GAA Football

Tyrone Ulster Championship winner Seanie Meyler runs charity marathon in his shed

The Meyler family encourage Seanie as he completes his extraordinary marathon
Andy Watters

STRANGE days indeed.

Twenty miles in and the craic has stopped and the heat in the garden shed is stifling. The wooden walls seem like they're closing in but Seanie Meyler whispers a rosary and runs on.

Bam…bam…bam… Another step more and another step less.

Half-an-hour passes slowly; three more miles down and three more to go. Blisters sting his feet and his legs ache but encouragement from his family drowns out the whirr of the borrowed treadmill.

On and on he goes until, at last, the digital clock clicks up to 26.2 miles, the marathon distance. Finally his three-hour-56-minute bloody-minded effort is over and it has been worth it.

So far his run has raised over £24,000 for a Comfort fund for nursing staff in the Intensive Care Unit at South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) in Enniskillen. His wife Paula works there now as a nurse after she was transferred from her job as a day procedure nurse in Omagh.

On Wednesday two healthcare workers in St Luke's Hospital, Kilkenny died after being infected with Covid-19; a stark reminder of the risks all frontline staff are taking in these turbulent times.

“Paula is very professional,” he says.

“She would say: ‘This is my job, if you are a nurse then this is what you do, you are there to serve and carry out your nursing duties'. Obviously the risk of getting infected yourself is higher but that goes with the territory, that's the way she sees it.

“She says: ‘I'm a nurse and I've been asked to step up and I am stepping up' and she's no different than the thousands of other healthcare workers. They all step up. She is going out to work and we're all at home

“I can work from home so I'm not really leaving the house and we wanted to do something. It (the marathon) probably gave me a sense of purpose and a goal to focus on which is something we're all lacking now.

“(Because of the lockdown) We all have lost our certainty and our sense of control and a lot of people have lost their purpose in life for what they get up in the morning to do. This gave me something to do that would make a contribution.”

He'll limp around on sore feet for a day or two but the public response to his fundraiser will be an ointment for the pain. His original target was £4,000 and he'd reached that before he even turned on the treadmill on Monday morning.

“I read an article on April the 3rd about Cathal Freeman (Mayo hurler) doing a marathon and that was just a trigger really,” he explains.

“I was sitting out in the back garden and I looked across to the shed and I said to the kids: ‘I'm going to run a marathon in that shed on my birthday in 10 days' time' (he was 54).

“I suppose it's one thing saying it and being emotionally up for it but then actually doing it is a different thing. But I chatted to the kids and chatted to Paula and they said: ‘Ok, go for it if you can get it organised'.

“She spoke to the sister in the Intensive Care Unit in the SWAH about doing it for them as a fundraiser. The majority of patients there are from Tyrone/Fermanagh as are the nurses and I wanted to do it for a local cause. “By the Thursday morning I got the go-ahead, I set up the page and before the end of the day there was over £5,000 raised. It was amazing how quickly people reacted and responded to it.

“All of the money is directed to the nursing staff in Intensive Care Unit in SWAH who are on the front line. Whatever they do with it is up to them but it'll certainly be constructive.”

The fact that he'd done very little training made his run all the more remarkable. An Ulster Championship winner with Tyrone in 1989 and a Tyrone championship winner with Omagh St Enda's in 1988, Seanie had been a keen runner with the Omagh Harriers after he'd finished playing. He was in good shape, or so he thought, until the fragility of health was brought home to him out of the blue one day as he drove to work.

“I didn't run much last year at all really,” he explains.

“I was driving to Dublin on the 4th December and I had awful pains in my chest and my arm and I had to turn the car at Monaghan and go home. I went into hospital and it turned out I had two blood clots in my lung.

“A blot clot had developed in my calf and moved to my lungs. It was a wake-up call I suppose and I'm very grateful to the staff of the Cardiac Unit in Omagh Hospital.

“I'd loved running and having to take a step back like that meant I was even more grateful for being able to do it. Getting back out with the boys from the Harriers again at the start of February was great.

“It's only when you lose something that you really value it. It's the same now in this lockdown and I hope people will show more gratitude for the positive things they have when we get through this current challenge.”

He'd been using the treadmill to get back into the groove but the furthest he'd run on it before Monday's marathon was 10 miles. Despite his lack of preparation, he never doubted he'd go the distance.

“I knew I was going to do that marathon, there was no doubt about it,” he says.

“It is amazing what the body can achieve when you're really focussed.

“No matter how poor my training had been, I had set a goal and made a promise and I was going to keep it. I knew I was going to get there.”

