Eight years ago, Glenn White and his family moved from Devon to manage the Drumnaph Nature Reserve. He tells Michael McMullan his story of nature, his mental and physical fitness journey and a 40-day mountain challenge...
As sporting clubs and leisure centres lay dormant, lockdown saw the visitor numbers quadruple at Drumnaph Nature Reserve.
Outside Maghera, under the shadow of Carntogher mountain, its meandering paths kept both the local community and those from further afield on the move.
Glenn White's accent tells you he's not local. This month marks eight years since he swapped Devon for rural County Derry. With his wife Kelley, their daughter Rowan and son Oisín, the Hampshire native has been the heartbeat of this oasis.
Kelley's roots are closer. Born in Canada, she was brought up in Dorset, but her mother, Patricia O'Kane, is local to County Derry and walked with her family through Drumnaph Woods on their way to school in Tirkane.
On a visit back to Ireland, Kelley met members of the local Carntogher Community Association. Founded in 1992, their purpose was to promote a regeneration of the area and Drumnaph was the next piece of their puzzle.
“They had just bought this place and were looking for someone to run it and had a list of a varied set of skills they wanted,” Glenn begins.
When Kelley rang home relaying the proposal to Glenn, it plucked at their heart strings. It read like their 'combined CV' and those on the slopes of Carntogher liked what they had to offer.
From Glenn's background in environmental science and teaching outdoor skills, to Kelley's knowledge of horticulture and their furniture business, they fitted the bill.
“It was an eclectic mix of skills that they wanted,” Glenn points out. “We packed up and came here, with the kids (then aged five and seven) and the dog.”
The children embedded into the community and despite not having the early grounding in Irish, they are both now fluent.
“Being the new English family in the area, everyone knows who you are, while you don't know who anyone else is,” Glenn jokes about the warm welcome they received. "It is a small community and it has a good community feel to it."
He managed the entire 18-month project of getting the reserve ready for the official opening. With the help of a couple of locals on diggers, the paths, gates and fencing all took shape. Glenn's handiwork is etched everywhere, including the crafted signs that greet visitors at the entrance.
Glenn's handcrafted sign at Drumnaph's entrance
It is very much a team effort. Kelley looks after the horticulture side of things and they have allotments. Their lantern walks at Halloween brought people from far and wide. There have been camping nights. Visits from school and university groups, an array of all things outdoor.
For the past year, with the help of lockdown, it has been a haven of fitness.
“What was a busy day in the car park in 2019, is our quiet time now,” Glenn outlines.
“We have got to the point where people turn away as they have nowhere to park. It has taken a global pandemic to make people realise they have a gem on their doorstep.”
It is a solace that hones both mental and physical fitness in dovetail fashion, while finding a balance in ensuring nothing gets in the way of nature, Drumnaph's primary focus.
Glenn, by his own admission, is candid about his mental health. His anxiety began to take root by the age of eight, a year after he lost his older brother Damon who tragically died after being hit by a car.
“He was six years older than me. He was my world and the person I looked up to most,” Glenn outlines.
The tragedy had an affect on the entire family and dramatically changed his parents. His oldest brother Sean had turned 16 and began to take his own direction in the world.
“I went from sharing a room with my brother, who I idolised, to essentially being an only child suddenly,” Glenn adds.
With his parents both working evenings, Glenn found himself watching his new television in his room. It took a hold on his life. It has now turned full circle from the 'TV generation' and he hasn't owned a telly in the last 15 years.
His anxiety still lingers on the fringes. Some days it hits him hard, but over the years he has found a way of managing it.
A mood tracking app on his phone is his most recent addition to his mental health toolbox. More generally, a love for the outdoors, keeping Drumnaph groomed and a more recent vocation as a lifestyle and fitness coach keep his anxiety as an unwelcome visitor on the outside.
“It's like living with an addiction, it never goes away. Kelley can tell you, I can be in a bit of a dark space,” Glenn admits.
“For me, I will be in a bit of a funk and I will go out and swing a kettlebell, go for a run or a swim, hit the heavy bag, do a bit of mobility, or yoga...it always lightens my mood.”
At first glance, he is in tip top shape. Not bad for the kid who dreaded PE at school and on occasions was hospitalised by asthma.
“My attitude was the only time I would run was if someone was chasing me,” he jokes.
