I recently, owing presumably to some sort of deep-rooted psychological ailment, decided to undertake one of those ‘adventure course challenges’ that have become popular in recent times. You know, the ones that try to horseshoe in a thinly veiled expletive as their title – ‘Tough Mudder’, ‘Ireland’s Toughest Mucker’, ‘A Shower of Cuff Tunts’. The one I did was ‘Hell and Back’, which is an adventure course designed by a former army ranger intended for maximum extremey extremednessness. To the max. They run the course in two separate locations – one on the Kilruddery Estate in County Wicklow and the other (the one I attended) in Temple House Estate, near Ballymoate in County Sligo. The one in Sligo is called ‘Hercules’ and it involves 12-24 Kilometres of running through drainage ditches, jumping through hurdles, being shot at with pellets, climbing over the corpses of less fortunate participants and finally stumbling your way through a barrage of electric wires which welcomes you to the finish line while someone in camouflage pants admonishes you for crying.

It’s easily one of the least and also one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. The challenges themselves aren’t that bad, however, the wading waist-deep through freezing manure-filled water which seemed to have been piped in directly from Satan’s septic tank was probably the least enjoyable aspect. Mostly because any external organ you own quickly becomes an internal one after about fifteen minutes of flailing desperately to the bank.  As one Hell-and-Backer behind me remarked ‘Jaysus, do you remember when we had willies lads?’ And don’t get me started on the nipple chaffing…

One of the great things about these types of activities is that you become bonded in pain with your fellow runners (both figuratively and literally speaking – the muck cakes you together). One of the people I met was Yvonne, a fitness instructor from Donegal who had recently returned from a two year stint in New Zealand. We decided to run together and the usual chat you have with someone who has returned from somewhere where the weather is better came about. “Do you miss New Zealand?” says I. “Oh the weather must be great down there? Oh the beaches? Oh you must miss it!? Oh Lord above why did you come home?! Why? Run! Quick!” I asked her in particular how she found business as a fitness instructor here in comparison to New Zealand which places a huge cultural emphasis on fitness and health. Bearing in mind that we have recently be named as the nation which will soon take the ominous mantle of ‘Most Obese in Europe’. I found her opinion a bit surprising when she said “booming… I’m busier here than I ever was in New Zealand”.

So are we in a weird liminal area between being a nation of morbidly obese couch-huggers or a sporty fitness-mad one? There does seem to be an unusual disconnect in Ireland between the two large cultures which still dominate Irish life; the pub and the GAA (it would be three but the Church’s influence would seem to have atrophied to little more than the odd comment on the radio).  You would imagine that a nation that invented the fasted field game in the world would all have waists like the shaft of a hurley and buns as curvaceous and rock-hard as a sliotar but on the other hand there is also the fact that we tend to watch the match down the pub.

We love sport; rugby both provincial and national, Gaelic football, hurling, camogie and of course the Irish soccer team are at least a source of tragic entertainment for the emotional pain they inflict at times, but yet we don’t seem to do the things our white-headed cousins in Europe like the French and the Dutch and the Norwegians do. We’re much less inclined to take the family for a cycling holiday than we are to just go for a week away and relax in the hotel. Maybe it’s our climate that’s taught us to shelter indoors and warm ourselves with food and drink, maybe it’s a form of post-colonial comfort eating, or maybe we just really, really like spice burgers and Guinness. Either way, Hell and Back was packed with all shapes and sizes so if we are getting fatter – at least we’re trying to run it off.