I remember it like it was yesterday. This is the eleventh year I have been living with one of the cruelest neurological diseases, Multiple Sclerosis. On 22nd August 2007 – after living twelve months with a mystery illness, not being able to work, having difficulty walking, living in pain, and struggling to do normal tasks like going to the shops – I was sitting in a small office with my neurologist who had just muttered the words “Conor, you have Multiple Sclerosis, and you will have it for the rest of your life”. I was shocked, in a daze, and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My first reaction was to ask him was he sure? “Yes Conor, there are lesions in your brain and its definitely MS”.
In that very moment, from that day forward, my life was going to change forever.
From 2007 – 2010 I was in a very bad place. Physically I was struggling to live with my new reality of daily symptoms, which were quite debilitating – including nerve pain, muscle spasms and pins and needles all over my body. Mentally it was just as tough – trying to come to terms with the fact that my life was now in the hands of a progressive illness, where the statistics tell us 25% of people end up wheelchair bound. Fairly depressing stuff for a young man who just got his big career break, who had his whole life stretching out in front of him.
For me those days were some of the toughest in my life, as I pondered what the future held for me; would I be in a wheelchair? When? Would I be able to hold down a job? Have a family? Do I really want to live like this – being a burden on those closest to me?
Food and Exercise
Around 2011, after doing some research on the condition and finding people across the world who were also living with MS, but were living a very active, successful life, I decided I was going to fight back against the illness. At that time I needed to try and gain back some control of my mind and my thoughts, and also try and start to live again. This started with me going back to the gym, in an attempt to use exercise as a way to both fight the condition and also help my body get stronger. I also knew from a mental health perspective, exercise would make a huge difference – and sure enough – this is exactly what happened.
Unfortunately I was forced to give up playing semi professional football due to my illness in 2006, but I was feeling strong enough to start running again, starting with a few miles a week, to see how my body would react to activity again. As the days and weeks passed, and I continued with my new routine, I was starting to feel a lot better in every way. My body appeared to be responding positively to my new regime, which was an incredible feeling and my MS symptoms appeared to lessen somewhat. At that time I was doing quite a lot of my own research into how food and nutrition might be able to facilitate my recovery. I discovered that MS patients who limited their intake of saturated fat to less than 15 grams per day tended to have better outcomes with the illness. That led me to completely changing what I was eating and ensuring that most of my diet was made up of fruits and vegetables. Foods that were high in nutrients, minerals and vitamins – and most importantly complimentary to brain health, were key. After a number of months it became clear that my body was starting to heal and repair itself, which was extremely empowering and made all of the continued effort and applied discipline worthwhile.
I continued with my running and in 2012 I ran my first marathon in Belfast. This was the first time I had ever ran that kind of distance and it was a huge challenge, but one that I rose to. Finishing the marathon in 2012 was a great feeling, and gave me that boost of confidence that I might just be able to beat this condition if I could stick with my current plan and remain disciplined.
Since I was a young boy I have always wanted to better and challenge myself. Never one to shirk a challenge and always aiming to push through my comfort zone, in time I found that running wasn’t enough for me. After completing the Dublin marathon the following year, I had a thirst for more.
I now wanted to attempt a triathlon. I decided that if I could swim, cycle and run – and complete a triathlon – not only would it keep me healthy and possibly my MS at bay, but it could also send an incredibly powerful message to all of those MS patients right across the world, that absolutely everything is possible, MS or no MS.
In 2014, I completed my first triathlon and it was an incredible feeling. I was now four years into my recovery and my symptoms were under control for the most part. In turn, my life was starting to improve significantly. Over the next twelve months I decided to compete in a few other triathlon events and that was me – hooked. It was a fantastic feeling, and as far as I was concerned, I was now swimming, cycling and running all over MS. It was a far cry from my neurologist office in 2007, where he told me that it was likely I needed to change my job and just take it easy. I was now training most days, building my new business, raising a young family and winning my MS battle. But just as before I continued to want more, to keep raising the bar.
The Holy Grail for any triathlete is to do a full distance course, which is known as an Ironman race. This is where the athlete swims 2.4 miles in the sea, cycles 112 miles on the bike and finishes with a 26.2 mile (marathon) run. You do this and you achieve Ironman status. The challenge was really starting to appeal to me so I did some research to see if I could find someone out there with MS who had achieved Ironman status. No matter where I looked, I couldn’t find such a person at that time. I decided that If I could achieve this goal, it would yet again be an incredible story to share and give a lot of MS patients that bit of hope we all crave.
In May 2015 after six months of tough training, I turned the corner in Alcudia, on the beachfront in Majorca at 11.30pm and approached the magic carpet. This is the last one hundred metres of the Ironman event and I heard the compare Paul Kaye say the magic words “Conor, you are an Ironman”.
If sitting in a neurologist office in 2007 being diagnosed with MS was a defining moment in my life, this particular moment would have a similar impact on my new life. It was at that moment I knew that despite my illness, if I implemented the same discipline and determination I used when I was competing at sport to my fight against MS, I could win this war.
Over the last two years I am incredibly proud to say that I have completed six Ironman races – one full distance and five half-distance races that total seventy miles. On the nutritional front I have moved to a vegan plant-based diet, which has had an incredible impact on my wellbeing. I’m having lots of great days now, and am feeling very strong. I continue to train everyday and work very hard on my mental health.
Through my books, website and blogs my goal in life is to create positive change. I am very aware that my story of recovery is quite powerful – not just to MS patients – but to anyone who faces any kind of adversity in their own lives, and lets face it, most of us do. I am committed to continue to challenge myself in every way, which will not only allow me to continue to fight and beat MS, but will also allow me to ultimately realise my own potential in life.
Conor Devine is a businessman, author and endurance athlete. He recently released his second book: Ironmind Against All Odds, which you can pick up on amazon or via his website www.conordevine.com
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