He admits to being an 'overweight kid' and while his childhood trauma kicked off his anxiety, there were other factors. Lifestyle choices, diet and gut health are other contributors.
The bottles of cola he drank as in his youth are now like the television set, banished.
“I was massively detached from my body, which meant I was filling it full of shit,” Glenn adds. “It (his diet) would've been fairly high in sugar.
“My asthma was exercise induced and at the same time my lack of exercise meant that my lungs weren't being used to their capacity so they could strengthen and get used to it.”
As he turned into his mid-twenties, a decision to run the Bath half marathon changed Glenn's fitness journey. He needed to step outside himself.
“A challenge has to be something that makes me a little bit scared,” he now firmly believes, with the benefit of hindsight.”
It needs to be halfway on the path between something he could either fail or blossom at.
On that day in Bath, the hard yards of preparations paid off. Running hadn't appealed to him, yet the runner's high was gushing through his body. He was hooked. Exercise now makes him tick.
Now, in this latest chapter of his life, fitness and nature are intertwined. He speaks of reading through studies that link outdoor life to an improving level of mental health.
Lockdown in the country and urban environments are poles apart. The pheromones released from the foliage does wonders for the mood. Interacting with living creatures makes all the difference. Even something as simple as owning a plant or looking at photos of nature. It all helps.
Looking out the window of a cabin at the back of Glenn's house, the countryside creeps for miles. Perched on a seat he crafted himself, the words flow with ease. Contentment comes from honesty. He has learned to move on. With every word comes a sense of a man happy with his lot. A couple of hours in his company offers more than a handful of nuggets to ponder. It's easy to see why he fits like a glove in the heart of Drumnaph.
Two crucial strikes steered Slaughtneil camogs home on the biggest season of all.
After smashing through Ulster's glass ceiling and reaching Croke Park, Mary Kelly's goal set them on their way to their first All-Ireland title in 2017. And late on, Eilís Ní Chaiside's wonder point from under the shadow of the Hogan Stand sideline sealed Sarsfields' fate.
Away from the pitch, Glenn White's conditioning work at the An Carn complex had them at the top of their game, with runs and team bonding sessions around Drumnaph's paths also part of the package. When the club rolled out their health and well-being events, he chipped in to help.
Now fully woven into the community's fabric, Glenn and Kelley were keen to add as many strings to the Drumnaph as possible.
After unsuccessfully looking for a coach to oversee their planned couch to 5K event, Glenn took the initiative of training as a personal trainer himself and 'over 50' people signed up.
“They loved it because it wasn't pounding the streets or running around a pitch countless times,” he reveals.
“They weren't on show, they weren't running around a town which could be a concern if their body image is an issue...and they got the benefits of nature.”
And just like that, Glenn's Wild Life health coaching began to take legs. With it, follows a desire to seek out a challenge.
Last year, he completed the 'iron mile' which consisted of over 2,000 swings of a 16kg kettlebell along a one-mile course, in the punishing heat that left blisters all over his hands.
This year, he picked a different challenge, one inspired by watching the film 3100: Run and Become on his laptop. It was based around a daily run around a block in New York City inside 52 days, amounting to 3,100 miles. An average of 60 miles a day.
The film also follows a Tendai monk around the Hiei mountains in Japan, a Navajo canyon runner in Arizona and Kalahari bushmen.
“I liked the idea, but it didn't appeal to me,” Glenn admits. “I am not a religious person, but I count myself as a spiritual person. I enjoy running and enjoy being in the mountains. Climbing up a hill is always something I have done when I wanted clarity.”
On New Year's Day this year, Glenn began the first of his daily runs up to the summit of the Carntogher mountain, with its iconic snout.
“When you see it when you are driving, you know you're heading home,” he adds. “The emigrants' cairn at the top...people leaving this area, it's the last thing people can see of home. That's powerful.”
Glenn had built up his own relationship with the mountain from running it 'at least once' a week. Now, he had set out to run it on 30 consecutive days. No music blaring out of earphones. Just to experience the mountain.
“Just a mad dog and an Englishman,” he jokes.
One man and his dog at the top of Carntogher
On one of the earlier days, his calculations told him if he extended his challenge by another 10 days, it would be equivalent to running up Everest, but decided to keep the thought under his hat until the 20th day.
