Walking a Half Marathon For Charity

As some of you may know, I have been walking an average of 5km per day for almost 2.5 years (sharing my reflections from 2022 and 2023 as I go), where I revel at the splendour of the scenery that often greets me (while admitting it doesn’t look like this every day).

I am now attempting to quadruple this distance in a single day by walking a Half Marathon on Sunday, 23 June 2024 (as part of the Waterford Viking Marathon event). I’ve actually had a long-running life goal (pardon the pun) to complete a marathon, so maybe this is the start of achieving that goal at some future point.

Linked to this, I am hoping to raise some money for the Children’s Health Foundation in Crumlin, Ireland (formerly known as the Children’s Medical Research Foundation, part of Crumlin Children’s Hospital). All funds raised here will go directly to this great cause and those who know me will understand why this charity is close to my heart, and that of my extended family.

If you’d like to donate, you can do so via my iDonate page, and I’ll be humbled and grateful in equal measures. You are welcome to share this link for others to consider also.

Many thanks in advance for your support!

Walk On: Another 365 Days of Walking

Summary

I’m pleased to report that I’ve completed another 365 days of walking in 2023, covering a grand total of 1,766km, which is the equivalent of walking to the northern coast of Iceland or as far as Gibraltar near Spain, or to Bratislava in Slovakia or to Stockholm in Sweden.

In total, I spent 291 hours walking the equivalent of 42 marathons (one every 8.5 days or so), which equates to an average of 4.84km per day, or 34km per week, or 147km per month.

This was a continuation of a journey that began in 2022 (see You’ll Never Walk Alone: Reflections of 365 Days of Walking) but with a slightly different (but no less satisfying or motivating) format which I’ve detailed below. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed walking it!

New Year, New Goal

Having walked 5km every single day of 2022, I began 2023 with an open mind about doing the same again. However, due to a combination of bad weather, unfortunate timing and family logistics, I finally broke my streak on 14 January 2023 – a streak that had lasted a whopping 378 days!

While I secretly knew this would eventually happen (walking 5km every single day is ultimately not sustainable because it can mean walking in very wet weather just for the sake of saying you took a walk, which was sometimes demoralising rather than motivating), I was still pretty devastated when it did happen. I took a complete break for several days to mull things over.

With the help of a long-time work colleague (Craig Brookes), who is an avid cyclist and who I’d been sharing my walking escapades with, I managed to find a way to accept and recover from the disappointment of breaking my streak.

Craig astutely pointed out that what I actually achieved in 2022 was to meet a goal that I’d set for myself (where the goal was to “walk 5km every single day”). Craig’s advice was to pick a different goal – one that was equally challenging (and healthy) but which did not bind me to walking every single day – and set about meeting that one instead.

That’s exactly what I did and I duly set a new goal to walk 1,500km over the year which worked out at 125km per month, or around 29km per week.

Activity Tracking

Another recommendation from Craig Brookes was to use the Strava app to track progress toward my goal. While I could have chosen any number of other activity tracking solutions, I took Craig’s recommendation in good faith and it did not let me down.

It added minimal overhead to my walks (where I merely needed to start and stop the app at the beginning and end of each walk), tracked both the distances and durations, along with the shoes worn and allowed me to enter a brief description of each walk which I decided to do also.

All of this functionality was available on the free edition, too, which was a welcome bonus.

Equipment

In my view, walking requires little or no investment in specialist equipment. My essentials are:

  • Shoes: Any decent walking shoes will suffice but I chose Nike Pegasus 40 because they give me the option to try jogging from time to time as well (trust me: you do not want to try jogging in walking shoes, as you’ll learn shortly).
  • Earphones: I use Samsung Galaxy Buds and they’ve been brilliant – really comfortable with no protruding parts, terrific sound and really excellent battery life (one week, easily).
  • Spotify (or equivalent): Any source of music or podcasts will suffice, but I personally could not walk without listening to something as I’d get bored too quickly.
  • Weather Tracker: Doing anything outdoors in Ireland requires careful planning around the weather. I used the RTE Weather service to plan the optimum time (day or night) to avoid the wind and rain, and after two years of using it, I’m very, very confident in its accuracy.

Apart from this, a decent jacket and hat during winter and some breathable t-shirts and shorts during summer should set you up for success.

Diet

I didn’t really (have to) make any wholesale changes to my diet because of my walking routine, but I definitely noticed the impact (or not) of different kinds of food and the impact of my meal times. 

For example, if I went for a walk shortly before lunchtime (having not eaten a lunch), I’d definitely feel the effects of that half-way around, and would struggle a little on the way home. In terms of foods I felt gave more energy, pasta and porridge were top of the list, that I recall.

Taking a drink afterwards is super important too, I learned, as you can easily become dehydrated in the hours and days that follow, which can cause other side effects.

My first sports injury

Some time in late autumn, as the very hot weather had abated and I was really enjoying the levels of fitness I was feeling, I became curious about what it might take to try some jogging (as a natural evolution of walking).

I knew that doing so in tiny bursts (e.g. walk for 400m, jog for 100m) was the right way to start, but I overlooked two very important other factors:

  1. You cannot jog in walking shoes – they’re simply not designed to absorb the levels of shock involved in jogging.
  2. As a beginner, your jogging stride needs to land on the balls of your feet, not your heels.

I paid a very heavy price for overlooking these and was out of action for 9 days, needing a doctor’s visit followed by physiotherapy to recover fully. You live and you learn, right?

