Alan Corcoran is no stranger to extreme challenges. In 2012, when Alan was just 21 years old, he set about running a lap of Ireland. This 1,500km continuous challenge saw the Waterford man run a daily marathon for 35 days. He chronicles this journey in his first book Marathon Man. Alan, a novice swimmer, then attempted to swim the length of Ireland in 2017, aged 26. Unfortunately, this challenge went far from planned and he was forced to abandon the attempt 210km into the swim. He wasn’t deterred and in 2019, aged 28, armed with a strong mind, body, and larger support boat he successfully swam 500km from the Giant’s Causeway to Tramore. We spoke to Alan about this epic challenge.
My Dad, Milo, died of cancer in August 2016. That was the catalyst that shoved me to embark on my 500km swim down Ireland’s coastline in aid of charity.
There was no shortage of obstacles
One massive surprise was my support boat sinking after 210km of sea swimming during my 2017 attempt. I tried for sponsors for my second attempt but couldn’t raise the funding. I overcame the support boat and financing issues by going all in and taking out a £13,000 bank loan to replace the five-metre RIB for a 10-metre sailboat which I rebranded as ‘Unsinkable II’. That’s where we slept every night – some nights in marinas, others alongside a fishing trawler at a pier wall or off an anchor or mooring. The experience reminded me that things rarely go to plan. You’ve just got to roll with the punches sometimes and try another way.
153 hours over 39 swim days
My shortest swim was 6km or an hour and a half – cut short when I puked my guts up after swallowing too much salt water. My longest swim was over 30km or six hours. After six hours, the tide turns against you.
I spent 30 days trying to complete the swim on my first attempt – 48 hours over 14 swim days. The second attempt ended on day 53 – 153 hours over 39 swim days.
For feeds, I used to stop every 30 minutes and tread water so I could check in with my team and take on some calories, largely a carbohydrate maltodextrin supplement combined with a sports drink or a sugary dilutable.
My work was cut out for me
My background is in running and football. I had just eight months to transform from a novice swimmer to a back-to-back marathon sea swimmer, so my work was cut out for me. I spent hours floundering in the pool before and after my desk job in London. That gradually built from about 4,000m a week to 40,000m. It was about consistency and progressive overload to ensure I could handle the 500km.
On my first attempt in 2017, I quickly discovered that it’s one thing to be a long-distance swimmer and another to be a sea swimmer. I had a steep learning curve getting to grips with the Irish Sea. I spent much more time in cold water, with and without the wetsuit, in the lead-up to my second attempt in 2019.
Near-constant shoving waves
The only easy part was soaking and decompressing in the warm shower after returning to land!
Swimming and covering distance was more bearable than the physiological stress of being submerged in cold water and the psychological stress of being so vulnerable as a man overboard every day in an extreme environment we’re not meant for. The near-constant shoving waves were a grind too. One of the most challenging parts of the sea swim was being so heavily dependent on the support boat and others for my success or failure.
You can’t develop resilience and confidence under a warm duvet on the couch
I learned I am sensitive to cold water, and offshore swimming can be scary as feck. The sea swim was a big step up from running a 1,500km lap of Ireland. I gained more confidence in my ability to endure and figure things out since there were many more challenges to negotiate on the swimming adventure. You can’t develop resilience and confidence under a warm duvet on the couch. Strength and self-assuredness are earned through doing hard things relative to your starting point.
Discipline over motivation
I’m not sure motivation is the right word. I think discipline is more fitting. When you set a challenging goal, like the swim or writing my Unsinkable book, there are many moments you won’t feel motivated and like doing the necessary work. If you’re serious about achieving your goal, some days you just have to show up and get on with the task as best as you can. Sometimes that means doing less than planned but living to fight the next day.
I crashed hard while swimming off the coast of Belfast around day five of the 2017 attempt. My team was worried it was the end of the challenge. They didn’t think I could rebound. In my head, it was just a bad day to draw a line under and move forward from. Through experience, I’ve become adept at hitting the reset button and giving it another bash.
