GRAEME COUSINS speaks to former Ulster Rugby player Stephen Bell who recently challenged himself to walk barefoot across Ireland
If ever someone had earned the right to put his feet up it is Stephen Bell.
Walking the entire way across Ireland from coast to coast is no mean feat, but for the ex-Ulster Rugby player who thrives on a challenge, he made the trek that extra bit tougher by doing it in his bare feet.
Starting from Castletownbere in Co Westcork on June 30, the 42-year-old made his way along ‘The Ireland Way’ – 620 miles across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – finishing in Ballintoy, Co Antrim, 23 days later.
Along with way he had run-ins with bulls and Dobermans, thorns and glass, and ended with feet which he described as looking like they belonged to a Hobbit.
With his ‘broken’ feet slowly healing, Stephen spoke to the News Letter about the challenge which he undertook to highlight the importance of connecting with nature and to raise money for the Northern Ireland Forest School Association.
He said: “My plan was to do it within 30 days, I really didn’t have an idea of how long it was going to take me. As far as I was aware the quickest anyone had walked the Ireland Way was 31 days – that was wearing shoes. Still, I wanted to beat that so I set myself 30 days.
“I was also on the clock because I had to take the time off work,” he added.
“I’m a bit of a competitive soul, I took a fair whack off the 30-day target. As it turned out I had to do it quickly, because my feet were really giving up on me – skin and stress fractures, various problems. I knew it was going to be absolutely brutal but it’s not until you attempt these things that you realise how brutal.”
He said: “My feet are incredibly strong and tough, but then I was doing in and around 40 to 45 kilometres most days. I’d never done that distance for more than three or four days in a row.
“One of the big difficulties was the heat. My feet were burning on the tar in the road. I literally left footprints from Castletownbere to Tipperary in that first week of July which was incredibly hot.”
He continued: “Day four was pretty brutal. I came off the mountains and the heat really hit me having done three days in really lovely grassy heather conditions, day four was the longest I’d ever walked. I was literally crying in a hedge thinking how the hell am I ever going to get home.”
Other difficulties along the way involved keeping fed and watered: “I wild camped the whole way – I took my tent with me. Getting food and water was a real challenge because a lot of the villages and towns weren’t right on the trail, maybe a few kilometres away. There were a lot of times I arrived when shops weren’t open or there wasn’t a shop.
“I was attacked by dogs throughout, bitten by a Doberman, I had a fair few fair run-ins with bulls and bullocks in fields, thorns and glass were issues.”
Of the final stretch back on the north coast he said: “There was one quite private moment then one moment I shared with everyone. Arriving on Castlerock beach it was a rainy day, I was on my own and it was quite emotional. Everything I’d gone through caught up with me.
“Although this journey was one of the most incredible experiences of my life it was also one of the most brutal. I suffered more physically and mentally in three weeks.
“Yet at any stage I could have stopped and gone home, ending the pain. So as I walked I gave much thought to the subject of suffering. In particular to those in the world who are without choice in the matter. Who endure immense suffering and don’t have a get out clause as I did.”
His journey thankfully finished on a high: “Arriving on Whitepark Bay, I got to walk the final five or six kilometres with friends and family and students – that was lovely.
“I didn’t feel the same emotion because I’d already had that privately. Plus I was knackered. I’d lost five or six kilos on the trip.”
Of the textures he experienced on the trip, he said: “Arriving in Castlerock beach was the first time I was back on sand. It’s the nicest texture along with grass.
“Sand is what a lot of people associate with being barefoot. You don’t need to know the science behind it. It just feels good.
“The toughest which I experienced for upwards of three to four hundred kilometres was stoney paths that you get in a forest trail, they are the worst and it’s slow going. I tried to find the grassy areas, the bits on the edges but they pose their own problems with thorns and brambles.”
Stephen explained how a bruising rugby career saw him look for ways to improve his body’s mechanics.
He said: “My background was professional rugby. I played for Ulster and was involved in the winning European Cup side of 1999. Post rugby career I was left with a battered and bruised and pretty wrecked body as many of the guys are.
“I went straight in to becoming a coach, teaching physical education, personal training. I started to specialise in natural movement.
“One of the ideas in natural movement is to improve our biomechanics, to spend time out of shoes and to let our feet – which are the foundations of our body – to move in different surfaces and terrains with freedom.
“This can help to improve biomechanics throughout the body.
“It really did work for me, it healed a lot of issues I had.”
He continued: “I began barefooting about six or seven years ago, earthing my feet with my shoes off.
“Very specifically I began training for this walk about a year ago.
“I began walking in forests, mountains, hillwalking, really stepping it up a notch, then in the last six months that was me training on roads, on harder surfaces, hardcore paths.
“Barefooting is something that I teach where I work – a forest facility in Upper Ballinderry. It’s just one aspect of what we do.
“A lot of problems come from poor footwear and the inability of our feet to function optimally. We cushion, we arch and we prop up, what we do is we end up demoting the strength and mobility and overall movement of the foot.
“The best footwear is really the lowest tech you can imagine.
“The younger that you can get people to go barefoot the better. Kids don’t feel it as much, you take an adult that’s been cushioned for 50 years and you try to get them to walk on a shaley path and they’re going to be going home crying pretty sharp.”
He added: “In the way I work and my current lifestyle I probably only wear shoes 20% of the time.
“When I do wear shoes they’re always Vivos – a brand of shoe with a back to basics design – because shoes don’t fit me now, my feet have got so broad I’m like Hobbit.”
Of his rugby career he said: “Hindsight is 20-20. I’d love to go back to rugby with the knowledge I have now in terms of physical training and how to look after your body – all the things I do and teach.
“But it’s definitely a young man’s game.
“I am into Jujitsu fairly intensely now. That gets my physical and aggressive outlet sorted out.
“I occasionally run into some of the Ulster players. I loved the rugby and enjoyed it at the time but for me I’m not one for llving in the past, it’s all about moving forward. I’m really enjoying this period in my life.
“I was never a big rugby fan, I just loved to play the game.”
After Ulster, Stephen played for Bedford before becoming player-coach of Cambridge RFC.
So what of his next adventure? “I’ve been trying to stay off my feet as much as any addicted mover can these last few weeks. The skin has almost recovered from all the tar burns and heavy blistering. The bones will take a little longer but well on the mend.
“Everyone is asking what next? What adventure? What challenge? I hadn’t seen anything beyond the walk. However I’ve imprinted adventure quite literally on my soul – so we’ll see.”