The Weather

Like in 2022, the weather was an important factor in my 2023 journey. As above, I relied heavily on the RTE Weather service to plan the best times for a dry walk, or to accept that I would not be able to walk at all. I also think that 2023 was a much wetter year than 2022, because I missed around 20 walks due to rain in 2023, whereas I seem to recall walking in heavy rain just 5 times in 2022.

That being said, the majority of other kinds of weather, which included sunshine, warmth, starry nights, full moons, crisp cold, high and low tides, provided no shortage of unique moments to remember fondly, for all sorts of different reasons.

Wellbeing

I’m very happy to say that I’ve continued to develop and discover my own flavour of wellbeing as a result of walking regularly. It remains rooted in knowing that doing so is ultimately good for me, but also extends to a sense of accomplishment (for having met the goals I set for myself) as well as numerous emotions that evoke senses of happiness, sadness, reflectiveness and gratitude about a wide range of topics.

In many ways, I feel that my walks have turned into a form of “me time”, which I happen to spend while taking some exercise in parallel. The time is mostly spent listening to podcasts or music, but is sometimes spent getting lost in your own thoughts (about life and/or people past and present), all of which ultimately feels good for the soul and leaves you feeling quite energised.

Entertainment

I definitely listened to more podcasts than music in 2023.

Musically, I circled around some of the back catalogues of Van Halen, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Smiths, and even some ABBA (their songs actually have nice, regular beats well suited to walking) and Harry Styles, while rediscovering the genius that is John Willams (several times), plus numerous classical offerings which I find quite relaxing and uplifting.

In terms of podcasts in 2023, these ones are now my regulars (in order of frequency/popularity):

  • The 2 Johnnies – probably still my favourite
  • The Rest is Football (with Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Micah Richards)
  • RTE Documentary on One
  • The Gary Neville Podcast
  • Sky Sports Football
  • Sky Sports F1
  • Crime World (by Sunday World journalist, Nicola Tallant)

While I don’t listen to as many episodes as I used to, the Documentary on One series from RTE remains a treasure trove of fascinating stories, as uplifting as they are sad and as educating as they are enlightening. Crime World is OK (but only OK) and I found the episodes a little repetitive after a while. I’m sure others may feel similar about sport, but that’s just my take on it.

By the numbers

I’ll finish with a few statistics for the other data nerds like myself, most of which I gleaned from Strava but some of which I took from a homegrown spreadsheet that I used to complement Strava:

  • Totals
    • Total Distance Walked: 1,765km
    • Total Time Walking: 291 hours
    • Total Number of Walks: 383
    • Number of Days Missed / Walked: 53 (15%) / 312 (85%)
  • Longest
    • Longest Distance Walked in a Day: 14.3km (September)
    • Longest Distance Walked in a Week: 53.9km (December)
    • Longest Distance Walked in a Month: 206.4km (December)
    • Longest Distance Walked in 7 consecutive days: 63.2km (December)
    • Longest Walking Streak: 48 days (July – September)
  • Averages
    • Average Distance Per Day: 4.84km
    • Average Distance Per Week: 34.4km
    • Average Distance Per Month: 139.2km

Revised Goals

My original goal of 1,500km only required me to walk an average of 4.1km per day. However, as my regular route (to and from Tramore Promenade) was closer to 5.2km, I actually met my original goal in mid-November and was on target to surpass the original by around 200km.

I therefore decided to set a revised target of 1,750km to see how I’d fare. This took a little more perseverance towards the end but was ultimately achievable in the time available.

Even in the final week of the year, I realised that I could reach 200km in a single month, so I tweaked the revised goal once more and ended up surpassing that by a small margin too, all without too much effort.

Final Reflections, in a Word (Cloud)

As I mentioned earlier, I took the liberty of entering short descriptions for each walk into Strava. I didn’t have any particular reason for doing this back in January but did feel that one might present itself as the days and weeks passed by, and so it did.

This Word Cloud was generated from the descriptions I entered in Strava and, on reflection, I think it’s a pretty accurate visualisation of what I remember as the prominent elements of my year of walking.

Until next time…

You’ll Never Walk Alone!

Rest Easy, Chief

I count myself exceptionally fortunate to have worked with so many wonderful people during my professional life, which is now in its fourth decade. From time to time (mostly during one of my daily walks), I reflect on how some of those people have shaped my career, either through the things they taught me or in the way they treated me and others. Those moments usually leave me both humbled and grateful in equal measures, while inspiring me to do the same for others I work with.

One of those people was Peter Shortall, who took me under his wing during the early years of my career and who remained a close and loyal friend long after our working days had come to an end (in 2004 when our employer left the Irish business landscape).

There was something about how Peter went about things – seamlessly spotting those important moments to say or do the right thing when it was needed most, or not at all.

He was a constant source of guidance and reassurance – the ultimate mentor, role model, confidante and friend.

Tragically, Peter died in December 2022 and left a large hole in the hearts and minds of those who knew him and those who loved him. I feel grateful that I was able to spend a little time with him a couple of times before he left this world, as we recounted the good times and reflected on life and family – the things that mattered most to Peter (apart from Golf, Leinster Rugby and Chelsea FC).

