Life Lessons And Out Of Body Experiences: The Seoul International Marathon

The usually chock-a-block streets were cleared for competition on that March morning, the deafening sound of beeping horns replaced by uplifting cheers from friendly onlookers gathered from all four corners. As I collapsed to my hunkers, mercilessly beaten down by the seemingly never-ending stretch of tarmac that sliced through the metropolitan city, the realization quickly dawned that I was completely running on empty.

Retreating to my knees by the roadside, I knew that I had finally reached breaking point. Of that, I was certain. No amount of positive self-talk, or encouragement from the flag-waving bystanders, was going to cause my legs to start working again. I took a minute of rest, allowing the battle in my head to continue. An enticing glance toward a nearby convenience store caused one of the many voices to pipe up, ‘Just go in and get some water. Go home. You did well to get this far.’

Ah, the inner voices; one of the more amusing side-effects of such an endeavor.

Every muscle begged and pleaded, and my mind was finally starting to give in to their demands. I was seriously considering turning around at the 40 KM mark, and returning home a defeated man. Before bowing out unceremoniously, another of the voices decided to say its piece. This one you tend to hear when you are about to go against your better judgement, like when someone offers you something that looks like a cigarette, or when that ‘strangely attractive’ stranger grabs you by the hand and leads you through the whiskey infused haze. ‘Are you sure about this?’ Yes, it may indeed have led to some element of short-lived pleasure, but I began to wonder if I had anything to gain from turning around at the final hurdle on that morning, other than a very brief moment of relief.

I began to think about the kind and generous donations I had received in the lead up to race day from numerous people far and wide, helping to raise funds for Aware, a mental health organization in my native Ireland. What would I say to them?

And just then, as I lay on the brink of collapse, inspiration intervened. As if by way of some mystical hallucinogenic voyage (another side-effect perhaps) I was brought to another place and time.

A young woman appeared on the side of a busy street, staring blankly into the distance for what seemed an eternity. This beautiful twenty-something had a world of possibility ahead of her, yet there she stood in contemplation, tormented by the notion of stepping out in front of speeding traffic in an attempt to take her own life. That was the day it all changed for the woman who in time, would bring me into the world.

I then found myself sitting in the garden of an old Victorian house, looking around at the people dressed in white who tended the flower beds, the green grass underfoot a little too well kept for my liking, so much so that it felt uncomfortable. The seasoned, resolute oak trees that guarded the perimeter were as impressive as they were downright frightening. I had no clue as to the identity of the owner of the house of red stoned walls, but I had a bone to pick with them, because for reasons unknown they were holding my mother hostage against her will. I handed her a get well soon card which my brothers and I had made, confused as to why we had made it in the first place, because she didn’t look at all unwell. Of course, at 8 years old I was far too young to understand.

Upon landing back in Ireland in February of 2012, after a time spent working in The Middle East, my father revealed to me what had happened that Christmas, the details of which I was now old enough to understand, but could hardly comprehend. It was lucky that my younger brother had the presence of mind that night to call an ambulance, as my incoherent mother lay in bed, apologizing over and over again; what exactly merited an apology, he wasn’t entirely certain. It wasn’t until he saw the note on her beside locker, when he realized the severity of the situation. Just as she had tried to keep the empty prescription bottles hidden from view, the details of that night were kept from me until I walked through arrivals 2 months later. She had since returned from another visit to that old Victorian house with the red stoned walls, and all seemed fine.

The frustration I had felt at not being informed, and the regret of not being there for my family during that difficult period, paled in comparison to the shame I would have felt had I thrown in the towel and turned around at that point. I had to keep going.

Often when you find yourself in difficult situations, teetering on the edge, trying desperately to search for a reason to continue, loved ones come to the rescue. If of course, you are lucky. I crossed the finish line atop a wave of emotion, and fought back the tears as I made my way towards Áine and Big Lad, who flew in from China unexpectedly to offer their support. I will never forget that wonderful moment when I fell into their embrace, and felt an immediate surge of gratitude for their presence. It was an incredible experience.

As fate would have it, I would find myself walking arm in arm with my mother through those same city streets 3 months after the race. I began to reassure her with false promises in an attempt to stop her flow of tears- a cruel practice that I have come to master- that I would return home soon. Her depth of sorrow compounded by the fact that my twin brother will soon be following suit, embarking upon an exciting new adventure in a faraway land. I wasn’t sure of how much more distress this woman could take, as she grasped my arm and cried into my shoulder. Save for moving back home, perhaps there is just no remedy that can mend the heartbreak a mother endures when her child emigrates.

As hard as it can be sometimes living away from home, I take comfort in the knowing that my decision to leave Ireland was the catalyst which set in motion a series of life changing events. Searching for something more, I came to find some element of meaning and direction which simply didn’t exist before. I can only hope that my mother can take some comfort in this too, and I know for certain that if she could turn back time, she would continue to relay the same exact message to my brothers and I growing up.

This simple nugget of wisdom- which inspires me each and every day and helps influence my decision making- perhaps carries more weight considering all that my wonderful mother has had to endure.

‘Do what makes you happy.’