GAA Football

Kicking Out: Where the air is thinner, madness exists

Donegal are used to the view from the top of the mountain in Ulster, and Derry are about to discover whether they can cope in the thin air. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

KUNTAL Joisher, an Indian alpinist famed for climbing the Himalayan peaks while subsisting on a completely vegan diet, was on his fourth ascent of Mount Everest when he got stuck behind three teenagers.

The trio in front of him had virtually no experience but with the number of people attempting to scale the world’s highest mountain doubling over the course of a decade, experienced climbers had come to almost get used to it.

Except how do you ever get used to what it’s like near the peak?

In a fascinating piece in GQ Magazine entitled ‘Chaos at the Top of the World’, journalist Joshua Hammer recounted the experiences of some of those who had scaled Everest and what they’d seen on their journeys.

Climbers refer to anything above 26,000-feet as ‘the death zone’.

On the ridge above the second step near Everest’s peak lie roughly 200 dead bodies. Global warming continues to melt the snow covering on more. The cost and risk of recovery is just too great.

At that height, the air pressure is so low that the body is receiving far less oxygen than it would at sea level. The risks of frostbite, heart attacks, strokes, heart or brain swelling and death are all greatly multiplied.

Kuntal Joisher was stuck behind these three teenagers as they took half an hour to negotiate what’s usually a 10-minute section of the mountain.

Beneath his feet, the fragility of life at the top was stark.

“You are standing at the ledge of a giant boulder, and it’s just wide enough to hold your boots, with a sheer drop on one side,” he said.

“You are totally exposed.”

Joisher trained six days a week, mixing up cardiovascular, strength, function and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

A typical cardio session would involve climbing 300 floors of stairs, up and down.

But so much of it was in the mind. And in preparing to be stood at the edge of the world knowing any half-slip and he’d fall off, he would prepare by going on long treks without drinking any water or eating any food.

The view from the top must be unimaginably beautiful, but not everyone has what it takes to get there.

That requires at least a spoonful of insanity.

We all possess the capacity for it but few are ever able to properly harness it.

The top end of Gaelic football is a manifestation of the madness.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing because to paraphrase the great Molly-Mae, we all have 24 hours a day and some just use theirs better than others.

But the time and energy required to get to the top are beyond what most could ever countenance.

If Derry manage to scale Ulster football’s biggest peak of the last decade, Donegal, it will be because they’ve unlocked the obsessive from within themselves.

We hear it all the time in GAA, how a team deserves respect because they’re out there training as hard as Dublin or Kerry.

Except they aren’t really. They might think that they are, but they aren’t.

That is the reality that Rory Gallagher has brought home to the Derry players.

Speaking after the win over Tyrone, captain Chrissy McKaigue touched on why Derry’s performance levels have gone through the roof under the Fermanagh native.

“That comes from lack of belief. And a lack of work being put in. For the best will in the world, you only think you’re working hard and you only think you’re professional until you become part of this Derry setup the last number of years.

“Because the management have brought an unbelievable professionalism and a complete togetherness to a Derry jersey that I have never had in my Derry career to date.”

The time and physical effort Derry have put into this season have been borderline unsustainable for anyone sane.

But the thought of seeing the view from the top can strip the oxygen from your mind even as you stand at ground level looking up.

Elevated by the wins over Tyrone and Monaghan, Derry right now are like the three teenagers blocking up the escape route that Donegal have made their own in the last decade.

The air will thin on them now. They’ve been through their own punishing regime to try and catch up physically, but that’s all they’ve done – catch up.

This is the air that Donegal have been breathing since Rory Gallagher injected their first shot of it into them as the trainer they didn’t know, but who knew every one of them by name before his first session of over 300 he’d take with players he’ll come back up against in two weeks’ time, four years after doing the same with Fermanagh.

It’s thinner still up where Dublin and Kerry and Mayo and Tyrone station themselves year after year.

They are the Kuntal Joshiers of our world.

You can think your body is capable of breathing at the top of Everest, but the physical demands of getting there just once are so intense that most don’t even know where to start.

There are always rookie climbers trying to find a way in Gaelic football.

In recent years Galway, Roscommon, Kildare, Armagh, Monaghan themselves have all found a level of madness that has brought them so far.

But none have gotten beyond 26,000 feet.

Derry have caught up on that group rapidly, because Rory Gallagher has exposed them to all he’s learned about life on top of the mountain.

On the ledge of that giant boulder, just wide enough to host Shane McGuigan’s boots, the drop waiting for them, the air can be unpleasant if you can suck in enough of it to get a breath.

Yet it’s where everyone wants to be.

The balance of probability suggests that Derry won’t ever scale Everest, but they look as though they’ll at least take their dying breath trying, and that makes them a very dangerous outfit altogether.

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