Chief

Something that I noticed about Peter was that he often called those he worked closely with, “chief”, either in everyday interactions or simply as a welcome or farewell gesture on a phone call. I initially viewed this as a simple term of endearment for everyone but later came to realise that it was, in fact, an accolade bestowed upon a select few that he respected deeply, both professionally and personally. I feel honoured to have been among those he addressed in this way.

In more recent times as the occasion of his first anniversary approached, I began to contemplate on his use of the term “chief” as a sign of respect for others, and what this actually said about him. In my view, the very essence of this accolade rests within the qualities he showed in his own life.

C is for … caring, courageous and courteous

Peter cared deeply for those he worked with, in ways that extend far beyond getting the job done. He was the ultimate gentle giant (being as tall as he was), with the enviable courage to question things on behalf of others to ensure we got the right decision, all while being courteous to everyone and everything, in every way possible.

H is for … helpful, honest and humble

I genuinely think Peter spent the majority of his working life helping others, no matter what the cost to his own duties. He gave things the precise amount of time and energy they needed in order to get the best outcome, often sacrificing his own time and energy, and did so with a sense of honesty that any person will do well to emulate in their own lifetime. God help you if you tried to thank him or compliment him, too, because he was humble beyond words in that regard, and always reflected the thanks back onto the person expressing the gratitude – selfless in everything he did.

I is for … intelligent, inclusive and inspiring

Peter was an enormously intelligent person and a brilliant problem solver – qualities that he put to good use in every aspect of his life, inside and outside of work. He was also very inclusive of others in his work – long before the term Diversity, Equity & Inclusion was coined – and we all took great inspiration from how he approached his work, not just in terms of the outcomes he got but also for the manner in how he went about getting them.

E is for … empathetic, easygoing and endearing

Showing empathy was a big deal for Peter, although I don’t think he ever did so consciously as it was just a part of who he was. His listening ear was ever present and was accompanied by a level of understanding that was hard to equal. His easygoing nature was a natural complement to this, all of which made him one of the most endearing people you’d have the good  fortune to meet.

F is for … fair, funny and friend

If you asked Peter for an opinion on something, he gave it to you. It may not have been what you expected or wanted to hear, but it was always a fair and honest assessment of the situation based on the facts as he saw them. His fairness never once left you feeling offended or disappointed, though, just more informed and energised. 

He also had an incredible sense of humour to suit every occasion – deadpan and dry when needed as well as quick witted and well timed when delivering the killer punchlines.

Most of all, though, Peter was a friend to all who knew him. Apart from his duties as a family man, this was by far his finest quality in my view, and one we’ll all do well to emulate in our own lives.

Rest easy, Chief, and thank you!

Celebrating a Journey

Bittersweet

Today, Monday, 16 October 2023, marks 21 years to the day since I became a father, something I’m enormously proud of and very, very happy about. However, it is also a bittersweet day, because the (other) person who made that possible (in addition to my beautiful wife) is not here to celebrate this milestone with us. As some of you may know, our beautiful son, Jake, who was born on Friday, 25 October 2002 only lived for 9 days.

Life Milestones

Among the many thoughts that crossed my mind during those agonising early days without him, was the prospect of not being able to celebrate the many firsts in his life, which would also be firsts in ours. These include his first Christmas, his first birthday, taking his first steps, his first day at school, his first school concert, his First Holy Communion, learning to ride a bike, his tenth birthday, his Confirmation, becoming a teenager, learning to drive, school graduation, turning 18, 20 and many, many more.

We did take a moment to reflect on some of those milestones along the way, however, via Life Lessons from an Angel when he’d have turned 18 in 2020 and via Still Wiping Away Our Tears when he’d have turned 20 in 2022.

Turning 21

However, the one milestone that has always stuck out for me, as one I actually feared, was the occasion of his 21st birthday. I’m not entirely sure why, to be honest, but I’ve definitely always had it in my head as being that little bit different to the others, in a way that loomed large on the horizon.

Perhaps it’s because, in Irish culture, reaching this age often signals a formal passage from childhood to adulthood, where parents feel a sense of accomplishment (or success) for having gotten a child to that point in their life which, in our case, may not be the case.

We are, of course, blessed to have other children in our lives and have the good fortune and privilege of celebrating many of the above milestones with them. However, at the time of Jake’s passing those feelings were impossible to escape, and I guess they never fully went away.

Celebrate the Journey

You can’t go far in life without hearing at least one version of the saying about life being about “the journey, not the destination”. I’ve definitely seen my fair share of examples of this playing out in my personal and professional life, across a wide spectrum of areas.

However, the example that stands out the most is actually happening today. While it’s true that the firsts in Jake’s life were incredibly hard to endure without him, it’s equally true that each one has served as a welcome reminder of him. They gave us a reason to remember him, either alone or together with our extended family or lifelong friends. Without Jake in our life, those occasions would never have happened and the memories we created would not exist today.

Therefore, in his own special way, he shaped our journey anyway and it’s with the benefit of a lot of hindsight that we can be immensely grateful that today is not a destination – it’s just another part of the life journey that he continues to guide us along.

Happy Birthday, son, and thank you!

You’ll Never Walk Alone: Reflections of 365 Days of Walking

Inspiration

I began taking some extra exercise at the beginning of 2022, in the form of walking near my home town of Tramore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. After completing 7 days in a row, walking 4 km per day, I decided to keep going to see if I could make it to 28 days in a row, which I did.

