the body and what keeps the mind from going stale. The ability to take a three-week break for altitude training in Saint Moritz was another chance to embrace the professional existence while being full time amateurs. While the training trips offer brilliant exposure to the world of the professional athlete, we still yearn for the weeks in Waterford, where we can operate fully on our terms. While these terms might not always be considered perfect, at this point in our careers we have learned what works best for us and we embrace it.

This decision was not made on practical grounds. We are two brothers chasing a dream, going down a road that nobody knows the end of. Initially we were always asked how long we planned on doing this for. Our answer generally ranged anywhere from a year to eighteen months. At five months in that deadline has a habit of being pushed out month by month. Despite the ups and downs of the first few months, neither of us have the slightest regret about what it is we are doing. For the first time since college—a period with varying degrees of success for us that we certainly didn’t appreciate at the time—we can say we are giving ourselves a chance. We finally get to chase the dream and hopefully avoid being on a bar stool at forty talking about all the talent we had that was never maximized.

We are taking our own path down the road and are very fortunate to have each other to make the journey possible. It is certainly not a road we could walk alone, and it only becomes all the more special when you have a chance to walk it with your brother. While we might be each other’s biggest rivals at times, being with someone day in and day out who can fully understand the other’s thought process is invaluable. We won’t be along-side each other forever, but the brotherly bond is special. A poem I came across in my college days by Johnny B.A.N.G. Reilly stands out to me as a summation for how the journey between us goes for now: 

Our roads will never diverge from each other that much, but for now we walk the same road, we share the demons and travel together.

Perhaps we are mad to go down this road together, but in the words of Irish singer-songwriter David Keenan, “Blessed are the mad ones, for madness brings passion, and passion bears fruit.” The madness and passion are there, now it remains a matter of time to see what fruit is borne by this adventure. 

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