FOR Tullamore Harriers athlete Michael Murphy, last month’s senior national championships at Morton Stadium meant a return to a level he was so desperate to achieve after two years of persistent heart problems that had threatened not only his future in sport, but perhaps most important of all, his health.
Living in Kilbeggan, County Westmeath, Murphy was first introduced to the Tullamore Harriers aged seven by his father, Mick, who is himself an accomplished athlete in the famous blue and white colors of the club Offaly – his father Mick is from Donegal while his mother Teresa is a Kilbeggan woman. Michael’s sisters Laura and Emma are very talented Irish dancers while Laura is a member of Westmeath’s U-18 women’s football team this year.
Murphy’s senior debut came in Race B of the men’s 5000m on a tumultuous June evening that was far from conducive to a fast run. For Murphy, however, the experience was hugely positive as he toed the line at his first-ever senior national championships, just six months after successful heart surgery on the second call. The 20-year-old, in the final laps of a two-year comeback, raced 15:27 for 11th at Santry, in turn scoring a defiant line in the sand and kicking off what he hopes will be a successful journey towards making his first Irish vest. in the near future.
“It was great, there were people coming up to me afterwards, telling me it was great to see me again. When I crossed the line, I didn’t care where I ended up, it was just unreal to be back up there, overall I was thrilled.
The heart problem points the tip of his nose
It was in May 2020, while under the tutelage of Tullamore man coach Robert Denmead, that Murphy suffered the first of what he calls ‘episodes’ with his heart during a a session of 5 x 2 km. Just 400 meters from the final rep, the 18-year-old started experiencing worrying symptoms as his body began to flood with lactic acid and his vision became blurry.
“I was thinking about what is happening here. I looked at my heartbeat and it was through the roof, up to nearly 250 beats per minute.
A proponent of heart rate training having been tested by Bernard Donne and Dr Neil Fleming at Trinity College Dublin, the number Murphy saw on his watch was nearly 50 beats higher than its maximum. This reading, along with the feelings he felt in his chest, resulted in a quick transit to Tullamore Regional Hospital with his mother, Teresa.
“I could feel it in my heart, it wasn’t a beat, it was more of a vibration. My mom took me straight to A&E.
Struggling for answers
Eleven days and a plethora of tests later, Murphy was released from the hospital, unsure what the problem was, with the results proving inconclusive. While in the hospital, Murphy vividly recalls filling out his CAD form as his blood pressure was taken at regular intervals, trying to maintain some normalcy under such unconventional circumstances for an 18-year-old. After he returned home, the episodes began to occur regularly, arriving on one occasion after walking up the stairs at his house after a practice run.
It wasn’t until Murphy contacted local GP Dr Ray Campbell in February 2021 regarding receiving the covid vaccine that the ball started rolling towards receiving a diagnosis, with Campbell referring him to the cardiologist, Professor Kevin Walsh of Mater Hospital, Dublin, for a second opinion.
“Walsh knew right away what it was and diagnosed me with supraventricular tachycardia,” Murphy recalled.
SVT, as it is more commonly known, is an irregularly rapid or erratic heartbeat that affects the upper chambers of the heart and to rectify the problem, Walsh suggested an ablation procedure, trying to zap the nerve endings around the heart to eliminate arrhythmia. Initially Murphy admits he was ‘uncertain’ about the proceedings, although at the time the fact Denmark’s Christen Eriksen collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest during a match at the European Championships football prompted him to have surgery.
“I didn’t know if one day I would collapse on the road and not wake up. My mom and dad were so worried. Dad came with me on the bike for most of my errands.
Just five weeks after undergoing the procedure, Murphy was hit with another episode, recalling an episode in the middle of a session with fellow DCU athletes Keelan Kilrehill and Ieuan Lagan, with the two friends urging Murphy not to push beyond what was wise at the time. However, by then the repeated kicking was beginning to lower the belief that he would ever overcome the problem and regain his full fitness.