I then added an extra kilometre to my route and set my sights on 50 days, which soon became 100, which became 200 followed by 300 and finally, today, Saturday, 31 December 2022, I am delighted to have completed 365 consecutive days of walking. With an average of 5 km per day, that’s a grand total of 1,825 kilometres for the year!

While chatting about this with various people during the final weeks of 2022, the questions about why and how kept coming up. As I recounted the same answers each time, I was encouraged to share some insights into what inspired me to undertake this personal accomplishment, how I did it and what I have learned from it. Here are some of those insights.

Why

There were two main reasons why I undertook the journey that has transpired – why I started it (primary) and why I finished it (secondary). On reflection, only the first of these was apparent to me at the beginning of 2022.

The primary goal was to improve the amount of regular exercise I was getting, or not getting as was actually the case. Having an office-based job for all my professional working life, with a busy family life, I had known for some time that I was simply not getting nearly enough exercise. For me, the Covid-19 pandemic made this worse but also, eventually, made it more apparent, so I decided to finally try doing something about it in 2022.

The secondary goal, which only emerged towards the end of January 2022, was driven more by an emergent desire for personal accomplishment – to see if I could actually make it all the way to the end of the year without missing a day and, if so, what might I learn (or benefit) from that.

Weather

Anyone who knows an Irish person will know that we just love to talk about the weather. And so it is only fitting that I begin my insights with some reflections on this aspect of my journey.

Barring a proper bout of snow, which rarely happens in Ireland anyway (even less so in the seaside town where I live), I think I walked in all of the typically Irish weather conditions during 2022, which included wind, rain, fog, hailstones, balmy sunshine and frosty cold.

I think the warmest I walked in was 30C (in August) and the coldest was -4C (in December) and I can say with absolute certainty that, while dry weather was definitely preferable, it was the wind that really, really tested my resolve above anything else. Not only was windy weather significantly more draining on energy levels (burning more calories to walk the same distance) but it ruined any audio tracks I was listening to along the way, while raising body temperatures higher than wanted.

Surprisingly, for a country that sees a lot of rain, I only had to wear full-blown waterproof clothing around 5 times during the entire year and, of those, I only actually got properly wet around twice. This was partly due to the accuracy of the weather forecasting provided by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, whose predictability allowed me to time many of my walks avoiding any rain.

Ironically, the very last day of the year was one of the wettest of the year too.

Walking Routes

Well over 90% of my walks took the same basic route, which was a loop from my house to the Tramore beach area, along the promenade and then back home again via a slightly different road, which was almost exactly 5 km in total length.

There were some days when, either because of weather or other circumstances, I was only able to manage 3 or 4 km, with 2 km being the absolute minimum I settled for. I made up for any difference by walking a little extra on other days but this was significantly less than 10% of the time overall.

It was only during holidays or day/weekend trips that alternative routes were used and these were usually devised with the goal of keeping my monthly averages ticking over.

Entertainment

Curiously, a key factor in surviving my year-long escapade was avoiding boredom – something that quickly seemed to stymie previous attempts to take regular exercise. In this regard, it was my Smartphone (and Spotify) that made the real difference, in the form of podcasts and music.

I think that, for every 4 weeks I spent listening to podcasts, I spent one week listening to music. The musical themes varied highly, often being influenced by podcast topics, which included:

  • Playlists with songs whose basic rhythm were precisely 120 beats per minute, which seemed to suit my natural stride.
  • Numerous guilty pleasures from the 1970s and 1980s, including Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Metallica, Billy Joel, Queen, Prince, ABBA and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
  • The Soundtracks to several movies (incl. Platoon, O’ Brother Where Art Thou, Forrest Gump, The Commitments, Baby Driver, Pulp Fiction)
  • Relistening to compilations that I used to own on cassette tape (incl. Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 4 and The Hits Tape Volume 2)
  • Rediscovering a wide range of Classical Music (incl. Strauss, Bach and Mozart).
  • Ireland’s own Jack Lukeman, who released a new album on vinyl during 2022 too.

The main podcasts I listened to (which could easily justify an entire separate article) included:

  • The 2 Johnnies
  • The Witness: In His Own Words
  • The Missing Cryptoqueen
  • The Making of a Detective
  • Murder in Mauritius 
  • Why Would You Tell Me That?
  • The Unusual Suspects
  • Red Notice
  • RTE Documentary on One

The Documentary on One series from RTE is an absolute treasure trove of fascinating stories dating back several decades and, with each one being around 45 minutes in length, they are also ideally suited to the duration of most of my walks. I definitely had a lot of favourites here (and skipped a few too) but far too many to list them individually here. This series is absolutely worth exploring in more detail, though, and I highly recommend it.

Reflections

So, looking back at my year of walking, what do I think I achieved from it?

Fitness

I set out expecting that improvements in my general fitness would be the main takeaway from this exercise (pardon the pun) and indeed it was. Back in January, it was taking me 40 minutes to walk 4 km and I was in really poor shape after doing so (aching, sweating).

However, I am now able to comfortably walk 5 km in the same amount of time (40 minutes), which equates to a brisk pace of 7.5km per hour. In addition, there are no particular dramatics in terms of body temperature or major fatigue afterwards (unless it’s very windy or rainy, of course).

For added fun, I also did all of my walking without a fitness tracker and instead gauged my fitness progress based on where, within a specific playlist of a very specific length (e.g. 45 minutes) I managed to complete my walk. When I first set out, I was just happy to get home before the playlist ended but I then set my sights on finishing before the guitar solo in the last song and then getting there with an entire song to spare. Maybe my daughter is right – I’m such a tech nerd after all!

