Local heroes Ryan and Hahessy go the extra mile
By John Harrington
Peter Ryan’s body feels “pure broken” right now, but his soul is nourished.
No stranger to adversity, the Paralympic cyclist and former Tipperary minor hurler has just overcome another colossal life challenge.
Along with fellow Tipperary man Seán Hahessy, Ryan is one half of the first ever tandem pairing to finish the Race Around Ireland.
They completed the 2157 kilometre route over some of the toughest terrain in the country in 122 hours and 33 minutes, and on less than ten hours sleep.
It’s difficult to imagine the physical and mental hardship that entailed, but if you’re already familiar with Ryan’s story then his latest achievement won’t surprise you.
Less than two years after he'd hurled with the Tipperary minors, the young Upperchurch-Drombane man’s world came crashing down around him when he was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a genetically inherited form of vision loss.
In a frighteningly short space of time, the 19-year-old was left legally blind with less than 10% vision.
Not surprisingly, he struggled to cope with his new harsh circumstances.
He relied on the twin crutches of denial and alcohol for a couple of years before he eventually resolved to deal with the challenge head on and better his circumstances.
Sport had largely defined him in his teenage years, and would once again give his life real purpose.
After impressing with his testing score on a watt bike at UCD for a Paralympics open day in 2012, he was placed on a fast-track programme and just six months later was a national tandem cycling champion.
Since then he has gone from strength to strength in his new sporting sphere. He competed in the Rio Paralympics in 2016 and is currently on track to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
When he and Sean first discussed the idea of competing in the Race Around Ireland this year, they did so with the innocence of men who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.
“Initially it started as an end of season challenge for myself and Sean,” Ryan told GAA.ie “The season has just finished. We're just back from the World Championships in early August in Italy.
“Way back in January we were sitting down over a coffee and plotting out the year and we thought it would be a cool team-building thing.
“So we entered the race and it was all very blase, yeah, grand, 2,200 kilometres. We were just saying it like it was a thing of nothing.
“I met the race organiser and he started telling me a few war stories from the race and he realigned my thinking pretty quick. It dawned on me then that this isn't an ordinary race. I realised I was missing a trick just doing it for ourselves.”
Ryan wanted to help local causes, and the struggles of two Mid-Tipperary families, the Dorans and Gleesons, seemed especially worthy.
James Doran and his partner Nicola Skeehan had already lost their son Sean at the age of five to cancer when, two years later in 2017, their then ten-week old baby son Mikey was also diagnosed with cancer. Since then he has gone through chemotherapy and recently underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Catherine and John Gleeson were awarded the National Irish Red Cross Carers of the Year award in 2017 for the huge work they undertake in providing 24/7 care for their daughter Helen and son Sean.
Helen is learning to walk again after undergoing surgery to remove a large tumour on her spinal cord, while Sean has a medical condition called Doose Syndrome which means he suffers from epileptic fits several times daily.
When Ryan weighed up what he could possibly do for both families, he aimed high by setting a target of raising €50,000 in sponsorship for completing the Race Around Ireland Cycle.
“I cycle a bike all year around and I've done an amount of cool things on a bike and I just felt if we did it for nothing it would just go in the basket of cool things we did on the bike, but, what's it for?”, said Ryan.
“I was going through a bit of a thing in April because a friend of mine, Rachel Kenneally, the Tipperary footballer, died at the end of March. I was questioning everything because we would have been very pally.
“I suppose I was doing a lot of thinking around the time anyway, and I just felt that some bit of good should come out of the race.
“I was at a talk about the difference between success and significance, and I just felt I should do this for something worthwhile.
“We knew both of the families and I wanted it to be for something tangible where you could see some of the benefits of it.”
Ryan and Hahessy are obviously two very fit men and accomplished cyclists, but the reality is that they were ill-prepared for a test as monumental as the Race Around Ireland.
A month ago they finished seventh in the Men’s Tandem Time Trial at the UCI 2018 Para-cycling Road World Championships in Italy, but that was over a 27.2 kilometre course.
They were effectively going from being sprint specialists to taking on an ultra-distance event with very little specific training for it. Not surprisingly, they soon found out their minds and bodies were going to be tested like never before.
“It wasn't even good day, bad day,” said Ryan. “You'd could have a good hour followed by a bad hour. It's more of a mental race than anything.
“Towards the end of Day 1 we hit Donegal and there was a lot of wind.
“And you're so early in that you start questioning things towards the end of Day 1 because you're thinking, 'Oh dear God, if it's this hard now...'
“We took in every climb that the country had to offer and it's never been finished on a tandem and that's one of the reasons, because they're not good on hills.
“My worst experience of the whole race came on the second night. Both my knees were fairly shot after the first 600k and I was in pain cycling away and biting my lip.
“Everything was sore and it was raining. All I wanted to do was quit on the second night, that was the worst night I put down of the whole race.
“I got to a place where I actually wanted Sean to crash. That's how demented I was gone.
"I was thinking, '‘If he crashes, then we can pull out and I didn't quit!’
“It was just pure tiredness and the finish line seemed so far away when we only had 600km done.
“Once I got through that night I felt I could get through anything.”
Cycling a 2157 kilometre route with 22,000 metres of climbing would be tough enough if you did it at your leisure, but the Race Around Ireland comes with a time-cap of 132 hours.
