Running for mayor
THE MAYOR of Kilkenny Seán Ó hArgáin is unusual in many ways. As if the fact that the Cats made this man from The Kingdom their mayor wasn’t odd enough, he also went from being overweight to running a marathon in just 10 months. Kilkenny’s mayor doesn’t do things by halves.
Five years ago, approaching the age of 40, the primary school principal says lack of exercise and an expanding waistline finally started to get him down.
Playing football with his native Waterville from childhood to his early 30s, he hadn’t always been so unfit.
“I played football, although it was atrocious football, for most of my life. I was never particularly a first team player, but I would have continued to play and train with the lads until I was in my 30s.”
But by the time he, his wife and two children moved to Kilkenny in 2002, he says sport had gone out the window. “We had a busy house, both of us were working full-time and I suppose I just fell out of the habit of regular exercise.”
The build-up to change was slow. “From the time I’d stopped playing football, I’d put on the guts of two stone. It was always niggling at me and I suppose I was getting more and more conscious of it.”
He says it was canvassing a member of the Kilkenny City Harriers during the 2007 general election that got him back on track. When she challenged him to take part in the local Smithwicks Road Race Series, five races starting at two miles and building up to six, it was just the push he needed.
Completing the series in May, he followed it up with a 10-mile race in August, a half-marathon in September before completing the Dublin City Marathon in October in five hours 10 minutes.
“I was fairly throwing myself in at the deep end alright,” he admits.
Despite the running however, from 2007 to 2011, Ó hArgáin says his weight remained static. He says it was no mystery why.
“We’ve got five of the best chippers in the country in Kilkenny. You’d find me in the queue of a chipper in my running gear, having done a run, feeling I deserved a snack box.”
Standing on the scales in January 2011 was a reality check. “I’m 5ft 4 on a good day and I was half a pound off 13 stone, I said right, this just isn’t good enough.”
Joining a local men-only Weight Watchers class, Ó hArgáin dropped a stone and a half in six months. Catching the diet bug, he even started to bake his own high fibre bread. With the support of the 23 teachers at his school, staff room biscuits were replaced with a twice-weekly delivery of fruit.
Completing a local marathon in June of that year, his time dropped to four hours and 30 minutes. “A lot of that was me carrying a stone and a half less. I found the training much easier and much more satisfying.”
Neither have his pupils at Gaelscoil Osraí been spared his zeal. Working with a different class each year, he takes them out to run five minutes the first day before building up the distance. The emphasis isn’t on winning but finishing.
“We went from a number not being able to run for five minutes the first day to everybody being able to run 20 minutes on the last.
“I think rather than demand a huge amount of extra resources for PE or extra equipment, the emphasis should be on doing simple stuff. Getting them out and getting them running . . . and I think it’s important the teacher puts on his or her tracksuit and does it with them.”
On the night of his election as Mayor in June this year, Ó hArgáin invited the people of Kilkenny to join him on a walk – every Saturday for the rest of his term of office.
“We’ve done a walk every single Saturday since,” he says, with his council colleagues leading it when he’s unavailable.
Routes he has guided so far include a walking tour of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and a pre-All Ireland four-mile walk between Kilkenny City’s three hurling clubs with walkers invited to wear their club’s jersey.
Ó hArgáin has become a cycling fanatic too and with 48km of cycle lanes in the city, he cuts 20 minutes off his car commute by pedalling to school. He goes to functions by bike too, the mayoral chain stored in his backpack.
Now with several marathons and triathlons under his belt, he’s enjoying the fruits of his transformation.
“The single best piece of satisfaction is when you drop a shirt size, for me it was going from 34 to 32 in a pair of jeans and being able to wear a pair of Levis 501s for the first time in 20 years.”
When it comes to exercise however, he feels many men his age are missing a trick.
“When our wives and partners have children, they’re out pushing the buggy and exercising with the girls two or three nights a week whereas the lads are at home, as I was, pretending to be minding the children but in reality sitting on my backside watching the premiership.”
Driving on Kilkenny’s ring road last week, he says he counted 38 women walking but just two men.
“I’d say we have to cop ourselves on and get out and do it. Get over the embarrassment of putting on a pair of shorts . . . the people who will slag you off will be the very ones giving you compliments in three months’ time.”
KILKENNY HEALTHY TOWN EVENTS CALENDER:
Today: Cookery demonstration by Garrett Byrne, head chef, Campagne Restaurant, and John Hoyne, Fishman’s Market at Langton’s Hotel, at 7pm.
Thursday & Friday: Advice from nutritionists while you shop in SuperValu, Loughboy.
Saturday: Irish Heart Foundation’s Big Heart Walk and the Mayor’s Walk at 11am on the Parade.
Monday October 1st to Sunday 7th: The focus is on healthy ageing to tie in with Positive Ageing Week and to celebrate the fact that 2012 has been designated Year of Active Ageing by the EU. For a full schedule of free events and talks log on to irishtimes.com/healthytowns.
October 2nd: Dr Tadgh Crowley, GP and Kilkenny Hurling team doctor, will give a talk on Planning for Healthy Ageing at 7pm in Langton’s Hotel.
For more details, see irishtimes.com/healthytowns