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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 17 January, 2018
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After rowing the Atlantic with a broken back, an Irish adventurer is set to run 1700km in -30°C

Gavan Hennigan will take on one of the toughest, and coldest, races in the world.

Hennigan in training for his next adventure.
Hennigan in training for his next adventure.

“IT’S NOT ALWAYS necessary to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

- Primo Levi (Bear Meat) via Christopher McCandless and Jon Krakauer (Into The Wild).

When Galway’s Gavan Hennigan completed his 5,556-kilometre solo row across the Atlantic ocean in a time of 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes last February, he didn’t just break world records, he also broke his back.

That the 35-year-old was able to accomplish the feat despite his injury — indeed, he didn’t realise he had damaged his vertebrae until well after the race was over — is a testament to both his mental and physical strength.

For Hennigan’s is a story unlike many in Irish sport. The son of a father who abused alcohol, Hennigan was an alcoholic and drug addict himself as a teenager and, by the time he turned 18, he was living in a squat in Amsterdam and addicted to heroin.

The turning point should have come at 20, when he overdosed on MDMA and ended up in rehab. But, at 21 and free of drugs and alcohol, Hennigan began to struggle with his mental health and tried to take his own life as he struggled to come to terms with being gay.

These days, he sees the positives in what he went through.

I’m national ambassador for Jigsaw, a mental health charity based here in Galway,” he told The42 this week.

“It’s a role I love because the initiative we’re working on at the moment is to spread the message that ‘you’re never on your own’.

For me, when it comes to young people, it’s really important they realise that and, despite all the challenges I’ve undertaken where I’m physically on my own, I’ve always great support from home and I always tap into that. I’m fully aware of that paradox though and I always want young people to know there is support there and people to help them.

“In general, people will see any sort of mental struggles as a negative but I’ve found that there is strength in adversity. If you can get through something you become a stronger person. Whenever people are going through the complicated challenges of modern life, they might find it difficult, but I just want them to know that it can get better and I’m evidence of that.

“Not just from what I went through when I was younger either, but because of the challenges I set myself now. Every time I attempt one, I become more mentally resilient. And I always try to tell young people that, if you try to avoid pain or strive, it still might find you.”

As his broken back proves, setbacks are something Hennigan still has to overcome.

“After the row in February, I had this daft idea that I was going to ship the boat to New York and row back to Galway.

I had this notion that it was a great idea — and in theory it was a great idea — and I even went as far as shipping the boat up from Antigua to New York and was setting up to row back three months after the first row.

“Rowing the North Atlantic is a very different beast and there are a lot more things to take into consideration such as trade winds, weather windows, etc.

“But about a week before I went, I was still having this back pain that my physio couldn’t figure out. He sent me for an MRI and there was a stress fracture there so all my plans came to an abrupt halt. Obviously a back injury to do with the vertebrae is very serious so I took the decision to put it off.

“But it took a bit of time then to get over that.”

The Men That Don’t Fit In

As he rowed across the Atlantic, Hennigan’s boat was adorned with the opening stanza of Robert Service’s poem ‘The Men That Don’t Fit In’.

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

Hennigan doesn’t see his wanderlust as a curse, though, more a release.

In February 2016, he set the third fastest time in history as he raced nearly 500km in -30°C temperatures in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, widely billed as ‘the world’s toughest adventure race’.

To recover from that race, and before his training for The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Hennigan completed a 700km solo-walk across Lake Baikal in Siberia, the oldest and deepest lake in the world. He completed his ‘holiday’ in just 17 days.

But now Hennigan has set himself the toughest challenge of his adventuring career to date when, on 19 February 2018, he will take part in the historic foot race ‘Iditasport Impossible’ ultra marathon in Alaska.

Spanning over 1,700km, along the famous Iditarod dog-sled trail, the race begins in Anchorage, travels through the Alaska range and follows a section of the Yukon river, then skirting the coastline and frozen sea before finishing at the small outpost of Nome on the Bering Sea.

And just in case you were wondering why the race was called the Iditasport Impossible; to complete it Hennigan will have to cover a distance equivalent to two marathons a day while pulling a 25kg sled in temperatures as low as -30°C.

“The next logical thing would be to do something bigger and better and, in a way, this race isn’t that, it’s kind of a backwater race. It’s just very much this grass-roots event. The organisers, even when they launched the race this year, they slashed the price a few weeks later because they secured some volunteers which, to me, seems crazy as a business model, but that’s just how it works.

That word crazy is what I keep thinking about. For me, I look for things that seem impossible to do and this seemed like the next really tough thing to do.

“There aren’t many people who do undertake it to be honest because they vet you before you enter and you must have a proven experience in this kind of race. There are some years that go by and there might not be a single person who finishes because the weather conditions can be that bad.

“Last year was a really tough year because the trail was filled in with snow and, even in the best of conditions there are a lot of environmental challenges. I’m hoping for a relatively mild winter but we’ll see.”

Into The Wild

Hennigan is very familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless whose life and ultimate death in Alaska was chronicled in Into The Wild. Indeed, Jon Krakauer is his favourite author.

McCandless’s experience of one of the most desolate places on earth has not put him off, however.

Alaska for me is a place that just draws me in. There’s something about the vast wilderness that has always mesmerised me and just to be able to go up there with a chance to race across most of the state in the space of a month on foot is a dream come true.

“If you look at a map of Alaska you’ve got Anchorage in the southeast and there are a bunch of roads around there but, once you head sort of northwest of there, there are no roads at all and it’s all trail.

“There will be villages along the way and I will come across people as the dog-sled race will be on at the same time. I’d imagine it will be a bit similar to Siberia where I had people coming up to me either on a snowmobile or a dog-sled asking me ‘what the hell are you doing out here on foot?’ A lot of locals really can’t understand why you’d want to do something like this and the Russians were always trying to feed me vodka when I was there.

“And as regards solitude, you can’t really top spending 49 days rowing an ocean on your own. I think even the odd bit of human contact along the way will seem like a lot.”

Lapping The Planet

There is a 35-day cut-off point for the Iditasport Impossible but Hennigan has a prior engagement half the world away a month after the race begins, so his aim is to complete the trail in 25.

“The record, which I’m not going for, is 19 days which is a ridiculous pace and the guy who did that has done it a few times so he has a bit of an advantage there. I’ve actually got a wedding in Australia that I have to go to and, in order to be able to make my flight, my limit is 28 days.

One of my friends from Galway, he lives out there so I’m kind of doing a lap of the planet. Hopefully I’ll turn up in Byron Bay in one piece and without frostbite but it gives me a good motivation to get it finished in under 28 days. 25 days is about 70km a day which I think is very doable. When I did the Yukon Arctic Ultra before, I was covering 100km a day.

“As long as I plan my stops correctly, finding shelter in the worst of the conditions and dry my kit and things like that, I think I’ll finish it in time.”

Given his record to date, few would doubt him.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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