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Adventurer Gavan Hennigan's Journey From Junkie To Goliath Of Endurance Sports

'I believe the body to just be like a machine. It can do anything.'

25/03/2017 09:12 | Updated 27 April 2017
Ben Duffy
Hennigan at the finish line after completing the 5000km Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge in February 2017

He’d run hundreds of miles across the untouched wilderness of Canada’s Yukon-territory when the hallucinations took hold, but unlike other athletes who would later tell of their desperate fight to grasp reality through the kaleidoscope of sleep deprivation, Gavan Hennigan was in his element – he had oodles of experience with acid.

“Your eyes start to play tricks, and your mind… you can’t quite define things because the light’s dim. I started seeing aliens with ray-guns. I saw a t-rex… but I was quite into it. I was just really just going with it… enjoying it. I’d really look at stuff and try and identify it and as I got closer it would morph back into a tree.

“A lot of people were like, ‘I was trying to tell myself it wasn’t real’, but I was well into it.

“I was out of it. Seriously, the amount of drugs I’ve done. I did a lot of acid when I was younger, but I hallucinated way more when I was out on the Yukon than I did when I was on drugs.”

The Yukon Arctic Ultra, beginning in Whitehorse, in the northwest corner of Canada, is a mixed-distance, mixed-discipline (mountain bike, xc-skis or foot) race billed as the toughest on the planet. It follows the trail of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile slog (ending in Fairbanks, Alaska) undertaken annually by teams of sled dogs in temperatures that can drop to -50.

Gavan Hennigan
Hennigan during the Yukon Arctic Ultra in Canada where he finished second in 2015

In 2015, Hennigan, who celebrated his 36th birthday this week and is physically unspectacular, nuggety, but light (78Kgs), and around 5’10 tall, completed the 300-mile course on foot in 123 hours – five days – on just six hours sleep, to claim second place and the third-fastest time ever recorded.

Three weeks later, “halfway across the planet”, the Irishman - mushing his own 70kg sled of supplies on foot - completed a 440-mile solo traverse of frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, the oldest and deepest lake in the world, in 17 days.

He’d seen a photo of the blue lake in winter – a Jackson Pollock-esque masterpiece of pressure cracks – “the most amazing thing” - and just had to do it, not so much out of a sense of adventure – “there’s a very big romantic notion there with everything I do” – he explained, of not just that journey, but his metamorphosis from junkie to a goliath of endurance sports, which saw him fall in love with nature, and choose life over drugs.

Gavan Hennigan/Facebook
Hennigan takes time out during one of his adventures to pose for a cheeky snap

“I’m still trying to put my finger on it a lot of the time, but there’s a lot of similarities there… the drugs and alcohol and what I’m doing now… you’ve got to replace it with something. You’ve got to find what does it for you in life. So many people asked me… did you feel lonely on the Atlantic (during a rowing race). I never felt lonely once. I feel I have everything backwards. I feel more lonely around a group of people than I do when I’m out on the ocean. When I’m out in nature, I feel a real connection there.”

An airport purchase - Salt, Sweat and Tears: The Men Who Rowed The Oceans – in which author Adam Rackley describes “stirring up phosphorescent plankton with every oar stroke beneath the Milky Way” – was enough to sign Hennigan up for his most recent challenge, a 5,000km (3,100 mile) rowing race from the Canary Islands to Antigua – despite having no experience. He finished on February 1, in 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes, placing third behind four-man crews and smashing the previous record by an Irishman, set in 2010, by more than two months.

Hennigan’s secret to endurance sport success is his fortitude. He is “apathetic” to pain - a mindset earned through personal suffering and whose checkpoints included rehab and a stint in a psychiatric ward before the age most finish university or get their first job.

“It is a lot to do with the mental side of things. I believe the body to just be like a machine. It can do anything. It can do way more than we think it can. It can put up with an enormous amount of hardship. You just need to look at some obese person walking around to see the shit people go through. So a bit of sleep deprivation isn’t going to kill you. I have a lot of apathy towards physical suffering. I won’t allow myself to be bothered by it.”

Growing up in Galway, Hennigan was a talented swimmer as a teen – finishing second in the Irish nationals at 16 – before he threw in the towel to follow his late father’s footsteps into alcoholism. He thought he had “peaked… and that was it. That I wasn’t going to get any better. And in hindsight that was the biggest lie ever.

“I had issues with self-esteem and confidence. I didn’t have a father telling me I could do stuff. I didn’t have any role models. I had plenty of friends and on the surface… you wouldn’t have thought anything. But underneath...”