That meant Peter and Sean had to spend 20 of every 24 hours on the bike. The four hours of ‘rest’ were split between two 15-minute breaks, one 30 minute break, and then a three hour break where they had to work in food, physio, and all the sleep they could get.
Not surprisingly, the lack of sleep was the biggest challenge of the whole race.
“I actually fell asleep once getting physio on my neck and on different occasions I started nodding off on the bike,” said Ryan.
“Sean did it another day when we were descending into Clonakilty. The same as someone might fall asleep behind the wheel of a car, for two or three seconds.
“He had to get off the bike and he was as white as a sheet. He just gave himself an awful fright.
“You think something like that isn't possible when you're exercising, but you become so automated you're not actually racing the bike aggressively, you're just in this slow pace to keep it going.”
The race was more than just a two-man effort, the 10-person support crew who followed Peter and Sean around the route played a hugely important role too.
There was little or no sleep for them either as they did their best to ensure Peter and Sean were safe on the road, looked after all of their food and physio needs, and raised the duo’s spirits whenever they flagged.
“You wouldn't do it without the crew,” said Ryan. “Aside from logistically, they were hugely important from the mental side of things.
“We came into it and we were fundraising and had all of these great reasons to finish the race.
“But you kind of end up shelving all of that and it just becomes this insular thing, it's just you and your little family that are waiting for you back in the camper van.
“The camper van became the safest place in the world for us. You'd nearly be crying coming back to it. We'd cycle for 120k blocks and we'd come back to the van for a bit of food.
“Whether it was a good or a bad 120k, they were all there to support you, to hug you, to feed you. For the last two days I wasn't able to put on my own socks and shoes, that's how crippled I was gone.
“Everyone went far beyond what was expected of them and they became our reason to keep going then when we were out on the road, just so we could come back to them for the support and the high-fives.
“It's a really hard thing to describe what went on in that week.”
Perhaps the most unexpected thing Ryan experienced on the journey was a reconnection with his former sporting life as a hurler.
His support crew was staffed by some of his best friends, many of whom he had hurled alongside all the way up through the ranks with Upperchurch-Drombane from juvenile level.
Being part of a team with them once again fired all sorts of neurons in his brain that had been long-dormant, and packed an emotional punch that left him in tears more than once.
“I suppose I always knew how much I missed being with the likes of Colm Ryan, Matt Ryan and Eamon Fogarty in a dressing-room, but I really came to that realisation during the race.
“That was probably the cause of my tears going around. I got something back that I thought was gone, and, yet, it was a new version of it.
“Neither of us expected that to happen. They never expected to have that sort of connection with me again and I never expected to either.
“It was something that I thought was gone, so it was fairly emotional to get it back in that way.”
He might be no longer able to play the sport he loves, hurling, but there were all sorts of other reminders as he undertook this cycle that his roots in Gaelic Games still hold fast.
“Completely. I'll never get away from it. If anything I'm in this luxury place where I'm taking all of the best stuff from the GAA," said Ryan.
“The friends that I made from when I was 5 all rallied around. And even on the fund-raising committee, the likes of Aidan McGrath contacted me because he wanted to help out.
“He's someone that I was battling against on the hurling field since I was seven. It was all of these connections.
“Then you had all of these well-wishing videos going up on Facebook while we were doing the cycle from the likes of Henry Shefflin and Michael Quinlivan. They were all only a phone-call away and were very willing to help.
“The community spirit that was around the whole thing is the essence of the GAA, really.”
As Ryan and Hahessy cycled around the country their support crew published constant updates and videos that put the scale of the challenge they were facing into stark relief.
With the public’s imagination now captive, the donations flowed in. By the time the Tipperary tandem crossed the finish line in Trim, County Meath, they had smashed their fund-raising target.
An incredible €80,000 has now been raised for the Doran and Gleeson families, who have understandably been blown away both by the efforts of Ryan and Hahessy and the generosity of everyone who has gotten behind them.
“They're touched by it,” said Ryan. “It's Mid-Tipp and everyone knows everyone, but we're not family friends or anything like that.
“I think it's just the idea that people care. That's the one thing that came to light throughout this whole thing. People want to help.
“I think the families might have thought, 'What's this all about?’, they were overwhelmed by the whole thing. We got very invested as soon as we met the families.
“At the finish line, both families were up there, and it was a rare experience.”
His spirits are high, but the race has taken a toll physically on Ryan.
He was on crutches for most of the week, and may yet need a second scan to rule out a suspected stress-fracture caused by five days of constant pedalling.
Once their bodies have recovered, he and Hahessy will get back on their saddles again as they continue their bid to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
They’re more than half-way there in terms of the qualification points they need, but securing sponsors to help them commit themselves even more the cause will also be a priority in 2019.
The Race Around Ireland eventually became much more than the team building exercise they first conceived it might be.
But having come though the challenge of their lives together, Ryan believes the experience will make them an even stronger partnership as they reset their goals for the New Year.
“I think it's sort of like that muscle effect,” he said.
“You break it and you come back stronger. We spent very hour together for five and a half days and in time we’ll see the benefit of sharing the experience.
“Watch this space, next season you’ll see an even stronger bond. The hugs are real, you can’t fake that.”