FOR THE MOST part, Johan Jacobsen is like any other two-year old.
According to his parents – Breeda (from Galway) and Bjorn (from Sweden) — when Johan was born, his legs were so strong they joked about him being a soccer or rugby player and their biggest worry was which country he would tog out for.
Unfortunately for the Jacobsens, Johan failed to hit his developmental goals and was unable to sit upright at six months.
A few weeks after his first birthday, the Jacobsens learned that Johan had cerebral palsy because of damage to his brain during his mother’s pregnancy that resulted in a condition called Periventricular Leukomalacia (PVL).
As he is so young, it is difficult to predict his future mobility but his parents have been advised that that he will more than likely need a rollator or crutches to walk and will need a wheelchair for longer distances.
However, he is also a prime candidate for an operation known as Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR) which permanently removes most, if not all, of the spasticity that inhibits normal movement.
It is, however, a one-time only operation so Johan’s parents have decided to have the it carried out at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Between the operation and recovery physio, it will cost the Jacobsens €85,000.
That’s where Galway native Gavan Hennigan comes in. A family friend of the Jacobsens, Hennigan is set to take on the world’s toughest and coldest adventure race next year in a bid to help raise funds for Johan’s operation.
But when the day job sees you working as a deep sea diver in the North Sea and living in a pressure chamber for up to a month at time, running a 300 mile adventure race in -45°C weather shouldn’t present too much trouble.
“I work as a commercial diver in the North Sea and all over the world. I’m a saturation diver, so I do deep-sea, heavy construction work on oil platforms,” Hennigan told The42recently.
“It’s right up there with the most dangerous jobs in the world. That said, there are a lot of safety measures in place.
“I was a bricklayer originally and, like many Irish people, I went out to Australia on a year’s visa and was working away out there. I found out about this specialist course and, having grown up by the sea in Salthill, the idea of being a diver really appealed to me.
“My visa ran out so I went up to Bali and I ended up working all over south east Asia, west Africa, Russia all over the place.”
The nature of Hennigan’s job means he can actually prepare for a race like the Yukon Arctic Ultra without having to take too many days holidays.
“I get good time off. I work a lot of the summer in the North Sea and then I get a few months off at a time so I get a good lead up to these long events, to be able to train full time.
“My job as well, of course, is very physical in its own way so I’m on top of things fitness wise most of the time anyway.
“It’s a high pressure job, poor visibility a lot of the time and complex engineering tasks facing you all the time.
“On top of that, we live in a chamber for up to a month at a time so I’m pretty much housed in this little space for a lot of the time with two of the lads. That in itself leads to a lot of mental toughness to be able to go out into the Arctic for six days and get through it.”
You might think that you would need an athletics background to take part in something like the Yukon Arctic Ultra but it was a youth spent snowboarding that Hennigan believes will provide ideal preparation for the race.
“My background would have been mountaineering and snowboarding rather than athletics. It’s only in the last 18 months I’ve taken to racing. With the snowboarding though I would have gone back-country camping, etc and spent up to three weeks on glacier in Alaska before.
“The 6633 Ultra earlier this year was my first big adventure race. Before that I would have done a lot of stuff in the west of Ireland where I’d have gone out into the mountains and traversed the trails for three or four days.
“The 6633 was 350 miles from just inside the Arctic circle right up to this little village on the edge of the Arctic sea.
“This one is in the Yukon as well, I suppose there’s only a handful of these types of races. With all the cold weather gear I bought for the 6633 I suppose it made sense that I look for another one and put it to good use.”
Of course, taking part in this type of race is as tough on the mind as it is on the body but Hennigan has Johan as extra motivation.
“Breeda is a family friend from Salthill. There’s a lot of people doing some great stuff like running marathons and other fund-raising events but I just said I’d get involved and try and drum up some awareness and some money.
“It’s a really good cause as it makes you realise there are so many young people out there who don’t start off in life with the same chances as you or I do.
“At the end of the day I’m in a privileged position. I’m healthy and fit and I’m able to go and do a race like this where as this little lad doesn’t have a whole lot of chances at this stage in his life.
“So it’s just about using it as motivation to drive myself to do well, to finish the race and raise some money in the mean time.”
Between now and February, Hennigan’s training will involve doing his best to re-create Arctic conditions in Galway. It’s something he admits is easier said that done.
“The weather’s been so mild at the moment it’s tough to recreate what I’m going to be running in but I have a tyre that I’ve been dragging around and at least that lets me train for pulling the sled around.
“In December and January I’ll go up and down mountains like Croke Patrick at night three or four times and hopefully the temperature will get down low enough for that.”
And as for the weather itself during the race?
“Once you get past -10°C it all kind of feels the same but once it drops to -35°C is really really serious as you can’t have any skin exposed as you’ll get frostbite so you have to be very careful.”
You can find out more information on Johan Jacobsen here.
You can donate to Gavan Henigan’s fundraising page for the Yukon Arctic Ultra here.