What was wrong was that I was fat
MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:I set myself a target of losing two stone, five pounds, writes MALACHI O'DOHERTY
WHEN MY wife suggested organising a party to celebrate my 60th birthday, I could see nothing worth celebrating. Unfit, overweight and recently diagnosed with diabetes, I wondered what there was to celebrate about getting older and inching closer to decrepitude and death?
I realised I had to take back control of my life by losing the weight and getting fit again. I decided to get back on my bike and set myself a mission to prove myself equal to the man I had been at 30 when I was a keen touring cyclist in the prime of my health.
Although I was in reasonably good health coming up to my 60th, I was overweight and had been having successive spells of discomfort around my stomach and digestion and heartburn. I had a sense that something was wrong, I just did not grasp the obvious – what was wrong was that I was fat.
After a weekend of very disruptive diarrhoea and vomiting caused by God knows what, I went to my GP. While I was there, I asked him to test me for diabetes so he did a glucose assimilation test and I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It was just a technical way of saying I was fat, I think.
When I got the diagnosis, I was advised to lose weight. I set myself a target of losing two stone, five pounds and getting to 10 stone by Christmas of 2010. I achieved that goal gradually by eating less and exercising.
Whereas I had been under the illusion that rising from a meal stuffed and bloated meant I had had a good feed, I started to eat less and appreciate a certain level of peckishness.
The body keeps asking for food way beyond the point where it’s had enough, so I trained myself to rise from the table with some measure of appetite still left.
If you’re losing weight in a gradual way, you tend to plateau at a certain point and it becomes harder to shift the pounds.
I wanted to break this plateau and a friend gave me a tip (which my doctor would probably not recommend) of how to do this through short bouts of very vigorous exercise before breakfast in the morning. I started to skip for five minutes before breakfast until I was breathless and sure enough, I broke the plateau.
I was also aware that I should be walking so I started a regular three- mile walk around the River Lagan. I reached my target goal of 10 stone through reduced consumption of food, occasional vigorous exercise and regular three-mile walks.
Losing the weight and getting fit was as hard as giving up smoking. It’s a similar category of discipline. But it was so rewarding. I felt wonderful and my body was more comfortable. I was fitter, nimbler and had much more energy.
When I lost the weight, people saw it in my face first because I had been disguising it with waistcoats and woolly jumpers. People who had not seen me in a year thought I was dying of cancer and not telling them.
I found the idea of turning 60 very disheartening. Men at that age sometimes get a sports car or a mistress, I took up cycling again.
My father was a racer and in my 30s, I had been a good touring cyclist. I had cycled around most of Ireland on camping holidays and I was surprised to find how quickly I got back to doing 40 and 50-mile cycles.
During the summer of 2011, I cycled around different parts of the country, north and south. Cycling is like life really, it has its ups and downs. You struggle to get up the hills and then there is the exhilaration of rolling down the other side feeling like you are going to take off.
I tend to be a solitary cyclist so getting back in the saddle has been mentally very positive for me as well as physically. It’s like a form of meditation.
Thoughts that would normally bother you when they come into your head don’t bother you as much because you are so focused on the road and your progress.
I have written six books – on topics such as religion in Ireland, politics and the Troubles in the North – and I’m always on the lookout for ideas for the next one.
The idea of writing a book on cycling seemed out of character with my previous books, but I realised that cycling has actually been a big part of my life and family history.
On My Own Two Wheels turned out to be a nice way of reflecting on health, ageing and mortality in the context of a discussion of life on a bicycle in modern Ireland. I rediscovered the different roles the bicycle has played at each stage of my life – from the exhilaration of riding on the handlebars down steep hills as a boy to a way of getting to work, from a neglected obstacle propped against the garage wall to a means of “tootling” on a Sunday afternoon.
So was it fun being back in the saddle? Was it worth being overtaken by much younger and fitter cyclists, being laughed at by the young (who perhaps think men with beards shouldn’t ride bikes), feeling exhausted after only a few miles and facing up to the reality that the man I once was no longer existed?
At times, it was agony but what remained strongest at the end of the year was the fun of it and the freedom.
Not all of one’s destiny is manageable through diet and exercise but when you’re out on your bike, you’re enjoying yourself in the moment and not thinking about how long it lasts.
Malachi O’Doherty’s book, On My Own Two Wheels, Back in the Saddle at 60, is published by Blackstaff Press.
In conversation with Michelle McDonagh