FERGUS FINLAY: Pity me, I’m now trying to keep up with the sixth fittest man in Europe

IT’S hell out there.

In Sandyford, to be exact.

Or to be even more specific, in the Crossfit Gym. And all because I want to be a loser.

I suppose I should explain. The business of fundraising for a charity, and especially a domestic charity, never ends. If you can’t fundraise successfully, it limits not just the amount of work you can do, but also the quality.

Most charities seek to raise money to do things better, to a higher standard. It’s a difficult business – not because people aren’t generous (they are, especially in Ireland), but because to do anything properly you need to plan ahead. Planning is harder when the income you’re raising isn’t certain.

So one of our fundraising things for this year is going to be Losers for Barnardos. A group of us, in the head office and around the Barnardos projects, are going to try to lose weight, get fit, and hopefully raise a few bob along the way.

Kind of like Operation Transformation, only for charity.

There’s a problem. It has been decided (I won’t, for reasons of kindness, say by whom) that the CEO of Barnardos must lead this effort by example.

And the poor old CEO has never done any exercise in his life, apart from playing poor golf and walking the dogs.

He is heading towards one of those big birthdays that has a zero at the end, carries far too much weight and spends most of his life working at a desk, sitting at meetings or driving to projects.

What’s more, one of his front teeth fell out recently – surely a sign of advancing decrepitude.

This poor old divil is not actually a he – in fact it’s me. To make matters worse, most of my colleagues who have undertaken this challenge are hard-working, committed people who devote their energies day in and day out to making life better for children.

Unlike me, they’re well beyond zero fitness – and already I can see signs that they’re pretty competitive.

So now there is only one recourse – a personal trainer. I’ve met this chap called Will, who is one of the people who run Crossfit out in Sandyford, and he has undertaken to get me into shape.

He doesn’t know it yet (or else he has been too kind to say it) but he is embarking on one of the greatest challenges of his career. I only hope I don’t break him.

Will is 25, God help us, and officially the sixth fittest man in Europe (don’t take my word for it, check out their website at crossfit.ie). He doesn’t usually do this kind of thing for free, but he’s making an exception for Barnardos. His payment is the grim satisfaction of inflicting the torture I need as part of my transformation.

The first time I went up to Sandyford we worked for 20 minutes, rowing, stretching, discovering muscles in places I never knew I had them. When I was completely exhausted, and ready for a lie down, Will announced: “Right, that’s the warm-up done – now for some real exercise!”

And that’s the prelude for another 40 minutes of lifting, stretching and rowing as fast as possible.

Will is taking me and a colleague, Ruth, and we’re supposed to be sharing our experiences with the rest of the team. Ruth, needless to say, is much fitter than I am and insists on doing six of everything I can do five of. Now and again she kindly reminds me that she is, after all, a lot younger than me.

In between the exercises, Will is educating us about fats and sugars, carbohydrates and proteins. His basic rule is actually a simple one – eat real food.

He’s dead against any kind of processed food, but is actually quite relaxed about what you can eat, provided it once walked, ran or grew in the ground, and hasn’t since been treated and packaged to give it a long shelf life.

No starch and as little sugar as possible. Oh – and wine. He’s not keen on wine, or any form of alcohol, because he says it inhibits the body from working properly. I may not be able to forgive him for that.

The funny thing is I end each session panting and in agony, but about an hour later I start to feel really good. I’m stiff in places I didn’t know existed, but it disappears if I get up and walk around. And that’s taught me, actually, just how much sitting around I have been doing.

I’ve a long way to go before I get past the zero fitness barrier (and I know now I’ll never win the New York marathon), but I’m already beginning to feel a lot better. I’m even beginning to look forward to the sessions.

I used to readily admit that I’m not the man I used to be – to which my wife would occasionally reply that I never was. But who knows, perhaps some day, if Will and his team don’t give up on me, I might actually be that man. I can dream, after all.

I’d like to end on a sad personal note. A number of years ago I found myself involved (as a bit player on the Irish team) in very difficult negotiations with John Major. The circumstances meant the discussions took place in the British embassy in Brussels.

It was an imposing building, very grand – in fact I discovered afterwards that the Duke of Wellington had attended a ball there the night before the Battle of Waterloo. And it was obviously stuffed full of personnel, there to serve the interests of Her Majesty’s Government in the heart of the EU.

I looked around the building with great curiosity and not a little envy, and found myself remarking to Dick Spring, “God, if we had all these resources in Brussels, what couldn’t we achieve!”

His answer was “The Brits might have endless resources, but we’ve got Paddy McKernan.”

PÁDRAIC McKernan, who died this week, was one of Ireland’s greatest diplomats and a genuine servant of his country. I had the honour and privilege of working alongside him in some very tough situations, and he was a man you could bet your house on. If Ireland’s interests were at stake, he would be dogged and tenacious until he got a result.

As a consequence, he played a genuinely significant part in the peace process through his ability to build critically important relations for Ireland right across the American administration and he contributed hugely to Ireland’s economic development because of the influence he developed for his country in the corridors of power in Brussels.

Everywhere he worked, he was admired and respected.

But he was also hugely liked. A man with a great sense of humour and fun, he could while away a long night of negotiating and waiting with stories and impersonations. Like a lot of public servants he worked in the background and anonymously.

Had he been a British ambassador – like the ones he used to run rings around – he would have died a Knight of the Realm. Instead, he leaves behind many fond memories of a truly great Irish gentleman.


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