In Armagh 2009

Up to their necks in nature


A competitor crawls from the Bog Jacuzzi at the Northern Ireland Bog Snorkelling Championship.

Murphy likes to win. A lot. But he hates competition. And on this particular night—7:00 p.m., 25, 2009—he can’t help but wonder what brazen challenger might show up to appropriate his championship title. Except for one disqualification (a technicality) he has taken home the region’s first-place trophy for four consecutive years before moving on to win the world championships.

Anxieties and heavy head aside, the young athlete powered on with strong limbs: swift, deliberate kicks, loose arms. Midway through his workout, a family strolled past with a little girl of about 5, who lets out a terrified wail.

"It was probably quite scary to see a wee man snorkelling up and down the bog," Murphy acknowledges later, in between sips of water. But how else could he have prepared for the next day’s race, if not by swimming through a slimy channel of peat? The smiley 24-year-old, from a tiny town halfway between Armagh and Portadown, is the world's fastest bog snorkeller.

The sport is summed up by its name. Contestants, wearing flippers and snorkels, kick up and down a 60-yard stretch of bog drain, abandoning all conventional swimming methods and any reservations about getting muddy.

Murphy grew up about five miles from the bog, where his own grandfather had once cut turf—a grassy bog byproduct, which in Northern Ireland has historically been excavated for use as fuel. And though his current knack for kicking through liquid vegetation goes unchallenged, growing up, he says he thought of the bogs as "disgusting, dirty and wet."

He got into sports at a young age, when his father, Stephen Murphy, coached the Portadown Amateur Swimming Club where his son swam. From there, young Conor tried almost any sport he could find: cycling, swimming, running, Gaelic football, hurling—and his favorite—triathlon.

And then, five years ago, Murphy saw a flier advertising Northern Ireland’s first-ever bog snorkelling championships at Peatlands Park, in Dungannon. Thinking, "Why not?" he signed up.



Another competitor completes his return lap during the Bog Snorkelling competition.

Today, Murphy holds a conventional accounting job that jogs his brain more than his body, but he is fortunate to be granted stretches of time off to compete in triathlons and other races throughout Ireland. Between July and August, he races up to three times a week and trains twice as often. "I want to be a professional athlete," he explains, pouring his third glass of water. "And if I do well enough this year, hopefully I can get funding and become a full-time athlete, stop doing accounting for a little bit."

Murphy is a force among Ireland’s top triathletes. At a Castlewellan race on August 1, he placed second, missing first place by ten seconds. Though heavy competition among triathletes has kept Murphy seconds-shy of a champion status, his speed in the bogs goes untouched. And while he says being the champion bog snorkeller doesn't altogether quench his thirst to win, he says reigning at any sport—even one reputed for its silliness—still feels pretty good.

"I get a lot of media publicity through bog snorkelling because it is a minority, sort of one-off sport," he says, grinning. "Unless you're the best in triathlon, you don't get any recognition. It's because bog snorkelling is one of those wacky sporty that everyone wants to hear about it, I suppose."

In a way, the intensive training he undergoes for triathlons and other sports helps his game in the peat bogs. Granted, his snorkelling strategy is relegated to a doggy paddle and other spasmodic flits of the legs, but even an unconventional swimmer depends on strength. "This year I've been doing a lot of work for triathlons, so I’m just a lot fitter. I can kick a lot harder," Murphy says confidently.

On July 26, only hours after completing a triathlon, Murphy returned to Peatlands Park for the fifth-annual bog snorkelling championships, of which he has competed in and won every year (aside from his second year when, in violation of race rules, he removed his snorkel after it flooded with peat and mud).

This year he carried with him the distinction of having won in the men's division of last year's World Championships, held in Wales, in 1 minute, 38.9 seconds (his fastest time being 1:31 in the previous Northern Ireland competition). Before the race, he warmed-up with the seasoned stretches of any professional swimmer, his wetsuit wrapped around him like a second skin. His practice run the night before had reacquainted him with the mucky vegetation of the bog drain.

"It's disgusting," he recalls of the water, his nose scrunching up slightly as if recoiling at the memory. "It's like vegetable soup. You've got lumps of peat and really gooey mud and slime and grass in there—really decomposed bits of things. There could be decomposed animals in there. And it smells a lot too."

The day of the race, he sizes up his competition: 22 others in the men's division, all vying for Murphy's title. Nick Clarke, a strength coach and first-time snorkeller from Belfast, knew Murphy might be drained from the triathlon earlier that day. "He'll be tired," he reasoned. "We can take him. You've got to be confident."

kidsKids enjoy playing in the mud at Peatlands Park.

Clarke's friend, Colin Bankhead, also from Belfast, jokes that his preparation for the race included "a wee bit of running around, probably a big burger and a cigarette and then I'll just dive in."

But triathlons, burgers and cigarettes proved no match for Murphy. He breezed through the bog drain with a new record of 1 minute 25:87. Afterward, having been thoroughly cleaned off with a high-pressure hose situated near the bog, Conor is still shaking debris from his ears. "One disgusting thing is when the mud gets in your ear and you can’t get it out," he acquiesces. "So for two or three days after, every time you take a shower, more mud comes back out of your ears."

While he might not welcome the peaty dirt clumps that accumulate and linger behind his lobes after a race, the particles are something of a testament to his success—a pledge of his resilience to return to Wales and beyond to preserve his championship status.

"It's disgusting," he declares. "It is rotten." But even as he rattles off putrid adjectives, Murphy is still smiling.