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‘A life sentence with no chance of parole’: Frank O’Mara’s unflinching new memoir

One of Ireland’s greatest athletes has written an account of his battle with Parkinson’s in his book Bend Don’t Break

The examination only lasted about 10 minutes. The doctor’s response had been quick and precise. “I’ve seen this often enough to recognise it. There is a slowness in your movement on the left side. I’m sorry to have to tell you this. You have Parkinson’s disease.”

I took his assessment with a degree of scepticism. “What baffles me is, I came in with a running problem and I’m leaving with an old person’s neurological disease.” The doctor just shook his head but I pressed on. “I’m only 48-years-old.”

When the book arrived through the letterbox on Tuesday morning there was a strong sense of what to expect. The story of Frank O’Mara is well versed already in this house, going back to the days when we were youngsters, and he was one of our running heroes.

I can’t recall exactly when it was that we first saw him run, but chances are it was in Belfield that summer of 1985, when O’Mara ran the third leg of the 4 x mile world record attempt as part of a Goal fundraising event. Along with Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan and Ray Flynn, they finished in 15:49.08. That record still stands, you know.


Two years later in Indianapolis when O’Mara won the first of his two World Indoor titles over 3,000m, the night after O’Sullivan won the 1,500m, we watched at home on television in complete awe of his finishing kick.

When O’Mara won that title again in Seville in 1991, I watched with some roommates in college in America and it was they who declared him “a total stud”.

O’Mara retired in 1996 as a three-time Olympian, a five-time Irish champion, and one of only three Irish runners to win the American NCAA 1,500m title. The other two are Coghlan and Ronnie Delany. That’s how good he was.

I’m less certain of when it was that I first heard the news O’Mara had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, only that it was several years back, and made little or no sense.

Now aged 63, it turns out O’Mara has been in a running battle with Parkinson’s for 15 years, a battle now chronicled with unflinching honesty in his book – Bend Don’t Break, A Memoir of Endurance.

At almost 300 pages it is a challenging read in parts, and truly inspiring in others, with O’Mara’s initial denial of the violent clutches of this disease soon surrendering to his willingness to battle on with it. It’s not without its humour, O’Mara acting as a sort of reluctant tour guide through the frequently hellish periods of this chronic degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, which he bleakly reduces to its initials, PD.

It begins in January, 2009, when O’Mara joins close friends Gary Taylor and Mark Anderson for an easy five-mile run on the river trail in Little Rock, Arkansas. The state capital of Arkansas has been his home from home, having long since set out from Limerick to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, joining that still fledgling Irish brigade on a running scholarship back in 1978.

It happens to be the day after O’Mara’s then telecommunications company Alltel, where he was chief commercial officer, was purchased by Verizon for a tidy $28.1 billion.

The conversation was routine that morning. We chatted about the usual stuff: family and sport. Abruptly, Mark asked, ‘What’s going on with you this morning, Frank?... I was wondering what’s up with your leg.

A mile later, PD struck its first memorable blow. As my left leg moved forward, my left foot clashed with my right calf and almost brought me down. It happened a couple more times in quick succession.

From there, Bend Don’t Break repeatedly shifts gear in tone and pace, just like O’Mara could on the track. It moves back and forth between his running days of old and his increasing rage against, and the impact of, PD on his life along with that of Patty, his wife of 33 years, and their three now adult sons – Colin, Harry and Jack.

He discusses the marked improvements since undergoing deep brain stimulation at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis in 2019, exactly 10 years after first showing symptoms.

Little is known about the root causes of Parkinson’s, except they are complex, most likely genetic or from exposure to environmental toxins, although there are some studies linking the pathology of Parkinson’s with traumatic brain injury.

On that note O’Mara recalls an incident while playing rugby at St Munchin’s College in Limerick.

On one occasion, I suffered a mighty skull-to-skull clash that had my head spinning like Wile E. Coyote for days.

I have never been caught up in how or why I got Parkinson’s, and I have a particular lack of interest in the ‘why me?’ inquiry. None of these gyrations end up in a positive place… Nothing I can do will resurrect my earlier self. My focus has to be on bending, not breaking.

There are some parts of this already well versed here too, given my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 78, and lived with the disease for the last six years of his life.

He too was never caught up on the how or why, accepting that Parkinson’s is a disease you battle with, not against – excepting there was always some curiosity, given that a few fellow distance runners also fell prone to the disease at different stages of their lives.

In 2011, Roger Bannister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, once describing the “gentle irony” of that given his lifelong service as a neuroscientist. He died in 2018.

Also, back in 1996, John Walker from New Zealand, one of only 13 athletes to subsequently lower Bannister’s world mile record and the 1976 Olympic 1,500m champion, first announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s at age 44.

O’Mara’s own conclusions again shift swiftly away from any great fear of causation or indeed need for a greater understanding, not when he sees his ultimate victory now as a life well lived or a day enjoyed.

Looking back on it, I’m inclined to forgive my stubborn unwillingness to accept what was happening to me. What I would learn about Parkinson’s over the next decade would have been too overwhelming for anyone to accept all at once. While a Parkinson’s diagnosis isn’t a death sentence, it is a life sentence with no chance for parole.

Such is the all-consuming nature of this odious disease that it tries to define your life. Today, I am first and foremost a Parkinson’s warrior. I will plan for the future, but I will never dwell on the future. I will run the race one lap at a time, and I will not worry about the result. I will bend, but I will not break.

– Bend Don’t Break: A Memoir of Endurance, By Frank O’Mara, is published by The O’Brien Press on February 19th