Wellbeing

I’ve heard lots of people talking about wellbeing and using “good for the soul” narratives in the past, but was never quite sure if/how this applied to walking. I’m happy to report that I think I now understand what they were referring to.

Apart from the innate sense that my new exercise regime is good for me (and seeing small wins via improvements in my general fitness), I have found immense personal satisfaction in having completed an entire year of walking. Admittedly, there are a great many people who take just as many steps in an average day during normal life, so it’s less about the distance and more about the commitment I gave it.

The other benefit I felt, which sits within the wellness genre also, was the simple joy to be had in hearing certain songs from a playlist begin just as the ocean came into view, or as the moon appeared from behind some clouds, or as some other aspect of nature took my breath away, all to the sound of a strong musical beat, guitar solo or a poignant lyric.

I found these enormously uplifting, even emotional at times, and drew wonderful energy from them, which is a benefit that I definitely was not expecting when I set out back in January.

Mother Nature

Perhaps less unique to walking and more to do with simply being outdoors, I also found the various sights and sounds of mother nature to be enormously refreshing. From picturesque dawns and dusks, to stunning sunsets, starry nights and full moons, combined with the smell of fresh cut grass, low tide, cotton candy or fish & chips, there was plenty to savour here too.

Education and Musical Rediscovery

At 45-50 minutes per walk, I reckon I spent close to 300 hours listening to music or podcasts. Not only were many of the podcasts hugely educational (far more than I expected) but I also found myself discovering so much music that I’d forgotten I liked too. I had a few guilty pleasures thrown in here for good measure as well, all of which added to the enjoyment of the time I spent walking.

Next Steps

A few people have asked me if I’m going to keep the momentum going by continuing to walk every day in 2023. While I’ll absolutely keep walking regularly, I’ve not yet decided if I can truly justify or sustain the commitment needed for another year.

Upgrading to jogging is an option to consider too, as is walking a slightly longer distance every other day. I’m just mindful of the pressure to walk every single day, which could easily become an obsession that counteracts the other benefits, and there were definitely times this year when it felt a little this way so I’m very keen to avoid this spoiling the underlying purpose of the exercise.

All in all, it was a journey I’m very glad I started and I’m definitely not done, so you’ll definitely see me out and about near my home town regularly in 2023. I’m also immensely grateful to my wife for creating the extra time and space in our busy family life to allow me to venture out at random times during the day, every single day, in all kinds of weather.

You’ll Never Walk Alone!

Still Wiping Away Our Tears

For parents everywhere that are living with the loss of a child, my wife and I still take comfort in these words which we composed on the passing of our first-born son, Jake, who was born twenty years ago today on Wednesday, 16 October 2002.

The moment that we saw you our hearts were filled with joy
We wept in adoration for our little baby boy
You were our little angel, the product of our love
You were all we ever dreamed of, a gift from God above
Alas, it was not meant to be and you were needed by another
We hope that they will cherish you as much as me and your mother
How it hurts to let you go; the pain may never leave
But time will help us all to cope; in that we must believe
You are our son, of that we’re sure, and it may take us many years
To rebuild our lives without you here to wipe away our tears

We shared some additional thoughts on what his short life taught us in Life Lessons from an Angel which was published in 2020, on what would have been his 18th birthday.

Happy Birthday, son!

Getting Road Legal on a Motorcycle in Ireland

I’ve been enjoying the joys of owning a vintage motorcycle over the past few years (something that’s been declared a midlife crisis by some) and, given the number of times I’ve been asked about the process of getting the bike (and me) legally on the road (in modern Ireland), I decided to document what’s involved for the benefit of others considering a similar hobby.

This is also a catalog of the things I could have done with knowing myself when embarking on the journey, which would have saved quite a bit of time (i.e. knowing that some items require others to be done first and there’s a long lead time involved).

It’s also worth noting that, in my case, I’d never had any kind of prior bike license (apart from the standard moped license that permits driving of vehicles with engine sizes up to 50cc) so I was effectively starting from scratch in my journey.

Many of the items can be done in parallel but there are also some dependencies to note. There are some long waiting times and surprising costs involved too, which you should be aware of.

Theory Test

Before you can get a driving license in Ireland, you need to pass a (computer-based) test that assesses your knowledge of the theory of driving. This used to be a written test but is now fully computerised and there are different tests for different types of vehicles (e.g. motorbike, car, truck).

The test itself consists of 40 multiple-choice questions on various driving-related topics (e.g. road safety, road signage) for your vehicle type and you need to answer 35 (or more) correctly to pass.

You can also purchase a CD with the same software used in the test (available in most bookstores and local libraries) to prepare yourself for the official test. I strongly recommend this because the pool of questions and user interface on the CD is identical to the official test and taking 1-2 practice tests per week in the leadup to your official test is a very effective way to prepare to pass.

The test costs €45 and you can book online at https://theorytest.ie. However, the waiting time for a test appointment could be several weeks (potentially months depending on Covid-19 restrictions).

Learner Permit (incl. Public Services Card)

In Ireland, your first driving license is called a Learner Permit (it used to be called a Provisional License). You must have passed the Driver Theory Test before you can apply for a Learner Permit.

