It’s easy to be blasé about walking on red-hot coals until the moment comes when you’re standing barefoot just 2ft away from the burning embers and really feeling the heat.
As that heat hits my face hard in the cold, damp car park of the Talbot Hotel in Stillorgan, I start frantically trying to recall the upbeat motivational exhortations given by Brian Moore, the fire-walking trainer I'd only half been listening to over the course of the previous two hours.
There was some stuff about believing in myself and a lot of group shouting. Then the 60 people who signed up to do the fire-walk in aid of Debra Ireland pretended we had won the Lotto, and after that some members of the audience – made up of fellow fire-walkers – were brought to the front of the room to break solid-looking wooden boards like the Karate Kid.
That’s pretty much all I can remember from the evening. And much of its significance is lost on me. I do, however, have total recall of some facts gleaned from Google earlier in the day. Top of the pile is the fact that a bed of embers is hotter than 500 degrees .
I also know for sure that human flesh burns at considerably lower temperatures than 500 degrees. And I recall watching a YouTube clip of a presenter of the US TV programme Myth Busters burning his feet rather badly because he hadn't mentally prepared for his fire-walk (he had figured he wouldn't need to as physics would save him).
I also know that I have very delicate feet that can’t abide walking on gravel or hot sand, so burning logs don’t sound like they will be to their liking.
The queue ahead of me in the car park is mercifully long. But it moves mercilessly fast. Moore is in charge, and we line up behind his arm. As each new fire-walker comes up to the burning embers, he looks them in the eye and shouts “Are you ready?”
In turn they shout back “Yes”. He lifts his arm, and away they go across the hot coals. He has told us that he will know if we are lying and if he senses that we are not ready, he won’t lift his arm and we will not be allowed do the fire-walk.
Here goes nothing
My turn comes. “Are you ready?” he bellows. “Yes,” I lie. His arm lifts. Ireland’s only fire-walking trainer he may be, but a human lie detector he is not. Now I have no choice but to walk. I walk on to the hot coals. I steel myself for heat.
It doesn’t come. I feel absolutely nothing. I feel like I am walking casually, but I’m probably not. In seven steps it is over. I have covered the 3m of red-hot coals without incident. Part of me is disappointed. It’s not like I wanted to be badly burned or anything, but I would like to have felt something. I would like my delicate feet to at least acknowledge that they have just been through an ordeal.
But no, there is nothing. I stand into a plastic sheep-dip container filled with water; more because everyone else is doing it than anything else. Then I put my socks and shoes on and head home, where I immediately Google the science behind fire-walking.
The mind-over-matter thing espoused by Moore is interesting, but walking on coals ultimately comes down to physics, despite what happened to the man from Myth Busters. For a start, temperature isn't the only part of the equation that needs to be factored in. The relationship between thermal energy and temperature are the key to a safe hot-coal walk.
The digital oracle tells me that the reason my feet didn’t burn is simple. Different substances have different heat capacities. Our feet, which are made up mostly of water, have a higher heat capacity than the coals. This means “the same amount of energy flowing away from the coals will lower their temperature much more than that same energy flowing to the feet will raise the foot’s temperature”, according to boffins from UCLA.
If feet were kept in constant contact with coals, energy would keep flowing until both feet and coals reached the same temperature – which is really, really hot. But that equilibrium takes time. How much time depends on heat conductivity. Water is a good conductor. Ash is a bad one. So in the short term, my feet win. They cool down the coals they touch, and, by the time energy flows from hotter bits of the fire to the bits made cool by my feet, I’m on another bunch of coals.
The 60 or so fire-walkers who took the challenge weren’t really interested in the science and they didn’t do it just so they could say they walked on coals. They did it to raise money and offer their support to Debra Ireland, a charity dedicated to helping young people living with epidermolysis bullosa (EB), which is described as “the worst disease you’ve never heard of”.
The charity’s tie-in to fire-walking makes sense. The fire-walk lasted seconds, but for people living with EB, burning skin is a fact of daily life.
Children born with the disease have little or no collagen, so their skin blisters easily. There is no cure and the only treatment is painful bandaging of skin to prevent infection and further blistering. As much as 90 per cent of a patient’s body has to be wrapped in bandages, which have to be changed every two days or so.
Claudia Scanlon (11) was born with EB. She sat in a wheelchair watching as we walked on the coals. Sometimes she looked entertained and sometimes she looked worried for our welfare.
“Walking a few steps over hot coals is nothing compared to what Claudia goes through every day,” says her mother, Liz Collins. “Her feet are covered in painful blisters that have to be lanced and bandaged daily to prevent further blistering and infections. I don’t know how she manages to walk with her wounded feet but she does. She is a true warrior.”
An exhausting day
Emma Fogarty is 31 and has lived with the disease all her life. She too is in a wheelchair and is the patient ambassador for Debra Ireland.
“The fire-walk was something very special,” she says. “I had just come from an exhausting day of examination at St James’s Hospital, where my clinical team consists of 35 medical professionals, one for each part of my body. The only body part that doesn’t need attention is my brain. Basically wherever I have skin, my body is falling apart; that’s internal and external skin too, by the way. Some days it can feel hopeless, to be honest. Like yesterday: it was too hard, too painful, too darned exhausting.”
Cheryl Gunning, who organised the event, works with the charity and has been employed on a full-time basis thanks to Vodafone’s World of Difference programme, which supports social innovators by providing a full salary to work for a youth-focused charity of their choice for a year.
“This is a charity that needs all our help,” she says. “It is such an awful illness and it needs to get more attention.”
- October is EB awareness month, and it kicked off with this fire-walk. Regional fire-walks have taken place across the State ahead of EB Awareness Day, which is today. Text "Butterfly" to 50300 to donate €4