Gavan Hennigan
Hennigan during a 440-mile solo traverse of frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, the oldest and deepest lake in the world

At 15 he had his first drink - “I took to it straight away… on my first night I blacked out” – and a year later, that’s all he wanted to do: “I never thought about a career or a future. Once I started drinking I just thought, ‘I want to get fucked up right now’, and that was it.” 

Leaving school at 17, Hennigan focused on drink and drugs full time, while simultaneously working as a lifeguard at a local pool, “stoned… staring at the clock all day”.

“I’d be gone (from home) 2-3 days at a time and I started smoking a lot of weed. I was using that 24/7. I’d start the day with bong hits. And I was quite into ecstasy,” Hennigan recalls.

Two addictions later became three, as Hennigan swapped lifeguarding for sharking at the local casino, where he worked in a team to prey on pokie [slot] machines overdue a payout, often stealing from his mum to get the wheels spinning.

“The way it works is that the machine will take a certain amount of money before it will pay out something. So if someone was trying to win money on a machine for a long time, then we’d know there is money in it. So they’d go to work the next day and we’d come back in and hit that machine.

Gavan Hennigan/Facebook
A bulked-up Hennigan in a picture from his Facebook page

“You could be playing machines for days on end, or from like 10 in the morning until 2am trying to make it pay… we did alright for a while… but you’d end up getting stung eventually. I had one machine that took a lot of money. Everything I had.”

Hennigan’s mother, Julie, kicked him out of home at 18, as she had done his father, almost a decade earlier. He moved to The Hague, Holland, where he discovered Heroin was a “fucking nice way… an easier way” to counteract the comedown after taking “shit tones of E’s (ecstasy)… 15-20 a night” at raves.

“I’d come home in serious states before (in Galway). I came home. I remember on Sunday, after I’d been out for three days. I fucken basically passed out in bed. And I was so out of it that I needed to take a shit, that I just hung my arse outside of the bed and shat on the ground. And there were E’s all over the ground and the dog was coming in and licking them. She (Hennigan’s mother) did the tough love thing. At the time I thought it was a really callous thing to do, but looking back, it was the best thing to do.”

When his money ran out, Hennigan returned to Ireland, with a bag of ecstasy in tow. “I was just thinking these are great E’s and everyone at home will fucking love them. It wasn’t like I was thinking ‘I’m investing in myself right now’. Jesus, there was none of that. I was just at the coalface of everything. I was never thinking too far ahead.”

After being caught dealing the Class A drug, Hennigan made a deal with the police who wanted him “to get a bigger guy… set him up”, in exchange for letting him off charges. “I said I’d do it, but I knew in my head straight away, ‘if they let me out of here, I’m gone’.”

I came around the next day, in the evening, in the hospital, with a nurse beside me and a drip in my arm. I don’t remember what had happened. All I remember is that I pulled the IV out of my arm and I got out of there. I just remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get the fuck out of here’.”

Southend-on-sea, in Essex, was his next home, with a guy he wasn’t “that friendly with”, who was on the run as he owed “lots of money to dealers”. The plan was to move to London, but in two years the pair never made it anywhere: “It was a really shit time. He was a mess. I was a mess.”

Hennigan went to a community college and learnt to lay bricks with the hopes of securing an apprenticeship, but instead he “kept getting fired”.

“Paid on Friday, broke by Monday”, Hennigan lived for the weekends, parting in London nightclubs - whose rave culture was “one of the big diving forces with my drug use”- until he could no longer afford it.

Living off his flatmate, Hennigan was stuck at their flat, which consisted of a fridge, windows blacked out with rubbish bags, two beanbags, a TV, and a mattress on the floor. Days were spent getting stoned, nights smoking heroin and eating pot noodles with the neighbor, an ex-con junkie who had just been released.

On his 21st birthday Hennigan zipped up a onesie smeared with fake blood and attended a Halloween party in London where he necked “a bunch of E’s” before buying a gram of MDMA (the base ingredient of ecstasy in powder form) around 5am, and heading for a rave under London bridge.

The gram was added to what was left of a 3-litre bottle of cider: “I just remember drinking back all of that and going into the rave, having had 8-10 E’s already… then I don’t remember anything.

Gavan Hennigan/Facebook
Hennigan takes an ice bath

“I came around the next day, in the evening, in the hospital, with a nurse beside me and a drip in my arm. I don’t remember what had happened. All I remember is that I pulled the IV out of my arm and I got out of there. I just remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here’.”

