Mother and son gearing up for Donegal Wild Atlantic Way Ultra 555

By Ciaran O’Donnell


A marathon runner who survived breast cancer, and a former Donegal senior footballer whose promising playing career was cut tragically short because of injury, are set to become the first mother and son to take part in the Donegal Wild Atlantic Way Ultra 555 Cycle Challenge which takes place this year on Friday, July 8th.


Deirdre Dillon, a mother of four, was diagnosed with cancer in January, 2019, while her son, Luke Keaney, was forced to stop playing football at the age of 24 after five hip operations. He donned the playing boots for the last time when lining out for his club, Four Masters, in 2016.

A chance meeting with Sean McFadden, the Donegal Wild Atlantic Way Ultra 555 organiser, in Dubai back in December led to Luke signing himself and his mother up for the epic sporting challenge. The two will be part of a four-person team who will embark on the 555 kilometre challenge in July in what will be the seventh staging of the event.

Deirdre takes up the story.

Luke and Sean met up and the talk got around to the 555. It was noted that no mother and son had competed in the event. So, of course, Luke latched on to that, and here we are now getting ready for the challenge,” she says.

While I hadn’t really been cycling much, I had been running. I’ve been doing a half marathon every month since January 2020.”

Deirdre was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, 2019. She had one operation at the end of that January.

Because the margins weren’t fully clear, I had to go in for a second operation in February to clear the margins. I had to get radiotherapy for three weeks. So, I was back at school before Easter and for the first three weeks in May I was over in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry getting radiotherapy,” recalls Deirdre, who teaches at Scoil Aodh Rua Agus Nuala in Donegal Town.


The day she was told she had cancer is one she won’t forget.

The first day I heard about it, I cried for the day. After that, I woke up and said ‘Now, Deirdre, this is your lot. Suck it up and get on with it’. That’s basically the way I handled it.

I don’t like anything going in to my body. I would have been happy to get the tumour out and not get any treatment. So, I did what I was told for once in my life.”

Two years on, Deirdre considers herself extremely fortunate.

I was very healthy going into it. In fact, I ran the 2018 Dublin City Marathon the October before I was diagnosed. I was disappointed with my time, so I decided to go over to Malaga in December and do another one which was even worse,” she quips.

Deirdre pictured with Luke after her operation in 2019

After her operations and the treatment ended, Deirdre’s goal was to get back running.

I reckoned if I was able to do ten miles by July 1st, I’d manage to do the 2019 Dublin City Marathon. So, I finished my treatment at the end of May, was back in school in June and was kind of jogging from then.”

When the first day of July rolled around, Deirdre completed a ten-mile run and that gave her the confidence to plan for the marathon four months later. She clocked a time of 3 hours and 46 minutes and used the marathon to raise money for Irish Cancer Research.

I’m always doing something. I’m always training, always cycling, always running and always gymming. I kept in shape over lockdown and to make things worse, I joined the rowing club,” she says.

Yet, running remained the priority. In January 2020 she set herself a target of running a half marathon a month, every month.

I started to meet up with the Tir Chonaill AC members out at Murvagh and did my half marathons with them last summer when the restrictions were lifted a bit. That became more of a social thing.

With the bike I was probably doing one session a week, but nothing very serious. Then Luke came up with the plan for the 555, and I decided to go with it.

We have two other fellas involved – Oisin Reid, a young fella and the main man with ability and afraid of nothing. And then we have Greg Doherty who is a super organiser. He has the experience. He has done the recce for the event before. He knows the route and the plan. Luke and I are shutting our mouths and doing what they tell us,” she says, with a hearty laugh.

We’re not doing it as a race. We’re only doing it as an event to get around it and to finish it. We wouldn’t like to be last either. The main objective is to complete it and the second one is not to be last.”

Deirdre and her sister, Claire, both played camogie for Galway and Connacht at underage level. Deirdre’s father, Tom Dillon, who passed away in June, 2019 at the age of 93, won an All-Ireland with Galway in 1956. He also won Railway Cups with Connacht.

I suppose we were always playing sport from way back and would have competed a lot in Community Games. When I came to teach in Sligo, there was no camogie which was my sport. Instead, there was hockey, so I started playing hockey. I’m fortunate in that I can pick something up fairly easily, apart from basketball,” she comments.