“I felt I could bump it up,” he thought at the halfway point. “I am feeling good and I can do this. I ran every day, some days from the house because with the snow I couldn't get anywhere near the mountain in a vehicle.
“Lots of days I had to wear ice cleats and one of the days I had to wear running crampons as the snow was so deep.”
He didn't go full pelt every day. With the difficult conditions and a need to keep safe across 40 days, boxing clever was the priority and mixed walking with running.
The clock wasn't his nemesis. It was all about completing the challenge and the mental game. Rain, hail or snow, the climb was all that mattered.
“It was amazing because every day was different,” Glenn adds. “Some weeks you'd have radically different weather. It could be warm in the sheltered area, there was deep snow, thick ice, gale force winds and some days it was like running up a river with the rain.”
At the top, he'd take a moment to compose himself, pull out his phone to take a snap before heading on his descent. The photos he uploaded to Facebook allowed those not privileged with the view to soak in the wonders on their doorstep.
“I did feel like an adventurer or an explorer, it felt like I was climbing Everest,” he said.
“You can have a sense of community with a place and with nature. I had high quality social interaction...just, me the dog and the mountain,” he added of the rugged landscape of the Carn.
He would find himself talking to the mountain and preferred to run alone.
“People were scared of me by the point,” he joked. “They'd probably be saying 'it's that mumbling Englishman' if they saw me.”
On all but five of the days, he met someone on the slopes which was the sign of the mountain's growing popularity.
By day 40, it was no different. It was safety first. There would be no crazy sprint finish. Fresh in his mind was a climber needing an airlift rescue before Christmas.
“It may seem like a tame mountain, but if you fall over in the middle of winter and break your leg and it is minus five degrees, you don't have time to get help, so I was always mindful of staying safe,” he adds.
And after all the graft, getting to the finish line was all that mattered. He had come a long way from the Bath marathon. The last day was 'stunning' and he shared it with Kelley.
“We were up there for sunrise and there was the most beautiful sky and the sun was coming up. It was amazing and it was great to share it with her,” he beamed.
Two photos jump out of his photo album. One of him basking under the sun at the summit, while the other captures him in his naturally formed 'ice bath' in the garden.
Once a week, he takes a dip in sub zero temperatures. It helps with recovery and, while not wanting to rest on his laurels, it's getting him acclimatised for his next challenge.
If the Covid-19 lockdown subsides enough to get the training done, along with a friend, he is planning a 15km swim from Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, back to Machaire Rabhartaigh on the mainland.
“We are swimming that way in case we'd miss the island on our way out,” jokes Glenn, while also confessing it will take him well outside his comfort zone.
But, like his other challenges, completing it rubber-stamps the belief of defeating an enemy like depression. Mental and physical fitness, he puts them on the same pedestal.
“When you are in the pain cave, you haven't got any option other than to fight your way out of it. It teaches you that these things are just transient things, that they'll pass.”
His plan to swim in the Atlantic is a similar story.
“I have a fear of deep water,” Glenn jokes. He apportions the blame on Stephen Spielberg and the Jaws' movies for killing swimming for an entire generation.
“When I am suffering from anxiety, when I am trying to describe it to people, it feels like I am drowning in my own body and so this is the symbolic thing.
“It felt like a good challenge and I will be raising money for mental health charities.”
Glenn would love to be swimming in the sea, but with lockdown he can't justify the journey. Instead, he put on his creativity hat and looked for an affordable alternative to an infinity pool.
Glenn chilling out in his homemade icebath
With the help of a pool of water in Ballerin's Errigal Glen and a four-metre bungee cord attaching himself to a fixed point, it allows him to swim as long as he wants. All with thoughts of battling the Atlantic waves.
Before that, he'd be far from idle. Cutting back some of the trees to help air circulation around Drumnaph will keep it maintained for the steady footfall. There is an upcoming bee-keeping course. It never sits still. His and Kelley's approach to Wild Life's health coaching will offer their experiences onto others.
“I would never profess to counsel people through their mental health issues. But I have a good understanding of the aspects of being physical and looking at your nutrition as to how it helps. Counselling, physical work, nutritional work, lifestyle choices, they are all part of a bigger picture for physical and mental health.”
Glenn's picture looks more different now but it's one nature helps him maintain in pristine condition.
For more information on Glenn's five pillars of health and his blog, visit - www.we-are-wild.life
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