In terms of maintaining focus, I try to set myself up for success by being consistent with the basics – drinking water, exercising regularly, eating nutritious food, spending time with friends and family, getting enough sleep, taking breaks outdoors to recharge, and being sensible with my pace. Overlook the simple things and you’ll get exhausted and distracted a hell of a lot quicker. Setbacks will seem worse than they are.
We can only sprint for so long before crashing
I broke the swim up by having little check-ins with the crew. Stopping for liquids, a feed, and a chat every thirty minutes broke the long swims into manageable segments. The same goes for most tasks. We can only sprint for so long before crashing. Pacing and breaks are essential.
Sometimes I’d do a mental scan of my technique. I might be fatigued, worried about how cold my feet and hands were, or getting freaked out by sea life, so I’d ask myself if I was swimming as efficiently as possible. How’s your head position? Is your arm glued to your ear? Things like that – little tricks to distract my mind from negative thoughts that weren’t helping me progress.
I had an almost unbearable swim around the northeast coast where it was raining, windy and nighttime. I couldn’t see land or gauge progress. Whenever my left hand entered the water, I yelled ‘stroke!’ in my head. Every time my right hand entered the water, I screamed the marina we were aiming for – ‘Glenarm!’ That was one of those days where I had to move the goalposts from reaching Waterford to simply getting my left hand forward, then my right hand forward. That mantra helped me switch to autopilot mode and block out the soul-destroying conditions.
It’s unrealistic to expect perfect balance every day of every year
It was a real focused sprint – eight months to get the training done and logistics organised while holding down my career as a town planner and grieving my dad’s loss. It was a lot, so I had to be organised and prioritise my time. I had to say ‘no’ more, cut out the snooze button, skip some dates and social gatherings, and cut screen time for a few months to accomplish my goal. I wouldn’t want to maintain that unbalanced life in the long run, but it’s unrealistic to expect perfect balance every day of every year. I think it’s more sensible to view balance over a broader timeframe of years, and I think I’ve managed that.
Take notice and start
If a goal resonates with and excites you, I’d encourage you to take notice and start. Don’t let the fear of failure or the limitations others have in their heads be the deciding factors.
I could guess that over 90% of people would have dumped on my ambitions if I’d asked at the outset. I was not a swimmer. Many would conclude swimming the length of Ireland is not a suitable goal for me, but I stuck with it. I don’t have a fancy literature degree or a publishing deal with Penguin or the like. Many would say being an author is unrealistic for me, but I persevered with my Marathon Man and Unsinkable books, and they’ve thankfully received great acclaim from book critics, customers, and literary awards.
You have to commit to the goal long before ever being capable of achieving it
You have to commit to the goal long before ever being capable of achieving it. Don’t allow naysayers to hold you back from pursuing your passion. Maybe they’re just unwilling to put in the work to figure it out. It doesn’t mean you are.
After my two sea swims, my family, support team, and I donated €30,000 to the Irish Heart Foundation and Solas Cancer Support Centre in memory of dad, Milo. The two charities are closely aligned with the purpose of the challenge. I get into the lengthy charity selection process which involved last-minute withdrawals and logistical difficulties in my book.
Selected for 16 film festivals and winning five awards
I’m excited to see Unsinkable air on RTÉ One on 3 September 2023. The filmmaking project has nearly been as challenging as the swim itself. It’s been well received – selected for 16 film festivals and winning five awards. Our movie’s had several sold-out theatre screenings in Ireland and Canada and is showing on Aer Lingus flights until the end of 2023. It’s a 52-min fly-on-the-wall documentary that the Irish Examiner has described as ‘Gritty’, while Film Ireland has called it ‘Powerful’.
It doesn’t get much better than that!
Kirkus Reviews is one of, if not the most, respected voices in critiquing books. You’ll see their reviews quoted in the opening pages of m
ost NYT Bestsellers. They’ve awarded my Unsinkable memoir a Starred Review, their top recognition. It’s an accolade that recent memoirs from Bono, Prince Harry, Matthew Perry, Emily Ratajkowski, and Will Smith did not receive. As a self-published author, it doesn’t get much better than that – placing above superstars with the best ghostwriters money can afford and the sway and marketing power of major publishing labels behind them. Kirkus Reviews said my Unsinkable book is exhilarating, poignant, and a bold, uplifting testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. I hope readers agree.
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