MANY people say sport and art don’t matter, they are not relevant, they are mere fripperies in that they don’t put food on the table nor a roof over your head but in so many indescribable ways, they are way more important than you might initially think.
They are a reason for getting out of bed in the morning, they are life reaffirming.
The two contrasting worlds of sport and art clashed but also coincided for me last weekend. I wanted to have the best of both worlds – as usual. I wanted to attend the wonderful festival that is Stendhal but I also wanted to continue my life long addition to SBR (that’s swim/bike/run if you are not a triathlete).
It had been a crazy week.
I was part of the Rotary team that visited HMP Magilligan where we saw the successful loading of nearly 300 finished repaired bikes leaving our shores for Gambia.
Unwanted bikes in this country, which would have been thrown into the landfill, were taken to Magilligan and restored and repaired by prisoners under the expert eye of Alan Simpson before being shipped off to West Africa where they are used by grateful school pupils to get to school on time and in better shape to learn. Y
oungsters over there really appreciated the importance of education.
I always remember our Rotary trip to South Africa where I saw pupils who emerged from a shack, walking to school in their pristine uniforms washing their hands and faces under a roadside tap. I also remember visiting a school in the Himalayas where young faces where wreathed in smiles when, to the outside world, they had very little to smile about.
My next trip was to the East Strand Portrush where I helped organise the Queen’s Baton Relay with my mate Conal Heatley who is the chief operating officer for the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council.
We kicked off at 9.30am where Mervyn Thompson was handed the honour of holding the Baton. He ran up the beach where we coordinated 200 park runners in 100 rows all clapping and cheering this good man who, week in week out, organises the Park Run come rain or shine (or in the case of Portrush, sometimes hurricanes and hailstones as well!)
The course is without doubt one of the nicest Park Runs in the world, it’s very simple, you run 2.5k up a majestic beach round a slight crescent shape to the far end – then back again.
I love seeing good athletes pounding down the beach on their way back, some without shoes, as I plot towards the half way point.
In the Baton Relay, Mervyn handed over to my six TTC teammates James, Kieran, Sabrina, Ricky, Tommy and Mark when James bravely volunteered to relay the Baton while holding it with one hand and steering his bike with the other, knowing that if he lost control, there would be lots of social media footage of the wrong kind!
Thankfully, James navigated the treacherous conditions safely before Ricky then tore off his helmet and shoes and plunged into the sea to fight his way beyond the waves to hand it over to the one and only Robin Ruddock, the pioneering Kayaker and founder of the CCAK Club.
At this stage, the 20 strong team of police, whose sole job it was to guard the Baton with their lives looked slightly anxious as the Baton inched itself through the surf towards Scotland!
Robin, however, was able to link up with a RNLI representative on a jet ski who then zoomed over to the big boat itself which had earlier left Portrush Harbour on a training exercise.
The baton was proudly held aloft at the front of the lifesaving vessel as it ploughed across the sea before handing it back to a guy and a girl on a double jet ski which then hammered onto the beach. Unfortunately, they went to the wrong bit of the beach and the media drone missed it so they had to do the last bit again!
If it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen etc.
Once the Baton was safely into the care and control of the security team, I was able to relax so I did the Park Run solo.
I was able to breath a huge sigh of relief.
The next day I was up at 6am to get to the Templemore Sports Complex in Derry for the Danny Quigley Try-a-Tri.
Danny is a hero who has recently been awarded the Freedom of the City thanks to his magnificent efforts in doing the Decaman (10 Iron races in 10 days i.e., a 2.4 miles swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon, every day!).
Just as importantly, however, Danny raised over £100k for mental health charities.
Danny’s idea was to do this colossal challenge in memory of his late father Colm who unfortunately lost his life due to mental health issues.
I knew Colm and I know he would be extremely proud of his son. I have done a few Iron distance races and the next day you are in absolute agony and your body is in bits.
The thought of walking downstairs fills you with horror as your legs rebel, your shoulders are aching, your entire body feels like it has been in a boxing match with Tyson Fury.
Danny had to cast aside any feelings of self-pity and have nine more Groundhog days where miraculously he just got better and better before crowning his achievements in front of a huge crowd of well-wishers, near the Craigavon bridge in his home city.
