Just this weekend I had the opportunity to listen to a radio interview with Rob Heffernan, the World Champion, Olympic-medal-winning Irish race walker, and his wife Marian, an accomplished 400m runner. Their life together kind of blew my mind; raising their family, living their lives – all around the obsession that is Rob’s walking career. Marian is his chief coach, Rob is her chief athlete and they are dedicated to, passionate about, hooked on his next race, his next goal, his next event. Over the course of the interview, Rob was asked why he had chosen walking as his sport. Why, when you can run or jump or pole vault – why race walk? He said he tried it out and loved it and that was pretty much that. But isn’t it kind of obvious? He’s Irish for goodness sake! We’re a nation that loves to walk – it’s what we do! In fact – why we don’t have more medals for it, I have no clue.
When on holiday in a hot country, you’ll always spot the Irish out in the early morning pounding the beach before breakfast and the rising of the hot sun. When we go to big matches we park in fields outside the town specifically so that we can have the pleasure of walking to the pitch – meeting people outside various hotels on the way, chatting, swapping tickets. If you didn’t walk you’d be missing out! As youngsters we did tonnes of walking – sponsored school walks were a staple, my Dad and I would take long ambles just because we had the time back then and it was also the best possible excuse not to study (OK, the Leaving Cert starts in 19 days. I’ll just go for a walk, clear the head, and really get started then). Skip on a little in life and I stilI love to walk – I walk with good friends as we thrash out the problems of the week, the year, the universe (one good friend and I call this exercise “twalking”). Where I live it’s a great way to properly catch up with the neighbours – you’re not inclined to stop as you pass them in your car, but when you’re walking you can stop and have the nicest conversations – unexpected, pleasant encounters. Oh! And I was also proposed to on a walk – but that was a particularly exceptional walk…
I hope it’s not something that’s gradually being phased out. My father, in particular, (my mother was exceptionally cosmopolitan and had access to a ‘bus into town’) literally walked everywhere – not just to school, barefoot*, but to dances, to the cinema, to visit relatives – literally miles away. It was the way people lived back then. A walk was time to chat with your friends, have the craic, think, daydream – however you wanted to pass the time as you walked. But more and more we have less and less time. And, with all the gizmos and gadgets around, we may even be losing the ability to look up from our screens long enough to just walk.
A few years back a younger sister had started university in Cork. I called to see how the day had gone and she reported back that it had all been a bit harried. You see, some of her pals had gone shopping in town and between the jigs and the reels they were running so late they ended up rushing out to the college by taxi. Imagine that! I had walked through the gates some ten years before her, but back then you would either need to be a member of a royal family or bleeding-profusely-and-in-need-of-urgent-assistance-from-a-specific-medical-student to arrive at UCC in a taxi. The bus fare from town was often a stretch too far!
Recently on the main street of a country town my 24 year old sister and I were asked for directions to a shop. We were at one end of the main street and the shop in question was at the other end, so my sister kicked off her instructions with; “Get in your car and drive to the other end of the street”. I stayed quiet. After all the directions had been given I interjected that, really, it wasn’t that long a walk at all and should be no problem to stroll there. A silence descended. I was looked at as if I had just tumbled out of a flying saucer and fallen, splat, at their feet (on the wrong end of the main street). “But it’s the other end of the main street. It’s all the way down there”. The stranger pointed for effect. Hmmm.
But maybe these stories serve to expose modern life for what it is – time-starved, convenience-focussed, car-centric. I myself have the luxury of a car sitting outside my front door and truth be told, if I’m doing anything ‘constructive’ I end up using the car. Hands up. So this just leaves leisure time really (if I can describe myself as having any) – time for clearing out the cobwebs, cleaning out the mind, stretching out the limbs. And for that, I love to walk. I love the freedom of getting the smallies into the buggy and getting out. It’s free, it doesn’t take arranging, it’s there for everyone right outside the door – you just have to go do it.
We live right on the edge of the Burren National Park, an area which represents just 1% of the land-mass of Ireland while containing 75% of our country’s native species. It can look incredibly barren, but when you’re in it, it is overflowing-to-bursting-point with beauty and life. We turn left outside our gate, head in the direction of the village of Carran and, at any time of the year, it’s one of the most wonderful walks you’ll take. So take it I do, whenever I possibly can.
Recently, we took a walk on a December day and things fell into place. Both babies slept – at the same time – and along with just plain soaking in the loveliness of it all, I also got to take out my camera and take some snaps. I managed to walk further than I usually get with the two little ones, and the weather was just perfect – cold but bright and dry; great, healthy weather.
I’ve taken alot of walks so far in my lifetime and many along this road that runs in front of our house, so it probably won’t stand out for me in months to come. I’ll forget the detail of it and the joy I got from it when I was there, in the moment. But, right now, while it’s still fresh in my mind, I can remember that it truly was a great walk. A very simple pleasure on a very normal day.
*”Barefoot” may also be taken to mean “with shoes, but I say this to try to communicate to you how tough life was when I was young”