Gerard Sheehy found solace and a new sense of purpose in the mountains following the the death of his young daughter, says Dan MacCarthy. .
The distance from Coomakista Pass at the end of the Iveragh Peninsula in Co Kerry to one of the starting points for the ascent of Carrauntoohil at Cronin’s Yard is in the vicinity of 62km
When I meet the organiser of the Fei Sheehy Challenge, Ger Sheehy, he admits to being a bit tired.
A bit tired? After a 25-hour trek across the length of the longest peninsula in the country?
It is a typical example of the iron will of a man attempting to cope with a family tragedy. The walk he is organising in August in memory of his late daughter, Fei, is completed over three days rather than one and is now in its third year.
Walkers will cross the Comeragh Mountains, the Galtees and the Knockmealdowns on consecutive days. That is a distance of 95km and a height gain of 4.200m. Or walkers can opt for one or two days.
Ger, who also has a 14-year-old daughter, explains the background to the challenge: “Fei died nearly four years ago, aged eight, from osteosarcoma.
"After she died I needed something for my mental health and physical wellbeing. I took up hillwalking and just stayed with it.
“A year after I started walking I decided that I’d organise a challenge in her name. She would have been chuffed with having something named after her,” he says.
Osteosarcoma is not a rare disease and it usually affects teenagers as their bodies begin to grow rapidly.
“With kids it happens usually when they’re 16 or 17. It’s a cancer of the bone and usually the bone breaks. Fei was only eight years old when she got it. I was going shopping with her one day and I noticed she was limping.
"I said to her ‘stop limping’. I thought she was joking. We brought her to hospital in Clonmel, and whoever was on duty there just clicked what it was. They referred us to Crumlin Children’s Hospital in Dublin.”
Fei was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. She had it just below her knee. Treatment was unsuccessful and she died in 2012.
“This is the third year of the challenge. In the last two years we’ve raised €20,000,” says Ger who is a financial advisor.
“In the first year I nominated five charities and voluntary organisations, including Mountain Meitheal and South Eastern Mountain Rescue Association — people who had helped us when Fei was sick.
“Last year we changed it again, and for this year, we nominated Barretsown and Star 360. Whatever funds are raised will go to those charities. It’s all in Fei’s memory.”
There isn’t a specific charity dealing with osteosarcoma, says Ger. There are the cancer charities themselves and the hospitals, for which they had done fundraising.
Was it a difficult thing to start organising fundraisers in honour of his daughter?
“It’s like someone close to you being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. You never know about these things. Unless you have personal experience it’s very, very hard to understand what it’s like and what the people around them have to deal with.”
The fundraising challenge caters for all levels of walkers. “If you want to walk for three days you pay €50. If you want to walk for two days you pay €40 and for one day its €25.
“I wrote to businesses and individuals in the area to see if they could support us, to contribute towards the cost of food, a medal for the participants, or an awards ceremony.
“This year I’ve given people the option of taking a sponsorship card for the nominated charity or raise the money for another charity of their choosing.”
As for the motivation in getting out there to help others in an act of selflessness, Ger is pretty clear.
“Lots of the walks we [hillwalkers] do, we do for ourselves. To prove something to ourselves. To have a sense of achievement.
"But with the Fei Sheehy Challenge walk I’m asking people to do it for somebody else. That’s the rationale behind it. You’re going to have a great sense of achievement yourself but you’re also going to be helping somebody else,” he says.
Nearly four years since Fei’s death, organising the walks in her memory has been of benefit to Ger, not to mention the charities which have received the funds he has help to raise. How is he coping?
“People learn to cope with these things differently. The walking helps me no end. I’m so happy when I’m on the mountain. It clears your head.
"It solves your problems. You meet like-minded people. If you go out on a walk in a bad mood you’ll never, ever finish a walk in a bad mood.
“You’re accidentally making yourself so fit mentally and physically in doing something you absolutely enjoy.
"This is my outlet. This is what I do. I’ve met absolutely positive happy people. They do it for a reason, especially if it’s tough. Everybody has a story,” he says.
As for the walk itself … “There are lots of people who want to do these walks but can’t as one of the pre-conditions of a three-day challenge walk is you have to self-navigate.
"If people want to do one day, two days or three days they can but I need the leaders to step up to the plate. I’d like more club involvement in it.
"There’s a perpetual cup that the clubs can compete for. It’s not about speed, it’s about finishing. Peaks Mountaineering Club has put in a huge effort and won it last year,” he says.
The Fei Sheehy Challenge Walk is establishing itself in the challenge walks calendar along with the Maamturks Challenge and latterly, the Tom Crean Endurance Walk.
It may give Ger Sheehy a little solace to know that he is helping to save other lives in Fei’s memory.
The Fei Sheehy Challenge Walk - August 19-21 www.feisheehychallenge.net
Source: hse.ie; www.cancer.org
More info: www.cancer.ie
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