WHEN Joe Crowley's wife died suddenly in 2011 he found that walking the lonely, winding roads near his home helped him cope with the loss. It was his means of honouring her memory – she had loved cycling these very same byways – and also of numbing the pain. Three years later, the 62-year-old pharmacist will again pay tribute to their lives together, this time by walking 32 marathons in as many weeks. He describes it as part of the grieving process.
"Walking is great for the mind and great for the body," says Crowley. "It clears my head. I can solve my problems and, in my mind at least, solve all the problems of the world.
"My wife was a very active woman. She would cycle and I would walk. She died six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer."
There's a crack in his voice. He is, understandably, reluctant to delve further into his wife's illness and clearly would rather close the subject. And anyway, the walk isn't just about his personal loss. He has a wider message. As someone with medical training, he has been alarmed at what he believes to be a decline in health standards. We seldom walk anywhere nowadays. Maybe we should.
He sees far more obese kids compared to when he started working as a chemist in Killorglin in 1974. Ireland, he believes, has become a more cosseted, far less healthy, society. By walking the length of the country, Crowley hopes to remind people that this state of affairs is by no means a foregone conclusion and that change is possible. We can all lead healthier, more active lives. We just have to push a little harder. If a man in his 60s can stay in shape – what's stopping younger people?
"In the past families were bigger – you had to fight your corner more," he says. "Kids were more active. There was less transport. Cars were a luxury not a necessity. Everyone climbed trees, ran aro-und, got from A to B under their own steam. It has switched comp-letely. 'Health and safety' are the greatest excuses for doing nothing.
"Things are far more structured nowadays. Sport is structured, leisure is structured – kids are more and more inactive."
He came by the 32 marathon idea at a workshop by motivational speaker Gerry Duffy, who revealed he had run 32 marathons in 32 days. By the time he left the conference Crowley had vowed to do likewise. He'd been looking for a way of challenging himself – here was his answer. When he told his GP, the response was not quite as he might have imagined. Did he really think a 62 year old could put his body through that type of strain? He was advised, strongly, to reconsider his plan.
"He gave me this look," says Crowley. "Actually, a lot of people looked at me that way when I told them. I was told that I'd be stone mad to try 32 marathons in 32 days. So I settled for 32 in 32 weeks. As I have to work every second weekend at my pharmacist business I have decided to do two walks every fortnight. I think that is going to work out fine. I'm in good shape and love walking."
He's right when he points out that walk-ing is the perfect exercise, regard-less of age or lifestyle. Walking briskly for just 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of stroke by 27pc and lowers bad cholesterol. Getting out has also been shown to reduce susceptibility to type two diabetes, asthma and certain cancers. Plus, it gobbles up calories – a person of average weight can shed 75 calories by walking at a reasonable pace for just half an hour.
For older people, there are further benefits. Regular exercise lowers the risk of dementia, with some studies suggested it can reduce the chances by 40pc. It strengthens bones, tones the legs and, assuming you take your exercise in daylight, boosts vitamin D levels in the body. In fact, it's hard to see a downside. Given all that, it's no surprise that it is also shown to help fight depression.
As a younger man, Crowley played football for Laune Rangers and dabbled in rugby. He remains in good fettle and is training hard (he's just returned from a 17km walk). And it's not as if marathons are uncharted territory exactly. He has already walked two, in Connemara and Dublin. He can't wait to get stuck in.
Though he hasn't kicked a ball in anger in years, Crowley is still deeply involved in the GAA, serving on the organisation's Munster Council. There will be a strong GAA association with his walks, as each trek begins and ends at a football or hurling club (his first marathon on March 15 will commence at St Finbarr's club in Doughcloyne, Cork city). He wants to get GAA members involved and to help spread his message that exercise is for everyone.
Crowley will be raising funds for St Vincent de Paul and is at pains to point out that all expenses are coming from his own pocket. He won't be using donations to cover his 'administration' costs. Alongside these laudable aims, he has an additional motivation – to prove to the world that older people shouldn't be written off as past-it, with nothing to contribute.
"I'm in the third trimester of life," he says. "At this point, I think I need to maximise my time on earth. I've had operations in both my knees and ankles. That doesn't worry me. I'm in good shape. If we allowed ourselves to be bound by the possibility that something might happen, we'd never achieve everything. As far as I'm concerned, if you have a goal you should just go for it. That's what I am doing."
- Joe Crowley's 'Walk With Joe' campaign begins March 15 in Cork.svp.ie/fundraisers/walkwithjoe
Health & Living