You don’t have to run, swim, and cycle to have an ‘iron’ heart

You don’t have to run, swim, and cycle to have an ‘iron’ heart
Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council councillor Deirdre Donnelly sounding the starting gun for the 2019 Ironman 70.3. Picture: Peter Cavanagh

It's a crazy world. On Sunday, I followed the reports of the G7 Summit. All these leaders of the Western world were avoiding saying anything that would annoy US President Donald Trump, while struggling with the notion that this is a man who, for any reason at all, could shatter years, even decades, of carefully constructed agreements and institutions.

This is a man who takes personal offence because he announces that he would like to buy a very large part of another country and is turned down. You’d suspect that he’s secretly regretting that the rules of democracy prevent him from getting hold of Greenland the way his pal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, would have: Send in a couple of armoured divisions overnight and challenge Denmark to a war.

This guy is barking, and only the deep polarisation within his own country is preventing his removal from office. It’s hard to watch such a great country in such deep decline.

So, on Sunday morning I decided to watch a much healthier, happier form of madness unfold. I stood at my garden gate, mug of coffee in hand, and watched hundreds of men and women, of all ages and sizes, running themselves into the ground.

Actually, not just run. These crazy people had jumped into the sea at Sandycove, then swum 2km over to Dún Laoghaire, before a little cycle, a mere 90km through the Wicklow mountains, then back to the seafront at Glasthule. That’s when they passed my house, all still looking as fit as fiddles.

They weren’t finished when they got back to the seafront. Once they got off their bikes, they then had to run a half-marathon no less, and a couple of lengths of Dún Laoghaire pier, before collapsing into the arms of waiting loved-ones at the finishing line. What’s more, to my astonishment, most of them were smiling at the end.

It was the annual Dún Laoghaire Ironman triathlon. (Long past time they changed the name, because the women were just as determined, just as fast, and just as crazy.) I thought I wouldn’t know any of the competitors, because I stay as far away as I can from exercise and fitness, but one of the people who passed me on his bike, still smiling after his 90km cycle, was Graham Hillick.

Now, I know Graham because he’s one of the sports instructors in Lakers, a club for young people and adults who have an intellectual disability. I’m involved with the club. I’m gonna tell you something: he’s no “iron” man.

Oh, sure, he’s really fit and involved in a load of sports. But when you see him and his colleague Lisa O’Brien, or any of our other instructors — most of our small team, in fact — working with our members, the quality you recognise most is empathy. They have a remarkable skill for getting the best out of people who have an intellectual disability, and they do it with humour and focus and respect.

“Iron” men (the iron men of my imagination, anyway) don’t do empathy. But I’m guessing the vast majority of the competitors on Sunday weren’t made of iron. Most of them were ordinary people, pushing themselves harder than I could imagine to achieve something they probably thought impossible. It looked crazy to me, but that’s really just because I’m a lump. Actually, it was — and they were — amazingly admirable.

And then my missus and I had lunch with the Lawlors in our back garden.

Aine Lawlor is “crazy”, too, because she has a disability that she refuses to let define her. Her disability is called 22Q syndrome — the name is more complicated than that, but 22Q is what Aine and her mum call it. It’s a rare condition, and it carries a range of complex physical disabilities, together with difficulties in learning.

Aine’s mum, Anne, is even “crazier”, because when Aine was eventually diagnosed with this condition, which no-one in Ireland knew how to address, Anne set about making herself an expert. Not just in 22Q, but in a range of rare diseases and conditions that affect young people and their families. Now, she’s an (unpaid, but brilliant) advocate and campaigner, who has persuaded the great and the good to begin to take an interest in achieving better outcomes.

She’s promoting research and knowledge, to make the world a better place. As you might imagine, she could have made easier choices in her life, so that people wouldn’t keep telling her she’s mad to keep going. But she is as determined as an Ironman competitor.

Part of the process of learning about the condition, in an era when there was no internet, involved dragging an unwilling Aine to international conferences (‘boring’ is how Aine describes it) and talking to international experts.

At one of these conferences, Aine was listening to an expert called Tony Simons, one of the world’s leading researchers into the condition. Not only did he describe things that were troubling Aine in ways she immediately understood, he had a Powerpoint slide in the middle of his presentation that intrigued her. It showed a progression from one end of a scale to another.

At one end, it said, “struggling”. At the other, it said, “coping”.

Aine saw that slide as representing a choice she could make. I can struggle with this, she thought, or I can cope.

From that moment, Aine decided that she was never going to give in to her disability.

She has become a gold medal bowler, holds down a demanding job, and makes inspirational videos and blogs. You might find her on Facebook and you can see some of her stuff on Youtube, including a video that she made with Simon, called ‘Knocking Down Anxiety.’

She’s also great fun: open and honest and with an infectious laugh. She’s one of the world’s copers, and someone from whom it’s impossible not to learn.

Deciding to run in an Iron Man race might be a mad decision, but I suspect, for many, it is the choice between struggling and coping. Aine never decided to run in a race like that — it was a choice forced on her by life and the system. But the way she has dealt with it is something the rest of us need to learn from.

Yesterday, she posted her Monday message, as she calls it. “It’s tough been a warrior, but just remember, it’s ok to have a bad day and a good day. What matters is you fight off the bad day.” I have to say I’m delighted her spelling isn’t as good as mine, because, in every other respect, Aine is the “iron” man I’d love to be.

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