Next stop the pub, for a pint: “Then I passed out. I passed out multiple times. I went around and around and around on the Circle line for hours. Then I got kicked off that. I managed to get home to my sister’s eventually. I was pretty out of it.”

Hennigan said the episode was “definitely a wake up call”, but he went out the following weekend and got “completely fucken hammered again”.

Ben Duffy
Hennigan was a champion swimmer as a youth but quit age 16 after finishing second at the Irish nationals as he thought he had 'peaked'

Returning to Galway for a funeral, Hennigan “got straight back into party mode with all these people I hadn’t seen”, before being confronted by his mother, as he “launched” into her liquor cabinet on Monday morning after a bender with a buddy.

“She was like, ‘what is going on here’… she had always said to me that I was exactly like my dad, which used to make me really angry, because I hated him, and I didn’t want to be anything like him. I did drink a lot… but I saw myself as choosing drugs, so being somewhat different.”

Hennigan tried AA at his mother insistence, but “wasn’t sold on it” and kept going out partying: “There was a lot of older people there. I was 21. There were loads of stories of beating the wife up and crashing cars and I never had any of that. I just didn’t identify with it.”

His father, Paul, later agreed to pay for him to go into rehab and the genesis of his grief, and his appetite for self-destruction, was discovered: Hennigan was gay.

Sexually, I knew what I wanted. That was fine. But as soon as it was over, there was a lot of shame there. And the fact I liked older men… I knew it was something I could never tell anyone. That it was something that I had to keep a secret."

While Hennigan’s predisposition to substance abuse could be traced to his father, and he concedes “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree”, his addiction was also the manifestation of the shame he felt for not only being homosexual, but also for fancying, “older men, men twice my age, at least, which is the same to this day. And that used to really freak me out when I was younger”.

He continued: “I had broken down again in front of my mum… it was a lot to do with the gay stuff, the older man thing. I was really bothered with it, like there was something really wrong with me and I’ve never really spoken about it. I know it’s not a big deal these days, but for me it has always been an issue. And it still sometimes is for me now.”

Hennigan had a girlfriend at 15, but it “didn’t work out at all”, but he “couldn’t quite put [his] finger on it”. However, by 17 he was feeding his carnal urges in secret, at cruising spots, “like public toilets… where you meet married guys. It was basically married men in the cubicle, or in the back of their cars.”

His addictions gave him confidence to satisfy his urges, and also helped temporarily remove the remorse he felt for pursuing them. But his secret never left him.

“Sexually, I knew what I wanted. That was fine. But as soon as it was over, there was a lot of shame there. And the fact I liked older men… I knew it was something I could never tell anyone. That it was something that I had to keep a secret. And I used to be afraid when I drank, or used, that when I work up, or blacked out, or couldn’t remember anything for a few hours, that I would have said something to someone. I’d be like, ‘shit did I say something?’ An awful lot of energy went into keeping that a secret.”

Although telling his mother he was gay at 19, Hennigan never felt he could discuss his sexuality in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993:

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not. This is the mid-to-late 90s in Ireland, on the west coast. Ireland has changed a ridiculous amount in the last few years… but then.”

Ben Duffy
Hennigan, left, before the Atlantic rowing challenge and, right, more rugged and toned afterwards

Hennigan’s preference for older men also sat uncomfortably with him due to the sense of abandonment and longing he felt towards his father, Paul, who was absent for most of his childhood and suffered from not only alcoholism, but bi-polar and psychosis. “I remember going to see him at a psychiatric unit in Dublin and they’d done this electrolysis treatment on him and he didn’t even know who I was… he was so zapped.”

As two moneyed, silver-haired men in suits verbally sparred at an adjacent table at a Japanese restaurant in London’s Soho this week, Hennigan, turned his head downwards and lowered his voice: “I still have a voice in my head. For me, the way I saw my being gay. Obviously, some people say you were born gay. But I feel like, I, that, through my experience… I felt like my wires got crossed some how in my sexual development. And that, through my longing for my dad, which I had when I was younger… I had times when he was meant to come to pick me up on a Sunday and I’d sit on the window ledge all day waiting for him to come around. And he wouldn’t. And, like, there’s something there… I just don’t think it’s a coincidence. That’s what I had an issue with.

Gavan Hennigan
Hennigan pictured surfing in Ireland where he made a 'spiritual connection' that changed his life

“I never really had any relationships with older men when I was younger. I always rebelled against it. I never sought it out because I was too close to the source, almost. I didn’t see how it would ever be possible to have that relationship, because I never saw any examples of it. There was a lot of despair there. Like, ‘what am I going to do? Am I going to be alone forever?

