Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Athletics veteran Patsy Forbes's way of life serves to inspire

Not slowing down: Patsy Forbes is an athletics veteran at the age of 71 and still competes at a high level

THE 'True North: Run Grandad Run' programme screened on BBCNI on Monday night was one of the most joyous, humble works of television that was a true example of public service broadcasting.

As it was, Graham Little of Fermanagh and TV fame didn't have to look far for inspiration. He is married to Claire Forbes, daughter of Patsy, the 71-year-old athletics veteran who was one of the two central characters of the documentary as he chased a gold medal in the world Masters Athletics Championship in Turin.

The other character was 92-year-old John McKeag. As he told the story of how his wife Isobel passed away after almost 50 years of marriage – she was his only ever girl – it would have broken your heart.

That was 20 years ago and after a year of living with his daughter he rediscovered his zest for life through his love for running and cycling.

On a good day he might do a 40 mile bike ride. On a bad day when it is pelting rain, he will get up on the turbo trainer and pedal away, just looking out the window, watching the world go by.

His daughter says she never has to cook him dinner or iron any of his clothes and he is always impeccably turned out.

Back to Forbes. He captained and played for Tyrone across two decades and captained Ardboe to their first county title in 1968.

Old, grainy footage of that match caught him in full flight, soloing the ball toe to hand against Coalisland which they won 1-8 to 0-7 at O'Neill Park, Dungannon.

Yet 45 years later, here he was slightly miffed at being pipped for a gold medal in the 100 metres by his arch-rival, German champion Guido Müller. What lust for life! And what a brainwave it was to screen this programme, especially with the weather on the turn.

Already, Forbes has received a lot of positive feedback. Many people who caught the show have experienced their own epiphany and are rooting out their old trainers – not to become septuagenarian sprint champions – but to get out walking, to enjoy the world and the simple things around them and in the process improving their health.

A few years ago, a movement to establish social Gaelic football took root in some pockets of Ulster, with the Ulster Council throwing their promotional weight behind it.

It was meant to entail men of a certain vintage beyond competitive action meeting up and playing a version of non-contact Gaelic football.

It soon became apparent that Gaelic football, or more likely the temperament of those who played the sport, was not suited to a mild-mannered contest.

Challenges flew in, ankles were twisted and men were winded with hefty challenges from hatchetmen who did not adapt well to the middle age spread.

It was not a runner, but more and more GAA clubs are recognising that although strictly-speaking they exist to stage and promote Gaelic games and cultural activities, there are other ways to skin a cat.

Last August, Errigal Ciaran ran the 'Errigal 250', with 170 cyclists leaving Ballygawley and heading to the St Mary's club in Sligo, being put up for the night and then returning the following day.

As a means of getting everyone back at roughly the same time, the slower cyclists headed for home earlier than the more experienced ones.

Around three-quarters of the way back, the leading group realised that with the wind on their backs and motivation growing, they weren't going to be caught, so they called in to Dessie McKenna's pub in Augher. Before long the pub was teeming with everybody stopping for refreshments.

As a group, they cycled the last five miles en masse, with children meeting them at the bottom of Ballygawley to join them for the final ascent to Gormley's corner.

Many participants that day had been keen to get involved with the club but had limited devotion to football, or else had the uneasiness of 'blow-ins.'

Now, they meet up and head off for cycles on Sundays, a living, breathing part of the fabric of the club.

They can't all be Patsy Forbes', but maybe they can be Phelim Hugh Forbes' – Patsy's brother. Two years ago, Phelim Hugh felt a pain during the Derry county final. He got it checked out and shortly after had a quadruple heart by-pass.

Nowadays he walks three miles a day, around Lough Fea and other scenic locations. The days he doesn't get out are the days he gets irritable.

More importantly, his activity brings him an awareness of health and the world around him.

And that's the greatest thing about sport.

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