You can apply for a Learner Permit online but to do this you will also need a Public Services Card (PSC) which many young drivers (or full-time workers) may not have. Obtaining a PSC is actually quite a manual process, requiring an in-person visit to your local Government offices, so this is something you should consider starting much earlier. There is no cost for a Public Services Card and, to be fair, once you have one the process of requesting the Learning Permit is very smooth.

There are some restrictions to driving a motorcycle on a Learner Permit, the main ones being:

  • You cannot carry a pillion passenger.
  • You must wear a hi-vis vest with an “L” sign on it while riding.
  • Depending on your age, you may be limited to the size of bike (engine) you can ride.

You will also need to select a suitable License Category when applying for a Learner Permit. There are several motorcycle categories (all beginning with “A”), linked to your age and/or the power of your bike (e.g. engine size). I recommend choosing the highest category you can (e.g. A2), which will allow you more options for the size/type of bikes you can ride.

A Learner Permit (for a car or motorbike) costs €45 and is valid for 2 years. You can book online at https://ndls.ie. If requested online, it only takes a couple of days to arrive.

Initial Basic Training (IBT)

In Ireland, you cannot get motorcycle insurance until you have taken a 2-day basic training course called Initial Basic Training (IBT). While I understand (and agree with) the logic of this and the course itself was pretty good (one day in the classroom and one day out riding a bike), I found the cost to be extremely expensive at a whopping €495.

If you have been driving a car (on a full driving license) for some time, contrary to some beliefs, this does not give you an exemption from needing to complete the IBT.

The IBT certificate is only initially valid for 2 years but will be eligible for an extension if you had applied for (or attempted) the full driving test within that period of time.

Motorcycle Registration

Depending on the motorbike you plan to use, you may (or may not) need to register it. Most new or second-hand bikes will already be registered for you but, in my case, I had to re-register my bike as it had not been road legal for almost 30 years (and had long since been archived by the relevant Government transport authorities).

Re-registering a bike has a nominal cost of €12 but requires some official paperwork to be signed and stamped by a local Police department official, which can take extra time.

Motor Tax

All motorised vehicles in Ireland are required to pay a motor tax before legally being allowed onto public roads. The cost, which recurs annually, depends on your vehicle type and engine size or emissions but is significantly cheaper for vintage vehicles (e.g. €35 per year). Apart from the bike being formally registered, there are no other prerequisites for paying the motor tax, which can be done online at https://www.motortax.ie.

Motor Insurance

The final step to being allowed onto a public road is to get your bike (and yourself) insured. Again, the cost here depends on your age, driving experience, motorcycle type/size/value etc. However, you cannot get motorcycle insurance until you have completed the Initial Basic Training above.

Bike Gear

You should not take to the public roads unless you are wearing suitable protective clothing. As I understand it, in Ireland, the only legal requirement here is a helmet but the importance of proper bike gear was outlined in a very practical way during Day 1 of the Initial Basic Training:

If you are involved in a biking incident at 30km/h, where you come off your bike and slide to a stop on the ground, while the chances of a fatal injury are low, the chances of needing time off work to recover are very high. In that regard, the difference between wearing proper protective clothing or not could be 6 days out of work (with gear) or 6 months out of work (without gear). You decide!

The cost of proper bike gear was also something I’d not fully understood beforehand and it’s not cheap either. Here’s a summary of what I bought, along with indicative costs:

  • Helmet: €80
  • Jacket: €180
  • Boots: €125
  • Waterproof Pants: €100
  • Gloves: €35
  • Hi-vis Vest (with L sign): €25

The brands/styles I purchased were entry-level in most cases but I did choose to pay a little extra for the boots, jacket and (open faced) helmet as I felt they suited the era of my bike.

Cost Summary

While your costs may vary, here is a summary of the total costs I incurred en route to my first trip:

  • Driver Theory Test: €45
  • Learner Permit: €35
  • Initial Basic Training: €495
  • Registration: €12
  • Motor Tax: €35
  • Insurance: €280
  • Bike Gear: €550

Clearly, you need to factor in the cost of the motorcycle itself, but the additional costs on top of that, to get your bike (and yourself) legally onto the roads, could easily exceed €1,500. 

Next Steps

Once you’ve been riding for a while, you should consider taking the full Driving Test. If successful, this would reduce your insurance costs, allow you to carry passengers and eliminate the need to wear the hi-vis “L” vest.

While you are free to take the test without any formal lessons, I would recommend you take some lessons beforehand to help eliminate any bad habits you may have picked up and to get you generally “test ready”. The lessons may also help ensure you only ever have to take the test once.

Life Lessons from an Angel

As I reflect on the 18 years that have passed since I first became a father (on this very day in 2002), I do so with incredibly mixed emotions and a deep sense of anguish that we cannot share the occasion with our beautiful son, Jake, who left our world after just 9 days, on Friday, 25 October 2002.

However, while there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of him and we yearn to hold him in our arms just one more time, we are comforted (and often surprised) by the things that his short life has taught us in the years since his passing, and I thought it might be nice (and potentially helpful to others) to share some of those lessons today in his honour.

Life is not over – it’s just very, very different

The loss of a child is something you will never, ever “get over” but it is something that you can learn to accept and live with, with the passage of time, while experiencing some enormously uplifting moments along the way. Not only will these moments keep you firmly grounded in life, but they can also serve to inspire the best in yourself and in others, in ways that may otherwise not have been possible.

