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Dublin: 18 °C Saturday 8 August, 2020

Opinion: Extreme adventure races are fun, challenging, AND they helped me quit smoking

The knock-on effect of pushing myself physically has been immeasurable – on top of getting fitter, it’s also motivated me to say goodbye to cigarettes.

Nicholas Fitzgerald

YOU MIGHT HAVE noticed all the coverage that adventure races are getting lately. The idea of slogging through anywhere from eight to 12 kilometres of dirt with the odd ice or mud bath dotted along the way may seem like lunacy, or even idiocy. Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why not just stay home?

Short answer: fun.

Lacing up the trainers and taking yet another trot around the park can get monotonous. Having to go through a set of different physically challenging tasks while running a long distance is certainly not a day-to-day activity – and that’s the point. The element of “what’s next?” can be a driving force for a runner to push themselves. People who train on a regular basis will find new ways to motivate themselves, but the motivational effect of someone shooting pellets at you is unique.

My extra motivation 

Personally, I have an extra motivation for pushing myself physically. I used to smoke. I started at 16, kept going through my Leaving Certificate, and by the time I got to college I was chain-smoking three at a time. My feeble attempts at soccer were short-lived, token gestures to the god of active lifestyles. Cigarettes and reading suited me, and this became a bit too clear when I ran my first adventure race – a “Hell and Back: Apollo” in 2011. I liked the idea of doing something new, so when friend one suggested a team of us give it a go, I said ‘why not?’ No bother. The smoking wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just stop in the months leading up to it. No bother at all.

I smoked three times on the drive up alone. Not one bother on me. Friends two and three were a football enthusiast and a computer-head, who also happened to smoke. With me, we were four. I thought I’d at least stay ahead of the techie.

I didn’t catch my breath until well after the finish line

I did not. For the first two, maybe two-and-a-half kilometres I was grand. Comfortable, even. Then my lungs shrivelled and I got the taste of lead in the back of my throat. The other three would run on ahead, and wait. I would plod, huff, puff, catch up with a grateful nod, and the process would start again. For almost the whole race, I huffed and puffed and didn’t catch my breath until well after the finish line and a good sit.

So, why do one of these torture races? They’re actually not that bad. They are genuinely heaps of fun. I hated the longer stretches of uninterrupted running, but every obstacle was a welcome break from my own inadequacy. The lads waited for me at most obstacles, or even slowed their pace right down so I could run alongside. (Now that I think about it, they were probably glad for an excuse to take it easy, but I didn’t miss out on the camraderie of having my legs shot at by snipers, wading across a river or dragging myself through chest-high mud.)

The second I finished, I wanted to give up smoking. Which I did – eventually. Running short street races helped me to build up my confidence and experience and, funnily enough, get fitter. I had visions of my next race: I had run plenty, I would not embarrass myself again. The grateful nod would come from someone else. Then I injured my knee. The temptation to smoke was massive, but I kept strong by having a goal in mind: getting  through that course again.

Finding another purpose for my lungs

The best way for me to stay a non-smoker has been finding another purpose for my lungs. If I want to do something with them tomorrow, I definitely won’t smoke today. This led me not only to fitness challenges, but to yoga – the heated, sweating-buckets, dehydration panic attacks kind of yoga. The form is different, but the spirit is the same.

On nights when the air is crisp, I’m mad for a smoke. But then, I think about my next back bend and the heaps of regret that would follow it if I had smoked before it. Yoga has the benefits of being strenuous, strengthening, and panic-inducing. All good practise for an adventure race.

So, why would anyone bother with an adventure race? You don’t have to do them that often. They’re a once-a-year thing. That, and if you get even mildly embarrassed at how you performed it might inspire you to quit smoking, start training, and motivate you in a serious way. It might even make you take up yoga.

Nicholas Fitzgerald is a screenwriter, actor, and slam poet. You can find his writing in Doire Press Poetry Anthology Three, and he recently co- wrote a script for a short film that won OFFLINE film festival in Offaly. The film will be screened in Galway Film Fleadh next year. He tweets, too: @ItsNickFitz. Say hi.

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Nicholas Fitzgerald

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