It was this shining example of overcoming adversity that was to inspire 61 wannabe triathletes who had never managed a race of this kind before. We had a kid with Down’s syndrome who proved that what is important is not what you can’t do but what you can do.
We had a guy in his 40’s who nearly drowned in a pool as a child but overcame his lifelong fear of deep water by learning to swim and completed 250m swim, talk about bringing the house down.
We had a bloke suffering from MS and a former alcoholic who gave up alcohol 6 years ago, proving that he was now as good as anybody when it came to getting a race started – and getting it finished.
Lots of emotion, lots of great stories form fold who had no idea what they could achieve. I went out on the bike after finishing my duties for 20 miles of rain and wind in Donegal.
Talking of Donegal, the previous day up in Sheephaven at Downings in Donegal 3 of TTC’s finest were taking part in a 70.3 (half ironman). Kieran Cooke, finisher of Ironman Barca, had a solid performance as did Jimmy Hislop, who is as fast as a greyhound, especially on the bike.
The third member of the triumphant triumvirate was Naomi Thorogood who has just joined us.
She has unbelievably gone from “zero to hero” in less than 6 months after taking her first tentative steps in the sport. Naomi’s sole aim this year was to be able to do a sprint race with a pool swim and yet, when one of her team mates offered her his place for Sheephaven, she stuck her courage to the mast and rode it all the way to this finish line.
To make matters even tougher it was stormy and cold and wet all day.
These three athletes showed that when push comes to shove and when proudly wearing TTC colours they were able to show amazing resilience. They say Triathlon doesn’t reveal character, it forges character.
Meantime on the other side of Ulster, I was at the City Hall in Belfast to do MC in the great banqueting hall for 300 VIPs where after an opening salvo, I introduced the Chair of the Commonwealth Games Council, Robert McVeigh, onto stage then the Lord Mayor of Belfast (this was the 3rd Mayor I had interviewed in 3 days) who talked proudly of her city.
We were able to bring the house down with some good news in that the appeal against the barring of the Northern Ireland Gymnasts was quietly rightly successful and Rhys, Eamon and Ewan and their coach Luke could all continue their preparations. When I interviewed the gymnasts, they had adopted a positive mindset. Once the ban had been announced, they kept training, kept believing, kept control of the controllables and they let the lawyers get on with the appeal!
It was my great joy to talk to the one and only Dame Mary Peters later in the evening.
This lady has not only won Commonwealth Games and Olympic Gold Medals she has been to 6 major games as an athlete, she inspired the formation of a tartan running track in the heart of her beloved Belfast, she founded a charity to support young athletes, she is Trustee of a hospice in Rochdale and is just a down to earth and lovely person. I first met her at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and I have bumped to her at all sorts of sporting occasions ever since.
Our finest every sporting ambassador will be spearheading our team at Birmingham for the 22nd Commonwealth Games at the end of July and as I have tickets for events for a week, maybe I will see her again over there too!
We ended the night with a huge round of applause for all of our athletes who are carrying out hopes and dreams when they pin their race number onto their Northern Ireland Team uniform.
Three gigs in three days had taken their toll and my training was a bit lacklustre but I had a really enjoyable bike ride up the Ringsend Road, which I normally loath as it’s so steep, over to Coleraine and then back on the main Coleraine Limavady Road. When I got to the top and the hard work was done, the heavens, which had been looking threatening all evening, just opened and dumped industrial quantities of water on a bloke on a bike who was now doing 38mph due to a strong easterly wind and terrified to touch his brakes! A drowned rat would have been drier than I was but there was something surprisingly enervating about the conditions that gave me a real feel-good factor.
Two days later, it was off to the cultural jamboree that is Stendhal (named after a Swedish philosopher who coined the condition which means an overexposure to art which can result in temporary paralysis!)
Limavady, as you know, has 3 natural crown jewels Benone Beach, Binevenagh Mountain, the Roe Valley Country Park and Stendhal is our manmade crown jewel.
Now in its 12th year, after an obvious enforced layoff due to Covid, last year was a soft opening before getting really stuck in full gas in 2022.
I just love the vibe of the whole place whether it’s the art gallery, the homemade crochet material on the trees, the lights that illuminate the night sky, the 10ft high wooden chair, the stalls full of wonderous works from local artisans, the face painting, the jugglers, the giants on stilts for the kids, the whole thing is just a marvellous example of what can happen when hard work and collective good will come together under the inspired leadership of 2 absolute heroes, John Cartwright and Ross Parkhill.
