HE may have spent most of his childhood in bed, but Jerry Forde has more than made up for lost time, taking part in a remarkable 368 marathons to date.
And the 66-year-old from Blarney is far from finished.
“I’m looking forward to the Cork City Marathon in June,” he says. “That is my favourite marathon.”
That is some accolade, as he has travelled as far afield as Spain, Portugal, New York, Boston, Berlin and London to take part in the ultimate endurance test.
As a wheelchair athlete, Jerry has taken part in more marathons than anyone else in Ireland or the UK — and may even be a world record holder.
When he first got wheels as a child, he didn’t hang around.
“I was off racing other children along the hospital corridor,” recalls Jerry.
“Sometimes a hospital worker or a nun would come through the door and I’d collide with them. I almost took the legs of them! Then it was a week in bed for punishment!”
That must have been tough penance for the boy racer!
Jerry was born with spina bifida and spent his early childhood years lying on his face and hands, waiting for pressure sores to heal, in Temple Street, Balldoyle, St. Vincent’s and Cappagh Hospitals. He also spent time in the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire.
“That was life for me,” says Jerry. “I didn’t know anything else. I had no choice. If I wasn’t in bed, I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t move in the wheelchair because the wheels were too small. My parents didn’t have any transport, so I didn’t see them that often.”
Jerry hails from Clarinbridge. Co. Galway. I tell him that we are neighbours. My home-town is Oranmore in Co. Galway, 5km up the road from Clarinbridge. That is no distance to Jerry. He’d make fast tracks from Clarinbridge to Oranmore!
While lying in hospital beds as a child, Jerry got a love of radio from listening to music in the wards. His dulcet tones on his show, Anything Goes, are familiar to his regular listeners on Cork University Hospital Radio, 102fm, where he broadcasts five afternoons every week.
“The radio was all we had,” says Jerry, remembering his childhood years.
“The hospital requests were my favourite. So when I started my stint in 1989 on radio, I knew what I was doing.
“I listened to the radio for hours on end,” adds Jerry. “It helped pass the time when I was bed-bound.”
When he got to Dun Laoghaire, he was given a wheelchair that he could push himself. It was the start of him getting the wind beneath his wheels.
“Pushing the chair myself was a fierce novelty to me,” says Jerry, who is a member of the Blarney Inniscarra Athletic Club
“There were a few other children in the Rehabilitation Centre around that time, so we had races up and down the corridor. Speed was the name of the game. Getting from A to B in the fastest time was what it was all about.”
At the age of 12, Jerry came back to Cork to the Cheshire Home and he later got a place in the Help Industries in Vicars Road.
“Help Industries are run by COPE and trains people who are disabled for employment,” says Jerry. I got a job helping a tailor.”
But his eyes weren’t always on the job.
“I used to watch wheelchair athletes on television,” says Jerry. “And I wished that I could do what they did.”
Jerry eventually got his wish.
“The Spina Bifida Association bought a racing wheelchair for me,” says Jerry.
He was on a roll. and wanted to push the boundaries and prove what was possible.
“I took to it straight-away,” says Jerry. “The wheelchair was lightweight and I knew I could race in it. There is a right way to push a chair, but I just do it my way.
“A pal from Blarney came with me to the Mardyke and out the Mallow road where I started training.
Jerry’s first race was the Pfizer’s 10km road race, in 1992. The same year, he completed the Dublin City Marathon in an excellent 3 hours 25 minutes.
“My friend suggested that I get checked out by a doctor before I took part in my first marathon,” says Jerry. “It so happened that the doctor had done the Dublin City Marathon himself. He said it would be great for me to get involved and to go for it.”
Jerry did just that — and the rest!
“Races have given me an me a new lease of life,” he says. “They took me from lying in a bed to having now travelled the world. I’ve got to know some lovely people and I have made life-long friends.
“I’m also chuffed at young people, who wouldn’t know me at all, passing me in races and saying ‘You are my hero’. That’s amazing.”
Jerry doesn’t rest on his laurels.
“I started travelling abroad to take part in races. I’ve travelled to most of the EU countries and to the USA. I’ve done road races in the 26 counties in Ireland. Racing is a hobby that I love.”
Did he ever take a tumble in the thousands of miles that he has travelled?
Jerry laughs at the memories.
“At the London Marathon one year, I wasn’t concentrating on what I was doing coming up to a turn. I didn’t take the turn and I keeled over. I had my helmet on but I suffered a bit of concussion. Another time my wheelchair got lost in transit. That was a bit of a nuisance.”
Does his chair need regular maintenance?
“I’m friendly with a gang in Westend Cycles in Ballincollig,” says Jerry. “If I need a job done on my chair, they will do it. I often just go out there for a chat.”
Jerry obviously has drive and determination. Where does his physical strength come from?
“I built up my arms to gain more muscle when I began using longer crutches to walk. They are tucked under my arm and using them made me stronger. And I did suffer a mini-stroke in 2014 when I lost the power in my right hand. But I recovered. I’m in good nick ever since.”
What has Jerry liked best about his hobby during all the thousands of miles that he has clocked up?
“I love the feeling of freedom that racing gives me. The cráic and the camaraderie is mighty.”
What about all the medals on the wall in his bungalow in Blarney?
“There are good to have too,” says Jerry.
“They have become like a passport in a sense.”
Jerry has a regime that is his passport to success.
“The warm-up, the training and the cool-down take nearly an hour every morning,” he explains. “I usually eat porridge, some cereal an egg, cereal and toast. Dinner is basic”
For his radio show, Jerry ensures his voice, like his wheels, is well oiled.
“I keep fruit and water with me so that my voice sounds good.”
Is he a good cook?
“I can offer you a cup of tea, but I won’t be inviting you over for dinner!” laughs Jerry.
Jerry is always thinking ahead.
“Some nights, in my head, I will count up the next marathons.”
I tell Jerry its better than counting sheep.
He laughs. Obviously, his good cheer and his sparky spirit have not been dented over the years.
“I’ve never looked back since I started racing,” says Jerry. “Only ahead.”
The Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon takes place on Sunday, June 4. See www.corkcitymarathon.ie/