Lockdown has made her extremely appreciative of what she has.

I’m grateful to have come through the cancer and that I’m doing well. I do feel the fitness and the attitude that I had helped me through it. I know there are other people around that have subsequently got cancer. The say to me ‘well if you can get back doing that, I’m going to get back walking or whatever they do’.”

She continues: “People see that you’re not lying down under it and that you’re not seeing it as a sentence. If it motivates people to get up and do something, great. It’s an attitude. You can have cancer, but you can fall down under it. You get this sentence and you feel that’s it. Gone. Finished. But you don’t have to be like that. You can see it as a little glitch in the plan and it’s a whole different route, but you’re going to get there. So, from that point of view, I’d be very thankful and very grateful that I’m able to run and that I’m able to cycle.”

Because she’s part of a team in the 555, Deirdre says she’s not under any pressure.

If it was a marathon I’d have to go and do all the training myself. I don’t feel the pressure with this challenge because the other two boys are very strong and competitive. I just see it as letting people see you can get off your arse and do things. You don’t have to lie down under negativity or something that happens to you. I don’t know from one scan to the next scan what they’re going to tell me. So, you have to keep going in the meantime. That would be my philosophy on life.”

One of her other sons, Jack who plays for UCD in the League of Ireland’s First Division, is currently laid up through injury.

He ruptured tendons in his ankle and was devastated at the news. But I told him once you have a plan and once you know where you’re going to go with it, there is a road back to recovery. Luke was the same with his hip and Kate, my daughter, had her cruciate done. The worst thing, initially, is the news. But once there’s a plan, you feel you’re making progress. We still have to work out our plan for getting around the 555,” she declares.

Luke possesses the same will to succeed and desire to overcome adversity as his mother.

Luke being taken home from the UK by his mother, Deirdre, after a hip operation

Obviously, I can’t run anymore, so the 555 is a challenge the two of us can take on. I went to Dubai at the end of last year along with Matt O’Hanlon, the Wexford hurling captain. We met Conor Gibbons from Letterkenny who I knew through the football,” he says.

During his four-week stay, he met up with Sean McFadden for a leisurely spin.

Afterwards Sean suggested we meet up another day and do a proper session. So, I stayed over in the house with himself, Irene and the boys. We got up at 5am and did 170k. He pushed me a fair bit that day,” he recalls.

When I came home, Sean was on to me about the 555. I’d bought myself a good bike. After I had my hip operations, the surgeon told me the two sports I could compete in were cycling and rowing, which are both non-weight bearing and there’s no impact going through the joints. I’m 90kg and 6 ft 2, that’s a big frame going on a bike. The idea of entering the 555 came at the start of the last lockdown.”

According to Luke, he and his mother both needed something to keep them motivated.

The two of us could go out on the bike on a Sunday morning and do our bit of training together. I know Oisin from Four Masters and he would have played on the senior team. Oisin was a massive cyclist when he was younger. Myself and Mum had been out with him a couple of times, so we had him roped in. Once we had him confirmed it was just a matter of finding another person.

Greg would have cycled with the club and is involved at underage with Four Masters, so I would have known him as well. He’s also done a lot of adventure races. I thought if we’re going to do this, we’re better off getting a strong team. Over the last few weeks, we’ve got the team confirmed. We’re calling ourselves GOLD Spinners – GOLD represents the initials of the four-person team.

I suppose it’s more to prove that when one door closes, another one closes. It’s just about your attitude and overcoming setbacks and adversity,” he says.

Five years on from having to call it a day as an intercounty footballer, Luke still misses the game. Still wonders why. Every now and then, that old feeling of ‘I could still do a job in there’ when watching his former team mates playing comes around.

But he has a new focus now.

And new directions.

Last October, Luke teamed up with Donegal Bay Rowing Club mate, Rosie Temple, to represent Ireland in the mixed doubles event at the European Championships. A month earlier, he won individual gold at the Irish Offshore Rowing Championships in Kerry.

I suppose I’d stopped rowing and had to find something to fill that void. And I think the challenge of the 555, because it’s endurance-based and because it’s something we can do as a family, is the perfect fit. It’s nice to be able to bond when we’re out training together. That said, there’s not much chatting on the bike.”

The tracker of GOLD Spinners will be worth the watching when the flag drops at the start of the 555 on the second Friday in July.

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