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Man Tests: Adrenalin junkie Graham Little's enduring love of extreme sports

Self-confessed adrenalin junkie Graham Little has detailed his obsession in a new book. The journalist tells Stephanie Bell why the craze is growing around the world and how he balances it with his family life in Bangor

By Stephanie Bell

Published 23/07/2016

Graham Little
Graham Little
Graham Little pictured at Crawfordsburn country park in County Down with wife Claire
Graham Little

When Graham Little became addicted to the adrenalin rush of extreme sports six years, ago, the inquiring journalist in him had to get to the bottom of why he needed to push himself to such limits.

Six years on and having tackled some of the world's toughest sporting challenges, the well-known TV sports journalist has found the answer and you can follow his journey of discovery in a new book - Man Tests: The (Mis)Adventures of an Endurance Fanatic.

Graham Little on Mount Kilimanjaro
Graham Little on Mount Kilimanjaro

A self-confessed adrenalin junkie, Graham says he got hooked after a pal asked him to take part in a mountain race six years ago.

With plenty of stress in his life already - juggling making sports programmes and running his own TV production company with a busy home life as a doting dad and husband - he needed to know what was driving him to put himself under even more pressure.

He was also intrigued that he was not alone. Ultra-marathons in the UK have increased tenfold over the last 20 years, with Ironman now worth £650m, creating a modern obsession with endurance events.

Says Graham: "I think after I stopped playing rugby I didn't know what to with myself and then a friend asked me to do the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race, which is one of the toughest mountain races in the UK.

"Even though we had no experience, we both took on this tough physical challenge out in the open.

"It was tough, but amazing, and I then spent the next six years doing triathlons, obstacle courses, runs and different endurance tests.

"Initially I thought a guide book would be useful and I set out to write that, but it became more about my journey and balancing family and work and the demands of daily life and balancing that with all these different challenges.

"I wanted to know why I felt that I needed to do it and why extreme sports were really kicking off at the moment, especially when people are really comfortable in life in general. Why are more people putting themselves through it?"

Graham Little
Graham Little

As well as completing his first triathlon, he ran the famous desert Marathon des Sables - called the toughest foot race on Earth - and swam from Europe to Asia, all while trying to fit in training around family and work.

Graham (38) enjoys an idyllic home life on the coast in Bangor, where the family moved two years ago so that they could all enjoy an outdoor lifestyle.

He and wife Claire (39) have been together for 12 years and have three children, Christian (7), Reuben (5) and their newest addition - who Graham refers to as "daddy's wee princess" - baby Isla, who is seven months old.

Balance: Graham and Claire with Christian, Reuben and Isla
Balance: Graham and Claire with Christian, Reuben and Isla

It was sport which brought Claire and Graham together. Claire rowed for the Northern Ireland team in the Commonwealth Games, and Graham met her when he went with a crew from UTV to cover a competition she was rowing in on the River Lagan in Belfast.

Her family own Forbes Family Furniture in Magherafelt and she used to manage the shop, but is now Production Manager for Graham's TV company NPE Media.

The company, which mainly makes sport and tourism programmes, has worked for a wide range of broadcasters, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky Sports, Eurosport, RTE, Setanta Sports and UTV.

Graham Little
Graham Little

Graham also worked with London company Century TV, establishing and running a very successful Belfast office for four years, helping them deliver major network television projects like the BBC's live Moto GP coverage, the Host Broadcast of the Giro d'Italia in Ireland, The Cycle Show for ITV, and BBC documentary Run Grandad Run.

Programmes produced since then by NPE Media include Armoy Road Races and Revved, a six-part observational series on motorcycle road racing, both for Channel 4; a Giro d'Italia Review programme for BBC Northern Ireland; The Ras cycle race for RTE; and Man v Wave, four original short films on Big Wave Surfing.

Graham went out on his own after building up a huge profile as a TV sports reporter and presenter for 13 years, appearing on all the main UK broadcasters and also working as a freelance features and travel writer contributing to national newspapers and magazines.

Adrenaline rush: Graham and a pal took on Peak challenge in Wales with little training
Adrenaline rush: Graham and a pal took on Peak challenge in Wales with little training

He is best known for working in UTV and then as a Sky Sports football and cycling anchor.

His venture into endurance sport has now led to him becoming a published author and he also is working on setting up a website on the back of his new book, which will be the first of its kind supplying all the information you might need on the world's biggest adventure sports.

He says: "We are currently working to create an online hub for people looking into endurance and adventure challenges. There is currently nowhere to go for information or ratings.

