If it came down to sorting out the odd socks accumulating for years in the chest of drawers or running 300 miles pulling your own sled in sub-zero temperatures across one of the remotest places in the world, most people would choose the painstaking chore of matching up their odd socks . . . right?
Not extreme adventure and Knocknacarra man Gavan Hennigan, who is currently one of 35 competitors taking on the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 mile race in temperatures of between -20 to -50 in the wilds of Canada.
He confesses he would rather do that – or run across a frozen lake in Siberia or row across the Atlantic Sea, both of which, by the way, he intends to do later this year – than embrace the mundane task of tackling his sock drawer. It’s on his list. Just not top of it.
Hennigan is a man who loves the feeling of being alive. However, it was not always so, as he told the 400 people who turned up to hear his remarkable story at the inaugural Tri Talking Sport evening run by founder and presenter Joanne Murphy at the Salthill Hotel last week.
A drug addict by the time he was 21 – living on the floor of a sparse London flat – Hennigan battled his way through “dark times” before finally coming back home to enter rehab and being the process of putting his life back together.
It wasn’t easy. Far from it. He tried to kill himself and ended up in the psychiatric ward in Galway. Added to this, Hennigan had to come to terms with his own sexuality – of being gay. “And I couldn’t deal with that,” he bravely told a captive audience.
With no Leaving Cert and unable to drive, he left for Australia to seek out a new beginning ten years ago and ended up becoming a deep sea diver, working on oil rigs in places as far flung as Russia and Africa.
His job would consist of spending up to 28 days at a time with three to nine other men in a pressurised container up to 200metres under the sea, carrying out heavy construction, fitting or wielding.
“The job really opened up the world to me,” Hennigan told the Tribune last week. “I worked all over the world, many different places, and it has been an amazing journey. It was great to have a chance at life again and to go from what I was facing – which, ultimately, was death from alcohol and drugs – to being able to travel and fill up nearly three passports.”
With oil prices dropping, due to oversupply, the work has presently dried up. In order to sate his hunger for the extreme though, Hennigan decided to dip into his savings. “The diving itself was almost like an adventure for me. I love that job.
“Now I just want to look elsewhere for things to challenge myself. That is where the idea of doing this ultra marathon and these other tough challenges came in. I want to test my mettle and my mental strength in these areas.
“Hopefully, while doing so, I can also inspire others to get out there. It doesn’t have to be an ultra marathon, it can be a 5km or 10km – just be out there and enjoying the world a bit more.”
Surely there are easier ways to do that than risking life and limb. “This is what happens when you don’t drink. You end up doing crazy things,” he laughs. “I am sure there are easier things but for me I have been always drawn to the wilderness and wild places around the world.”
Consequently, as you read this, the 34-year-old – who is also undertaking these events to raise money for a child he knows with cerebral palsy and who needs an operation – has departed Whitehorse, Yukon, with his sled and equipment in tow.
The non stop, self-sufficient race, founded in 2003, is billed as the toughest ultra marathon in the world where the temperatures can drop to -50 degrees plus wind chill.
“So, frostbite is very real out there,” continued the Galway man. “You have to wear a lot of layers of clothes, you cover up all your skin and you have to take on a lot of calories and really look after yourself.
“You also have to be hyper-aware of the conditions and yourself. It is a huge test not only physically but mentally. You have to stay in the race by looking after yourself. That is really important.
“I am flying completely solo out there but there will be checkpoints along the way and people helping me out. Ultimately though, it is up to me to carry all my equipment in my sled, which I will be dragging behind me, and to look after myself.”
Just to put it all in perspective, Hennigan’s extreme adventure begins less than a fortnight after the death of SAS veteran, Henry Worsley, as he attempted to complete the first solo crossing of Antarctica. The 55-year-old died 30 miles short of his goal.
With another adventure across Lake Baikal – the world’s largest freshwater lake – in southern Siberia scheduled for March and an attempt to row solo across the Atlantic Sea in the pipeline for later in the year, it would make you wonder if Hennigan, himself, has a death wish.
“People must be wondering if I do or not,” he grins. “You do have the rational fears of the boat capsizing or getting frostbite or whatever, but a lot of these things can be managed. So, for me, a lot of those are controllable.
“There is a lot of stuff however out of my control and I suppose it is just about taking the chance really. Of course, these things are not worth dying for but they are worth living for. It is completely worth living for to go out and try these things. I didn’t get clean from alcohol and drugs to live a mundane life. I wanted excitement and I wanted fun and this is where I find it.”
Yet Hennigan is also motivated by another factor. “I am raising a bit of money for a young lad called Johan Jacobsen and his family – his mother Breda is from Galway – and I am trying to raise the money to get him an operation. He has cerebral palsy, he is two years old, and he is unable to walk at the moment.
“So, that is a big motivator for me. I am quite lucky that I am able to get out there and do stuff like this. That is a big driving force to be able to help those guys out as well,” concludes the extreme adventurer.