He had to slow the treadmill down for the last “five or six miles” when his legs were cramping up and the blisters were raging on his feet. But there was no way he was quitting.

“I had a purpose. My family had put up pictures on the wall to remind me what I was running for and I had prayer as well and the combination of those things got me through,” he says.

Seanie has a strong faith. As a devotee of Padre Pio, he travelled to San Giovanni in Italy with other pilgrims in November 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the revered Catholic priest, mystic and stigmatist.

“It was inspirational,” he says of the trip.

“I go to Mass and if I miss it sometimes it's not the end of the world but the biggest thing I took from that pilgrimage was prayer; the power of prayer.

“It brought prayer back for me. When I was doing the run I had my rosary ring on my end finger and I was able to say the rosary. When I was around the 22-23 mile mark I was in a lot of pain but I was able to take my mind away from the pain and put it on to something else.

“These days prayer is very important, it doesn't have to be the rosary or anything like that, just stopping an odd time to say a simple prayer because we are all in great need of support and a simple prayer can really beneficial.”

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare? The enforced lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has made everyone appreciate the work of healthcare professionals and it has also given the world time to pause for thought.

“There is a realisation of what nurses do now,” said Seanie.

“And I think this crisis has taught us the value of things. I think people have had to take a step back and start to question their own choices and priorities in life. Having time to think and reflect: ‘How are we living our lives? How are we spending our time?'

“We have to look at what is important in our lives and reassess what our values are.

“For me, sitting around the dinner table with my family is important and knowing and sharing things and knowing your kids better. I think that sort of thing is happening now.

“Even resting is important. High-performance athletes compete and then it's so important for them to recover, recovery is a massive thing in sport if you want to go out and play well or run well or whatever it is the next day. It's the same with us in life. We are all working but then we have to recover. We have to take time out. We can't be working every evening and weekends as well because you don't recover.

“If we want to see top athletes perform to the best of their ability they take time off and go away and recover but when do normal people do that? When do we take time out and go and sit for an hour or two and just rest or listen or read a book or whatever? It seems that we're always switched on 24-7 but this has given us an opportunity to switch off.”

And he would know because he was an elite player with his county from minor level, through the U21s and up to senior level.

His debut for the Red Hands came as a 20 year-old in October 1986, Tyrone's first game back after they had lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland final just a month previously.

Three years later a brace of Meyler points helped a Kevin McCabe-inspired Tyrone side get past Donegal at the second attempt in the 1989 Ulster Championship final but the Red Hands bowed out against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Throughout his seven years in the red and white jersey, Tyrone pushed hard at the boundaries. They reached the county's first National League final in 1992 but were unable to force the breakthrough they craved. Having started his county career as a forward, Meyler played at corner-back that day against Derry.

“I was versatile but when I think back on it, versatility was nearly a negative back then,” he says.

“I played corner-back, half-back and half-forward and the versatility – which nowadays would be a brilliant thing to have – was nearly a down side then. But it was great to play for Tyrone with great people and it was a great honour to play with your county.”

At club level, Seanie won a Tyrone senior championship with Omagh St Enda's in 1988 and after his playing days came to an end has managed the Omagh seniors and been instrumental in the club's regular successes at underage level.

“I just did what a lot of former players do,” he says.

“They give something back to the youth, it's a built-in thing in a lot of clubs. We have been very lucky in Omagh. We've had a lot of good footballers coming through and it's very important to have good footballers if you want to win titles. We got a batch of players that came through together and we were very successful at youth and U21 level in Tyrone and they've gone on to get a couple of senior titles too.”

Those players included Conan Grugan, Ciaran McLaughlin and Ronan O'Neill and Seanie's son Conor who, like Paula and the rest of the Meyler family, was cheering him on throughout Monday's marathon effort.

Conor matched his dad's achievement as part of the Omagh side which ended the club's 26-year wait for an eighth senior title in 2014. Now an established inter-county performer Conor, who won his second medal in 2017, is looking forward to when the football returns again. So is his dad.

“The football is good,” says Seanie.

“It goes back to meaning and it's great for so many people and their communities that they have a team to play for and follow. So many people give up their time and effort for their club and it gives people a great sense of purpose that they are giving, and contributing to their community.

“At the minute people don't have that and they don't have a team to follow, in any sport, so it will be great to see it come back. This will pass but we have to be careful and mindful of what we're doing until it does.”

Strange days indeed and those of us lucky to be in good health should make the most of them.

To donate to the appeal, go to www.gofundme.com and search ‘Intensive Care Covid-19 Nursing Staff in SWAH'.

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