'Ultimately my goal is still to be around when my daughters are older'
At 23 stone this Bangor bank manager feared he’d never live long enough to walk his daughters up the aisle... now he’s shed five stone ahead of an epic adventure
Bank manager Nick Craig threw himself in at the deep end when he decided that, for the sake of his young children and his health, he needed to lose weight.
Although totally unfit and weighing 23 stone, the Bangor dad-of-two found himself putting his name down to trek a gruelling 50 miles across the Arizona desert in support of Age NI.
It was an extreme step, but it was the challenge Nick says he needed to get off the couch and moving towards better health — and it has worked beyond his wildest dreams.
Not only is he fitter, slimmer, healthier and happier after shedding five stone, but he has unexpectedly found a new passion in life for hill walking. Instead of being slouched on the sofa in front of the TV, Nick is more likely to be found scaling the slopes of the Mournes at the weekends.
The Co Down man will be taking on the challenge of a lifetime next month when he descends 2,400ft into the Grand Canyon to walk 50 miles in sweltering desert heat — before having to climb back up again.
He is the only person in Northern Ireland signed up for the trek.
“Danske Bank took on Age NI as its charity partner and someone from one of their representatives came down to give us a talk on their work,” says Nick, explaining how his mammoth challenge came about.
“My wife Ami was due to give birth to our second daughter Lily, who is now 18 months, and our other daughter Katelyn was just two at the time.
“I looked at myself and I looked at my daughter and I thought ‘‘I would like to be around to see them on their wedding day’.’
“I realised if I want to see my girls growing up, I needed to do something about my weight.
“I have a desk job and the most exercise I got was going up and down the stairs from one office to another.
“I was out of puff walking to the local shops and back. I was so heavy and unfit, I decided if I signed up for the challenge it would give me something to aim for — and to make sure I kept it up.
“I didn’t think I would be fit enough to do it last year, so I signed up for this year to give me more time to train. Looking back now, I probably could have done it last year.”
As he embarked on his new fitness programme, Nick (35), who is manager of Bangor’s Bloomfield branch of Danske Bank, had the full support of wife Ami (32) who works as a supervisor in Asda.
Nick laughs as he says he has proved the power of advertising through his journey to fitness as he opted to walk with the words “go walking” ringing in his head from an old government health campaign.
“It just shows that those campaigns work because I had the ‘go walking’ tune going round my head and decided that’s what I would do — and I went walking. My mum was also constantly on at me, too, about losing weight, so in the end it was my family that spurred me on.
“I would wait until the girls were in bed and set out walking round the roads in Bangor at 10pm every night for about two hours.
“I would have walked the ring roads to Ards and back and the weight actually did go off very quickly.”
Before he started his training regime on March 11 last year, he tipped the scales at exactly 23 stone.
By June 13 he was weighing in at a much slimmer 19st 11lb — an incredible loss of over three stone in just three months.
His weight loss eventually levelled out at 18 stone, and at 6ft 4in, Nick is more than happy with his build now.
“I’m never going to be a stick thin person and I am really happy with my weight now,” he says.
“I feel fitter, healthier and have a lot more energy.”
With his fitness levels building up and the awesome challenge of the Grand Canyon looming, Nick realised he needed to leave the flats of the roads in his home town behind to tackle some steeper gradients.
Again a complete novice to hill walking, he was really surprised to find once he started he soon became hooked.
“I started at Tollymore Forest Park and then I did Slieve Binnian in the Mournes which is about 700 metres,” he says.
“It was hard but really rewarding when you get to the top. I have climbed Slieve Donard a lot since then and all the mountains in the Mournes, and I’ve been to Wicklow a few times and a few mountains in Scotland.
“I have the bug. I’m still walking round the roads — but that is boring now.
“If I have the chance to go to the mountains I will be there. I love it. I’m not saying I am good at it, but there is no greater sense of achievement for me than getting to the top of Slieve Donard.
“I really had no idea of the buzz I would get from finding myself on the summit of a mountain. So many people have climbed Slieve Donard — but every time, it is still an achievement for me.
“It hasn’t cost me a lot of money either. I bought myself a pair of boots and I put my headphones on and listen to audio books and off I go. It is that simple and easy.”
Now walking five days a week and mountain climbing as often as he can, Nick is enjoying the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.
Of course, another main motivator for Nick is the charity he will be supporting — and, he has been busy fund raising for Age NI.
Danske Bank established its charity programme over 10 years ago and has supported a number of local charities including Cancer Focus and Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children. Age NI was nominated as the bank's charity partner in 2013 and since then the bank has raised over £50,000 for the group.
Age NI is a leading local charity for older people in Northern Ireland. There are more than 350,000 people over the age of 60 in the province and the charity delivers care services, provides advice and advocacy with the overall aim of improving later life for everyone.
A pro-active campaigning charity, Age NI is to the forefront of tackling ageism, fighting for enough money for older people to allow them to live in dignity and for better quality care.
The charity was formed in 2009 as a result of a merger between Age Concern and Help the Aged. It has a vision that everyone can love later life.
Age NI believes that living longer should be celebrated and that those who need help should be supported.
Last year, the charity's advice service dealt with more than 10,000 calls and it also cares for 1,200 people every week at its residential, day centre and domiciliary services.
Over 8,000 people also use an Age NI personal alarm to help them to remain independent at home. Nick adds: "It is a super charity and everything we heard about it rang true to me as my grandmother had got help from Age NI.
"My fundraising is going really well and I have had a lot of support from local businesses, raising £5,800 so far. I would really love to hit £6,000, though, before I go."
Rosalind Cole, events and community fundraiser for the charity, said the local team was thrilled by the bank manager's efforts. "We're delighted that Nick is embarking on the challenge of a lifetime to Trek the Grand Canyon, a gruelling 50-mile walk across the Arizona desert, in support of Age NI," she says.
"Nick has made a tremendous contribution so far by raising over £5,800 - almost doubling his original fundraising target. We would like to thank everyone who has kindly made a donation to support his efforts to date.
"We hope that lots of people will be spurred on by Nick's story, his willingness to step out of his comfort zone, to push himself to the limit and, most importantly, to do something meaningful for those who may be struggling in later life.
"We are also really pleased that since starting his training schedule for the trek, Nick has made an incredibly positive impact on his own health and well-being."
Nick will be walking 50 miles in the Grand Canyon over five days, from October 3-9.
He is confident that the distance won't be a problem, but is concerned about how he will cope in the desert heat.
"It won't be the longest distance I have ever done, but the heat will be a massive problem for me," he says.
"I don't really cope well with the heat and it is going to be upwards of 40 degrees.
"We are camping three of the nights at Native American reservations which should be interesting.
"It is going to be a different world being in the basin of the canyon with helicopters flying overhead.
"We are trekking down 4,500ft and, of course, we have to come back up again.
"I am fit enough for that, but I have no way of replicating the heat. And as a red head I don't do the sun, so that is my biggest concern."
The achievement will be the icing on the cake for Nick who has achieved so much since he started his new fitness regime.
And Nick still can't believe that through walking his life has changed so much for the better.
"It changes your perspective on things," he says.
"I walk now when I would have taken the car before and I feel so much happier.
"Ultimately my goal is to be here when my girls are older and if I can help the charity along the way all the better," he adds.
Anyone wishing to donate to Age NI in support of Nick's trek can do so at www.justgiving.com/nickcraig trek2015 or text donation NCGC88 £5 to 70070. If you too have a sense of adventure, and would like to help older people in need in Northern Ireland, check out the list of UK-based and overseas challenges at www.ageni.org/trek. For information, contact Rosalind on tel: 028 9024 5729 or email email@example.com