If I can do it, YOU can do it too!
They say that the longest journey starts with a single step. Well, as a wheelchair-user, my journey to achieving a degree of fitness that I was happy with didn’t start literally with a single step, but with a VERY short push on the road near my home.
It was July of 2012. I was thirty years old, and the closest I had come for many years to being physically active was watching a game of soccer on the television or attending a Kerry football game. Sure, I had thrown the odd basketball at a ring at the back of my house as a youngster, or played my own brand of soccer with friends (using my fists to control the ball and “shoot”). I had even broken my wrist around the age of eleven or twelve when I fulfilled the role of goalkeeper while my older brother and a friend of his took pot shots at me at home. But, as local children of my age began to drift away as the years passed, I found that, due to a lack of independence, I became increasingly isolated in the remote community where I lived. No physical activity, little or no regular interaction with the outside world. There were times when, as I look back on it now, I was feeling pretty low.
I was living at home with my parents, where virtually everything was done for me, and I had never really taken any notice of, or pride in, my physical appearance. When I reflect on it now and see photographs of myself from those days, I can see that it would have been obvious to others that I was making little or no effort to consciously keep myself healthy. I just didn’t really concern myself with such things, for whatever reason.
I didn’t know it at the time but I weighed at least 18 stone, if not more, and was only going in one direction – the wrong way. In some ways, in terms of maintaining my general health and in particular my weight, I was up against it on two fronts. Not only did my disability and lack of an opportunity to engage in physical activity deprive me of an outlet to maintain some degree of physical fitness, but my parents also owned a small country shop, where I basically had free rein to plunder all manner of sweet treats whenever I wanted, as often as I wanted. It was a “perfect storm” of circumstances that was never likely to yield positive results.
My memory would not be the best, so in terms of tying down the exact sequence of events I couldn’t swear that this is exactly how my journey to fitness started, but it is generally accurate. In the late spring/early summer of 2012 my mother, on whom I was heavily reliant (I still am if I am honest), went to hospital in Cork to have a procedure carried out in connection with a medical condition she has lived with for many years.
While my mother was in hospital I suffered from a fungal infection on my toes which required a visit to my GP. During my visit, the subject of my weight and fitness came up, and my GP described me as being “borderline diabetic”.
When I first started participating in races there was the obvious fear of “stepping” into the complete unknown, but the racing community never questioned my participation which made it all the easier.
When you hear a medical professional referring to your physical state in those terms, you would have to be an idiot not to at least make an effort to do something about it. So I did. In July of 2012 my Dad helped me to weigh myself using an industrial weighing scales that he had kept since his days of running the country shop, when it would have been used to weigh bags of animal food stuffs. I had to sit on this weighing scales, and from where I was I couldn’t see the gauges where he was calculating my weight, so I had to take his word when he told me what it was (and this would become an issue in the ensuing months when I sometimes wondered if he was telling me my actual weight or leading me to believe that I might have been a couple of pounds over my actual weight in order to keep me working hard). On that first day, I weighed exactly eighteen stone, at least according to my Dad!
I had asked my GP and also a dietician he had referred me to, who I admittedly only attended once because I wouldn’t be great for following the advice of someone like that, what my ideal weight should be but unfortunately neither seemed able to do so. At least, that is how I remember it. So I set myself a target of getting down to fourteen stone. Why fourteen? I have no idea. It was just something to aim for. Completely unrealistic, but a target nonetheless.
So it was that around this time I embarked on that VERY short push that I mentioned at the beginning. I planned to push myself to a neighbour’s house and back, a round trip of about 400 metres. I didn’t make it. I got home after about fifteen minutes with my tail between my legs.
As I was unemployed at the time I was able to dedicate a lot of time to trying to get fit, and persistence eventually paid off and I got to a point where I was pushing myself to the nearest townland and home again, a distance of about 8 or 9 kilometres, maybe two or three days a week. I was lucky in that I lived right on a four-cross roads and each road offered varying degrees of difficulty so I was able to try one road for a few months until I started to find it too easy and then move on to travelling on another road. All of this was done using my regular everyday wheelchair, which at that time I had already owned for nine years.
I weighed myself weekly, usually on a Thursday, and in early August 2013 I took a major step, I travelled the 44 kilometres to Annascaul to participate in my first ever 5km road race, using my everyday wheelchair. I completed it in approximately fifty-seven minutes and even got my poor Dad to walk it because, as I have a terrible sense of direction, I had an irrational fear of getting lost! I followed it up with the best-tasting lunch ever in Tom Crean’s pub, The South Pole Inn. Celebrating the beginning of my adventure in the home of another adventurer! I even had dessert, my reward for the effort I had put in!
I reached my goal of fourteen stone in May 2013, having lost four stone in nine-and-a-half months. I then re-adjusted my goal to try to reach twelve stone, as I thought it would be cool to lose one-third of my body weight, and I achieved this in May 2014.
I had been using the athletics track at the An Riocht Athletics Club in Castleisland on-and-off for exercise and through my use of their facilities. I started to become aware of other fun-run and road race events around the county. I have competed in road races held by An Riocht over the last five years, as well as the Feet First and Gneeveguilla Athletic Club’s 5k series in Killarney. I have also participated in races in Killorglin (where I had the only crash of my career, which resulted in a trip to A & E), Tralee, Kenmare, Banna, Coachford, Rathmore, Galway, Dromtrasna, Causeway, Listowel, Lyreacrompane, Clonakilty, Buttevant, and others that I’ve probably forgotten!
When I first started participating in races there was the obvious fear of “stepping” into the complete unknown, but the racing community never questioned my participation which made it all the easier. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of participating, just having the opportunity to get out and meet people was wonderful for my mental wellbeing and I never once met a person who questioned my right to participate. My fellow runners even fundraised to enable me to buy my very own sports chair to do my races. This was a specially designed racing chair. Unfortunately, it didn’t suit me and after a short time, I returned to my old reliable. Still, I find it frustrating, and disappointing, that in all the races I have completed I have only encountered two other participants with obvious disabilities – Jerry Forde and Ross Gallagher.
As of now, I have completed a total of 109 races. Without actually setting a target for it, I completed fifty races between the start of 2016 and the end of 2017. In hindsight I realised that doing that many races was probably over-doing it, so I decided to take a complete break from racing at the end of 2017 to recharge my batteries. I obviously missed it though because, since coming out of this period of “retirement” in May 2018, I have completed seventeen races in the last sixteen weeks! My next challenge is to do three 10k races in three weeks in October 2018, which is something I haven’t attempted before. At the time of writing, I have completed seventy-four 5k races, seventeen 10k’s, eight 5 miler’s, nine 4 miler’s and a 10 miler.