Some of these moments that I recall and that I hold dear to my heart include beautiful remembrance ceremonies and anniversary Masses at Crumlin Hospital, Dublin, receiving a posthumous bravery certificate from the Irish Heart Foundation (our son underwent heart surgery less than 24 hours after his birth) and a Roll of Honour certificate from the Irish Kidney Association (I am proud to say my son was also an organ donor).

Our annual, overnight trip to Dublin to mark his anniversary has also become an extended family tradition which our other children and their cousins now hail as one of the highlights of their year.

The Japanese Maple tree that stands proudly at the bottom of our garden is also a constant, warming, living, breathing reminder of his place in our family unit. Be it the smile it puts on your face while cutting the grass or the happy sounds of your children playing nearby, or even seeing your own Father stand in silent prayer there at random moments throughout the year, these are all uplifting experiences that you learn to love dearly, and that enrich your now very different life.

Find the positives where you can – they do exist

A close friend of mine, with some personal experience in this area, was brave enough to say this to me a few days before Jake died and it took me several years to learn what it truly meant, and to accept how true it is. That is because, no matter how far you travel in life and how sorry you may feel for yourself because of what happened to you on that life journey, you will learn (several times over) that there is always someone less fortunate than you are, with no exceptions.

We were blessed with a perfect pregnancy, photographs and videos of our newborn son, living and breathing. We got to hold him, to smell him, to hug him and kiss him, multiple times over. Some of our extended family members got to meet him too, if only for a brief moment, and so we have memories, real memories.

Sadly, we have met many people that experienced a similar loss to ours, but with none of the memories we have to cherish. Oddly, we count our blessings for this.

Material things simply don’t matter – family is what matters

I like my home comforts, gadgets, cars and other material possessions as much as the next person, but I definitely find them far less important in my life on foot of the experiences of 18 years ago. Others I’ve met have conceded feeling the same way over time.

I don’t dwell on this and it’s not a major discussion point in my life, but I definitely find myself less motivated to spend time with (or on) material items. I guess it’s because these things are ultimately replaceable, if you know where to find them at the right price, which makes them ultimately less valuable in a human context.

However, the things that I now find most happiness, motivation and contentment in actually cost nothing. They are spending time with family, creating life memories for (and with) our children, but with a far deeper appreciation for why they are so important, valuable and irreplaceable.

We are therefore so especially proud of our first-born son, Jake, today for teaching us all so much about the truly important things in life, in his own special way.

Happy Birthday, son, and thank you!

Reeling in the Tears

I recently came into possession of a rather curious looking spool of tape when going through some old things belonging to my Dad. This surprise discovery (which, amazingly, he never thought to mention when he was alive) was initially met with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, but then tinged with sadness as I remembered he is no longer around to ask about its origins or contents.

Of course the curiosity soon got the better of me and I felt I owed it to him to find out what was on it anyway, considering he had clearly safeguarded it for the better part of 50 years. I therefore set about finding a way to have it converted to some form of modern digital media.

I began by contacting a friend who had recently converted some vintage video reels of the same shape and size, and while he was able to confirm that I was in possession of a Reel-to-Reel Audio tape, he did not himself possess a suitable playing device and neither did any of his hobbyist friends. Fortunately, The Force is strong in this one and so we kept trying.

I then decided to try my luck on the I Am Waterford Facebook page (home to some 20,000 Waterford natives) and was greeted with a delightful array of helpful suggestions, a sizeable majority of which were directing me towards one person, Gary Burns (Audio Visual Technical Officer at Waterford Institute of Technology), who later chimed in himself and offered to do the conversion for me.

As we both live in the same town, I was able to hand over the reel the following day, and within a few days of that I found myself downloading an audio file with the contents of the reel in all its crackly glory – all 35 minutes of it!

Naturally, the anticipation at this point was sky high and indeed, I took a quiet moment to prepare for an emotional reveal. After all, no matter what was on this reel, it was put there for a reason and that reason alone represented an insight into a part of my father’s life that I knew nothing about until that very moment. I consider myself very lucky to have that opportunity, as those in my position will no doubt understand.

So what was on the reel, I hear you ask? Well, I had given this some thought during the previous few days and thought it might have been a recording of him (or his family) singing or playing the accordion, or perhaps a recording of someone describing some of the video reel footage I’d converted some years earlier.

In the end, it was actually none of the above and instead was a collection of 14 songs recorded from the radio, ranging from 1969 to 1974. There were occasional hints of the voice of Brendan Balfe along the way (a popular RTE Radio presenter at that time), so I’m assuming it was his radio show that was being recorded.

Here is a full catalog of the extracted from the reel, which was derived after several hours of painstaking listening for recognisable lyrics, against a backdrop of electrical noise and melodic crackling. I’ve linked each one to a YouTube video of the original song for you to enjoy also:

  1. No Matter How I Try (Gilbert O’Sullivan @ 1971)
  2. Goin’ Down (Jeff Beck @ 1972)
  3. Sing a Song of Freedom (Cliff Richard @ 1974)
  4. Soley Soley (Middle of the Road @ 1971)
  5. Softly Whispering I Love You (Congregation @ 1972)
  6. The Sunset Years of Life (Slim Dusty @ 1965)
  7. Cotton Fields Back Home (Credence Clearwater Revival @ 1969)
  8. Big Strong Man (The Wolfe Tones @ 1970)
  9. You Can Get It If You Really Want (Desmond Dekker @ 1970)
  10. I’ll Take Care of Your Cares (Frankie Laine @ 1967)
  11. I Will Follow You (Dana @ 1970)
  12. Sweetheart (Engelbert Humperdinck @ 1971)
  13. Banquet for the World (Freshmen @ 1970
  14. Which Way You Goin’ Billy (Poppy Family @ 1969

Apart from the curious variety in musical styles (and fashion), I was actually rather impressed with the coolness of some of the tracks, especially Jeff Beck and Credence Clearwater Revival. He certainly kept a few of those guilty pleasures quiet for all the years that he instead lauded the dulcet tones of Foster & Allen!