“‘I think, it’s the end now, I can’t do the sport if it continues. The danger is sudden death syndrome or if it happens in a race, you’ll have to keep giving up.
A cameo appearance with the DCU junior football team served as a brief break from running for Murphy, though it resulted in the same end product, confirming that it wasn’t just the running that triggered the problem.
“I mainly wanted to test if it was just running or any sport that was causing the heart problem. I did a little sprint during a training session and the heart problem reoccurred.
Running out of options
A second attempt at the operation became the last resort, with Professor Walsh suggesting that if Murphy could save an episode he would perform the procedure once more. An unlikely hero in the form of an Apple Watch has become a vital cog in the saga, with the built-in ECG function allowing Murphy to record an episode and present the playback to Walsh for analysis. It was on New Years Day 2022 that the opportunity was seized when Murphy recorded an episode on the watch for Walsh. A mile down the road it happened again.
“The next day I was doing an easy jog on the treadmill and it happened again, at that point I knew it was an emergency as I had never had 3 episodes in the space 24 hours.”
After a positive discussion with coach Rob Denmead and fellow athletics coach Joe Ryan from Kilbeggan, it was decided that a switch to Ryan’s training group based in Mullingar would be the best option for all parties. given the current situation and the uncertainty surrounding Murphy’s health. Much of his training under Denmead had been self-contained.
“It made more sense for me to be in this (Joe’s) group with the condition. We decided the move was best for me to train with people.
A number of calls later to Mater Hospital, Murphy finally learned that he would be checked in for a second attempted operation in late January. Jumping at the chance, he was determined to make sure he left no stone unturned in his recovery, giving him the best possible chance of reaching similar heights to his training partners Darragh McElhinney, Jamie Battle and Kilrehill.
“I was just thinking, now it’s the reboot.”
Thanks to the overwhelming support received from DCU Athletics head Paul Byrne, coach Joe Ryan, training partners and his parents Teresa and Mick, Murphy’s recovery from the second operation has so far been a success. major. A trip to Font Romeu in April to test the body with the rigors of 6,000 feet in altitude presented no problems for Murphy, allowing him to begin building a consistency that has eluded him in recent years due to his health.
“I didn’t expect to get back on track, but I was lucky enough to do so. For the first time in my racing career, I was able to be consistent.
Hopes for the future
Inspired by the Irish Men’s U23 gold medal performance last December at the European Cross Country in Abbotstown, Murphy has his sights set on building an Irish Euro Cross team alongside his friends and partners from training in the near future. He admits there were conflicting feelings when he watched McElhinney, Kilrehill and Battle qualify for the team last year as he awaited his second surgery.
“I was so jealous, but at the same time I was absolutely thrilled for them. I thought it could have been me. But it gave me serious motivation. Seeing all the boys then at Euro Cross with the green vests, it was amazing.
For now, the National Cross Country Championships at the end of the year will be his target, in which he will be looking to secure a first outing in an Irish vest for Celtic Cross Country. Something he sees as an important stepping stone towards his ultimate goal.
“This year I’m going to put my head down and focus on a place in the top 10 in the National Cross Country, which would allow me to have a place in the Celtic Cross team for next January, and then I’ll start thinking about the ‘Eurocross.’
U23 National Athletics Championships
Next weekend, Murphy will don the blue and white of the Tullamore Harriers on his home track in the 5000m at the U23 National Championships. While he carries a realistic medal hope in Sunday’s race, Murphy has gained a new perspective on racing after the tribulations of his health scare.
Although he admits he would love a top 5 finish or maybe even a medal, just being part of the championship races again and getting back on track to see how far he can going into the sport with his potential, is the ultimate victory, something that struck him before heading to the track at Morton Stadium ahead of his senior debut.
“I was in the call room at the back of Morton Stadium and there are these guys and girls walking by me, really big names and I think, I’m part of that now. That’s why I’m in sports, to race against and around these people. It was unreal.