Ironically running was the one sport I was never into as a child, even though I loved being active and did gymnastics since the age of six,” says Brenda O’Keeffe, 38, a chef who ran 106 marathons in 2015, an Irish and English record for the most marathons in a year. “My first race was the Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon in June 2010, a 10K road race that 40,000 women participate in for charity. I ran with my sister Andrea and will never forget the immense pride I felt as I crossed the finish line. It was a feeling I wanted more of, so much so that I ended up running the Dublin Marathon soon afterwards. Five years later, my sister ran her first marathon with me – while I completed my 145th!
“Before moving to the UK in January 2016 to be with my partner Sean, I lived in Dublin, where I trained with my running club twice a week and then ran marathons every weekend – each one was just training for the next one. In 2014 alone I ran 74 marathons. I did my first marathon in October 2010 and my 100th in Sixmilebridge in Ireland just four years later. I didn’t tell anybody beforehand that I was running my 100th because I didn’t want a fuss, I just wanted to run. In December 2014, I received both my Irish and UK 100 Marathon Club medal and vest (both countries have their own version of the club).
“The decision to attempt to break the record for the most marathons run in one year coincided with the break-up of my 12-year marriage. I started in January 2015 and finished my 106th marathon on 31 December, having run 5,356 miles/8,988K – the equivalent of running from London to San Francisco! A highlight of that year was raising over €4,500 by running 120K from Dublin to my home town of Cavan in Ireland. It was all for two great causes: cystic fibrosis and Care for Cian. Cian is a baby with a rare disease called Cri Du Chat syndrome and partial Down’s syndrome and this amazing charity raised money to fund extra nursing care for him. I’m good friends with his mum and his family took me in one Christmas when my marriage was going through a rough patch. I just wanted to give something back because I’ll never be able to thank them for what they did for me that Christmas. Also, Cian would steal anybody’s heart, he’s just gorgeous. My family and friends were so excited about this event and my whole home town was rooting for me. My new partner Sean, whom I’d met in a field while competing in the Giant’s Head Marathon, came over from the UK and ran the whole distance with me, and my family crewed with two cars the whole way. It was an incredibly emotional journey; running through the night to arrive on Christmas Eve morning to a crowd waiting in the town to welcome me home was truly magical.
“In total I’ve now run 230 marathons plus three 24-hour races, five 100K events and one 100-mile race, where I came second. My future running goals are to see how far my legs will let me go, so I’m looking to do big mile races such as 200 miles or multi-day runs. I’ve already run 10 marathons in 10 days and 10 marathons in five days (both in Dublin) so, in 2017, I’ll aim for 20 marathons in 10 days in Italy. Whenever I experience pain, I just block it off and remind myself that there’s always somebody worse off than I am. When I run I think about how incredibly far I’ve come: running gave me the courage to walk away from my marriage. It may have taken years but I got there in the end.
“What I like most about running is that it helped me stop smoking! Before I started running, I smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day. I loved smoking, and continued to smoke for two-and-a-half years after I started running. I tried hard to give up but it was only when I signed myself up to do a 100K run that I was motivated enough to quit completely. I’m pleased to say I’m still not smoking two-and-a-half years later. Running has also enabled me to make friends around the world and taught me how strong I am mentally. I love the freedom of the road; being out in mucky fields while being lashed by rain and wind. In a strange way I love the pain and struggles running can bring. Running is my life now –
I can’t imagine living without the buzz, pride and contentment I feel after finishing a race.
“My advice to anyone who wants to take up running is to remember that the hardest thing sometimes is putting on your trainers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re slow or fast, big or small, get out there and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. My ex-husband used to tell me I wasn’t fast enough or slim enough to run and I think he made me the person I am today: a very happy and strong runner. People often ask me what I do when I’m not racing and my reply is always the same: ‘I look for more races I can do!’”