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very emotional, few days that, thanks to the help of people I had never even known one week before, is now set to become part of a new chapter in our family memorabilia that I hope will last for another 50 years, and more.

Thanks Dad, and thanks Gary!

How nature outsmarts your Smartphone

There is no doubt that modern technology is getting smarter, smaller and cheaper all of the time, and the modern smartphone is to the fore in how most humans (that own one) access these advancements in technology.

However, it’s also refreshing (and a reassuring in a strange kind of way) to know that such humble and innate everyday objects, found in the most non-technical and un-advanced parts of our world, can still outsmart us all!

The Joint Photographic Experts Group – JPEG

A significant majority of modern smartphones (and digital cameras) use the JPEG image file format to store the photographs taken by the device. This file format is named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group, which published the first version of the specification in 1992.

The file format was famed for introducing 3 main features:

  1. The possibility of more than 16 million different colours for each pixel in the image.
  2. Varying levels of image compression, reducing the size of the files and making them ideal for use on websites.
  3. An ability to store additional meta data (known as Exif data) inside the image file (e.g. date, time, location, shutter speed).

Digital Compression

By recognising repeating patterns of colour within an image, the JPEG compression algorithms are able to reduce the size of the file containing that image, usually without any significant (or noticeable) loss in image quality. However, with the ever-increasing storage capacity of smartphones, digital cameras, memory sticks and computer hard drives, how many of us ever really take any notice of the size of image files that we are dealing with?

Nature’s Patterns

As it happens, I did just this on foot of a recent family occasion in our back garden where I took rather a lot of photographs featuring grass (plus family members, of course). While syncing the photos to my computer later that evening, I noticed that it was taking much longer than usual so took a closer look when the transfer was complete.

What I discovered then lead me to take a number of other photos of nature scenes the following day, underpinning my theory that nature was clearly outsmarting my smartphone in a variety of very interesting (and surprising ways). Here is what I found.

The Evidence

Each of the following photos were taken using the same smartphone, using the same unmodified Camera app, over the course of 2 days. For the most part, they are shown in order of size (smallest to largest) with some exceptions along the way.

Part Ocean, Part Sky, Part Rocks – 1.5MB

Clearly, the proliferation of grey/dark colours here has lead to a very high level of compression, resulting in a much smaller file.

Very Cloudy Sky – 2.4MB

This very consistent pattern of grey yielded a very high compression rate also, but with perhaps with slightly less dark colours causing a marginal increase in file size.

Semi Clear Sky – 2.6MB

Surprisingly, this quite different skyline (with a lot more blue) was only marginally larger than the very cloudy scene above, but it still compressed very well due to the consistency of regions of blue, grey and white throughout.

Part Sky, Part Ocean on a Grey Day – 3.4MB

With around 60% of this shot featuring some random sea waves, the level of compression achieved is slightly less than others.

Rippled Water – 4.2MB

While featuring a mostly blue/green hue, the degree of randomness to the ripples prevented a higher level of compression here.

Beach Stones – 5.2MB

So now it begins to get interesting, with nature fighting back. This scene features a large selection of pebbles and stones, of differing shapes, sizes, colours and orientation. Overall, quite a random scene which is duly borne out in the largest file size so far.

Plant Leaves – 5.3MB

There’s quite lot of the same shade of green in this shot, which should yield good compression, but the random shape, size and orientation of the leaves is clearly confusing the compression algorithm, resulting in a larger than expected file.

Cliff Rock Closeup – 5.7MB

Large rocks are normally quite uniform in their colour but a couple of thousand years of being battered by the elements is bound to introduce some character in the form of random edges, wear & tear as well as other inclusions, all reducing the amount of compression the camera was able to achieve.

Forest Ferns – 6.6MB

This scene features predominantly green elements of generally the same shade. However, the size, orientation and varying shape of the leaves and branches across the full spectrum of the shot result in a very confused (and highly random) panorama for the camera.

Regular Garden Grass Closeup – 7.2MB

Surprisingly, the most ordinary patch of grass (somewhat close up) causes the most havoc and lowest level of compression for our camera, with the utter chaos that is the size, shape, length, colour, orientation and depth of the blades of grass resulting in the largest file size. The camera even struggled to retain it’s focus in the outer regions of the shot (see top left), further proving that nature always has the upper hand.

Pebble Dashed Wall – 6.2MB

For good measure, I also sampled this man-made creation with a reasonably high degree of randomness. While the colour and dispersal of the pebbles was most definitely random, the camera did still manage some level of compression, most likely based on the consistent colour of the background cement.

Disclaimer

The level of scientific analysis conducted during this impromptu experiment was minimal at best and no pixels were harmed during the gathering of evidence herein. But you’d be amazed what other surprises mother nature is likely to throw up so get out there and discover your own flavour of randomness!