I ain’t heavy and there’s nothing I can do about it

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 07:00

It may be entirely coincidental that we’ve been offered a free health screening in here, right around the same time as the paper started up a new Content Management System. But believe me, stress levels aren’t exactly normal, and it makes perfect sense we all got wired up for an ECG sooner rather than later.

My report came back this week, with no evidence of heart strain, the kidney and liver function all good too. Wonderful. “But you could do with putting on another stone or two,” the doctor told me, “and maybe start eating more red meat.”

Sounds about right, eh? I did mention this was my natural weight, always has been, no matter what I eat or drink (trying not to emphasise the drink). “That’s what they all say,” she replied, handing me my report and a four-week prescription for Kerrygold.

There are lots of ways of reaching your correct Body Mass Index, and running 100 miles a week isn’t one of them.

Unattainably thin
Look at Sonia O’Sullivan, or Catherina McKiernan, even John Treacy – all of whom appear as unattainably thin now as when competing, give or take a few pounds.

That’s not saying weight isn’t a heavy issue for some athletes, many of whom actually obsess about it – not always in a healthy way.

They’re not alone either. Cyclists, especially the climbers, often weigh the amount of food they eat, to ensure they don’t overdo it, and boxers have always gone to extreme lengths to “make” the weight, which can’t be good for the heart.

Still, there is a growing shift to the opposite end of the scales: most team players, even our own once scrawny footballer and hurler, have gone all burly, a cupboard full of protein powders to fuel it.

Rugby has officially abandoned man in favour of giants, and something tells me Premiership players don’t whip off their shirts after scoring a goal just to cool down.

Yet for some of us, bulking up is simply not an option, even if we wanted to: Frank Shorter, the man who won the 1972 Olympic marathon for the US, once told it straight, describing what he ate and drank that week in Munich.

“The German beer is great,” he recalled in The Frank Shorter Story , “and I really don’t mind getting half looped the night before the race”. Shorter then described his pre-race breakfast of “pancakes, cereal and breads, honey and syrup . . . as much as I could stand without getting sick”.

It’s hard to imagine too many jockeys doing that before today’s Grand National in Aintree – and for good reason.

No other sport demands such an unbearable lightness of being, because the challenge for the jockey is not just balancing strength and endurance with litheness and near emaciation, but also withstanding the perils that come with riding a four-legged animal over very large fences, or even along the flat.

I always remember Ger Hartmann telling me that of all the people he’s treated over the years at his Limerick clinic, no one matched the hardy torso of jockey Kieren Fallon, so much so Hartmann reckoned he could drive over him in his Audi Q7, and Fallon wouldn’t even bruise.

Donn McClean also had a fascinating interview a few months back with Joseph O’Brien, who although not yet 20, has no idea how long he’ll last in the jockey game, so strict is the law of the scales: “I’m almost 6ft,” said O’Brien, “and I can ride at 9st now comfortably, and that has been the case for a while. But I may grow more, who knows?”

Someone who knows all about this is Jim Hogan, given he’s actually straddled both distance running and the horses.

Indeed he started out as a jockey, riding out for the old Hogan racing dynasty in Limerick (no relation), before something inside questioned whether he had the “gift” – so he switched to distance running, and the rest is history.

The last time I saw Jim was two years ago, in his native Athlacca, 20 miles south of Limerick city, for the unveiling of a plaque to celebrate his European marathon gold medal, in 1966.

Slim-fitting
Jim was dressed in the same slim-fitting blazer and bell-bottom pants he wore to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (and embroidered with the Union Jack, in case anyone needs reminding that Hogan infamously switched allegiance the year after he competed for Ireland in Tokyo, in 1964).

But Jim had long left that controversy behind him, and in fact returned to his first love: not just riding, but breaking in horses, and in 2004, all 24 horses that left his small yard won races, and he rode a couple of charity races too, well into his 70s.

Jim turns 80 next month, although his health took a fall in recent months, and he’ll be watching events from Aintree this afternoon from a Limerick nursing home.

The doctors say he needs to put on some weight, something he’s probably been hearing all his life, but here’s wishing he recovers that natural strength very soon, gets back up on the old horse.