Some people think it’s just a music festival. That’s like saying Triathlon is just one sport. Stendhal, like Triathlon, has 3 elements – music, comedy and art.
One of the joys of the 3 days’ spectacular is seeing families in campervans or bravely staying in tents pulling four wheeled mini wagons with their small kids on board, everyone smiling and in good form. The fact that school had just broken up for summer several hours previously on the Thursday meant lots of families headed straight from the back gates of school to the front gates of Stendhal where the check in procedure and allocation of precious festival wristbands went very smoothly.
Day one highlight for me was Derry’s own Bronagh Gallagher (recently referred to as The Commitment in Derry Girls).
Bronagh’s soulful rendition of some of her classics warmed up the audience on a cool night.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bronagh’s mum (pure Derry) and Bronagh’s daughter (pure English!) but both of them were every proud of the one and only Bronagh.
I wanted to continue to train throughout the leg sapping endurance event that is Stendhal where there are 72 acres to roam over and a big hill when you want to move from the Karma Valley Stage (down in the valley as you would expect) up to the Stevie Martin Stage on the top level.
I regularly clocked up 12,000 muddy steps every day.
Friday also saw me in the pool clocking up a mile i.e., 64 lengths where I did 3x200 with James O’Hara who has an amazing engine.
If only James would take his bike out of his garden shed, he would be winning age group prizes in Triathlon!
Friday night practically saw me running up that hill (thanks Kate Bush) from the car park eager to start day 2 where the opening act was Ciaran Lavery (whose 5 featured songs on Spotify have garnered over 100 million plays).
Ciaran has an engaging way of getting the audience on board despite heavy rain which somehow didn’t dampen the spirits of the audience (as we all retreated under a huge purpose-built awning).
He reminds me of Damian Dempsey in that he wears his heart on his sleeve and gives you 100% but then it was a run down hill to see Simon and Oscar of Ocean Colour Scene, who had the crowd swaying along to some of their huge hits from the Indie scene of the 90s.
One more trek back up the hill took me to a DJ who was either mixing or scratching (I’m too old to know the difference) but he sure worked up the crowd.
It was impossible to see and hear everything of course.
So many people who say “did to hear or see such and such” but hey, if we let FOMO rule our lives, we would all be very depressed indeed about everything.
Control the controllables etc.
The next day, after 4 hours sleep, it was onto the Park Run organised every week by Heather McLaughlin and her hard-working team, I surprised myself with a good result which gave me 65% on the age and gender grading score.
I had the pleasure of running with Janet Patrick who regularly hits 73% and our “winner” (even though it is not a race) was the one and only Chris Denton, who regularly achieves over 80%.
The Park Run is like Stendhal, full of volunteers who are filled with passion and love and who put 100% into the project because they believe in it. The power to bring people together through art or sport in these divisive days should never be underestimated.
Park Runs have kept more people out of GP surgeries than the government would ever believe and Stendhal has done more for the collective pride of an entire community than can ever be calculated in bald facts or statistics.
Day 3- was… something else! Inside a few hours, I had witnessed a Gospel Choir, Opera, County, Soul, emerging acts from the BBC stage then the festival show stopper, Sister Sledge.
By the time night fell, we all sang along to “We Are Family”, and we all hugged our children tightly and we all felt we were better human beings as we had been touched by the magic that is Stendhal. The only downer was that we now had 362 more sleeps before we can all relive those alchemic moments where nuggets of gold are unearthed in the fields of Ballymully.
The next day as we were all recovering, two of my TTC teammates, Jason McKnight in Roth in Germany and Gaffer Moore in Bolton in the UK both completed their respective Ironman races. Jason had to put up with 31 degrees centigrade (with 40% DNFs), Gaffer had to put up with 3000m of climbing on the bike. They have worked hard for over a year; they have put themselves to hell and back.
A day of pain for a lifetime of pride.
Try telling Jason and Gaffer that sport doesn’t matter.
Do music and sport matter?
Ask that of the 10,000 fans of our very own Glastonbury or to the wonderful community of Park Runners or Ironman triathletes.
Sometimes intangibles such as art and sport are as important as the water we drink, the air that we breathe, the feelings that we have in our collective hearts.