Graham Little
Graham Little

"We are working with some top designers from London to create Mantests.com, which we hope will be a 'go-to' site with all the information you could need on all the endurance events and what is involved in taking part."

The fact that his wife Claire has a sporting background certainly helped Graham to indulge his need for adventure and although there are still a few challenges he would like to tackle in the future, he says he is content to settle down now and enjoy family life and running his business.

He says: "Claire put up with a lot over the past six years. We moved house and planned our third child so there was a lot happening at home.

Doting Dad: Graham has settled back into family life and his only addiction now is gardening
Doting Dad: Graham has settled back into family life and his only addiction now is gardening

"Her whole family are into sport, so she understood the concept of what was involved in training and preparing myself and I couldn't have done it without her.

"I did feel guilty leaving my family, but usually I wasn't away from home for longer than a few days."

Graham's book is a light-hearted approach to his experience, which didn't always go according to plan.

However, he is very honest about the addiction he felt, which he says compelled him to keep pushing himself harder and harder, taking on ever more punishing challenges.

While it was tough going, he did manage to break two endurance records along the way - his team hold the relay record for swimming the entire length of Lough Erne and his cycling team also held the record for Race Around Ireland.

After his experience he believes that we have a primal need to put ourselves under stress and that he himself was hooked on what he calls "accomplishment addiction".

He also admits he did reach the point when he realised that his thirst for adventure had been quenched.

He says: "I discovered that some of us do like stress in a strange kind of way. There are workaholics and billionaires who continue to go to work even though they don't need to, but they value that stress.

"I believe there are different types of adrenalin addiction and for me it was accomplishment addiction. It is not about going for a run, but the feeling you get of having been for run. I'm addicted to being able to say I've done a 10-mile run. There is also an undercurrent of adventure in an extreme situation.

"It did get to the stage towards the end when I realised that our lives were already full and very stressful and adding to that could be harmful. I think by then my appetite was sated.

"Maybe I've proved something to myself by heaping more stress on what was already a fairly stressful lifestyle.

"It has given me the chance to do most things although there are a couple more on my bucket list.

"What I discovered is that there is a common fixation, that it isn't about being the fittest, strongest or fastest, but instead a simple primal joy that comes from risk, adventure and survival - and one that makes it worth the test. "

Now settling back into normal family life he says he has found a real joy in gardening.

Yet again, though, he sees his need for accomplishment being fulfilled as he watches the garden in the family's new home take shape.

"Gardening is certainly a bit different from extreme sport, but I'm getting hooked on that too," he laughs.

"Planting box hedges and fuchsias and geraniums and then seeing them grow and take shape, I enjoy the sense of achievement in that. I find it a real stress reliever and it is satisfying that you put in the time and later you can see the progress."

He is clearly a doting dad and is delighted that his children appear to be taking after their parents - and grandparents - by embracing sport and the outdoor life.

His own idyllic childhood growing up around the lakes of Fermanagh is something he now fully appreciates as an adult and wants to give to his own sons and daughter.

He was one of four children who grew up in Enniskillen spending his days "playing all sorts of sport".

His dad Peter, who is currently semi retired from his business T P Toppings, a car garage in Enniskillen, is a keen skier, golfer and sailor.

He has a boat on Lough Erne and would spend his weekends on an island which the family leased along with two other local families and where Graham spent many happy weekends as a child.

His mum Melanie is a nurse who also worked and played hard and this ethos has now been passed on to Graham, who in turn hopes to pass it on to his own children.

He says: "I had a pretty special childhood and now that I have kids of my own I can look back and really appreciate it.

"There was so much sport in our lives. The four of us growing up played tennis, golf, cycling, running, swimming in the lakes, it was a brilliant way for kids to grow up.

"Both of my parents instilled a great work ethic in their kids and at the same time recognised that it is not all about work and dad always took his hobbies seriously.

"That's one of the reasons Claire and I moved to Bangor two years ago, because we wanted to be near the coast and give our boys that outdoor life. Claire is exactly the same as me in that she is not happy to have the kids sitting around the place doing nothing.

"Both boys are very active and play rugby, football, Gaelic and they go swimming. I wouldn't push them one way or another. We have a kayak and we take them out as a family. Anything on the outside at all they just love and they are great craic. I really love spending time with them."

Graham's book Man Tests: The (Mis) Adventures of an Endurance Fanatic is published by Ebury Press and costs £12.99

Belfast Telegraph

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