“I never escaped it. That was one of the reasons why, and one the reasons I’ve stayed sober, because I never thought I fitted in anyway.”

Hennigan made it through five weeks of rehab thanks to a counsellor who “painted a new horizon” for him, and through group sessions with his family that “highlighted the pain” he was causing them: “It’s very exposing in a lot of ways.”

So focused on feeding his addictions, Hennigan had “never stopped to think about what they were going through”. How his mother had left his father to “take a stand for herself and us kids which was unheard of in Catholic Ireland in the 90s… and to have to go through that with me all over again.”

Definitely it was a turning point. My life completely changed after that. It was a spiritual experience. That was the connection. Everything was disconnected, and then I found the connection. And that’s what I’ve been chasing ever since”

After rehab came AA meetings, but despite a few relapses Hennigan was on track: The first step, admitting that he was powerless to alcohol and that his life was unmanageable, really resonated with him: “That word powerless, that just made total sense… that jumped out at me… that resonated with me. That’s how I felt in what ever I did… regardless of the amount I was using, or what I was doing, I had that fucking feeling of powerlessness in my life.”

Then he lost his job and without drugs and alcohol to shield him self from the blow, Hennigan became suicidal and, three months after beating his addiction, he made a “botched attempt” at taking his life. That led to 10 days in a psychiatric unit.

“Here I was a few months clean, supposedly doing the right thing, and everyone had told me things would get better, and I lost my job because my head wasn’t really in it. I was really down on myself. And now I didn’t have alcohol and drugs to fall back on. Ultimately that wasn’t the answer. So I thought suicide must be.”

At Lahinch, a small town on Liscannor Bay, on the northwest coast of Country Clare, as he battled for breath and buoyancy below the erupting turbulence of broken waves, Hennigan, in a “pissed filled wetsuit” finally made a “spiritual connection” with the world he had been anaesthetising himself from since age 15.

Gavan Hennigan
Hennigan during the 300-mile long Yukon Arctic Ultra in Canada

“I just flailed around in the water for half an hour before I got washed up on the beach. I didn’t actually catch a wave or anything. It was a pretty poor attempt at surfing. It was the middle of November on the west coast of Ireland. It was howling a gale.

“But that was a point for me. I just remember how fast the clouds were moving and just the rawness of being out in the water. Definitely it was a turning point. My life completely changed after that. It was a spiritual experience. That was the connection. Everything was disconnected, and then I found the connection. And that’s what I’ve been chasing ever since.”

Surfing led to a job in an outdoor store, “so I had access to the gear”, and motivated him to get a second job, delivering Chinese food, to pursue a goal of riding the renowned breaks of Bali, and Australia, which he did two years later: “Shit just started to happen.”

In Perth, the capital of Western Australia, Hennigan later did a diving course and set his sights on becoming an offshore diver as, “it sounded like the coolest job in the world”. After 2-3 years air diving, Hennigan became a saturation diver spending up to 28 days at a time living in a bedsit-sized chamber with six other blokes, dropping to depths of 200m daily where they’d decamp to work, doing heavy construction on oil rigs.

Gavan Hennigan
Hennigan, second from right, in Nepal

“It’s gnarly… we’re like aquanauts… it is the closest thing to being a spaceman. It’s another world down there.”

The confines of the chamber didn’t bother Hennigan, and neither did the work: “Some people, they can be the handiest person in the world, then you put them in the water and its like it takes up all of their attention. But things just seem to come into sync when I get in the water. And that’s how everything has come to be right to this day. Whenever I’m like, ‘ok, shit can really happen’, that’s when I come into my own. Normally, I’m walking into walls.”

On his down time – he worked month on month off - Hennigan travelled the globe, surfing, snowboarding, mountaineering and exploring all seven continents, “filling three passports in the space of a few years”.

While stationed in the North Sea, Hennigan was reading an article about the ten toughest races in the world when “one jumped out at me”, the Likeys 6633 Arctic Ultra: “I was like, ‘I fancy a crack at that’.” 

Hennigan wasn’t intimidated by the 350-mile foot race which starts at Eagle Plaines Hotel, Whitehorse, and ends in Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuvialuit hamlet in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories of Canada: “I suppose, just from my background. With the diving. I’ve been pushed so hard physically and mentally. And living in a chamber. Cut off from the outside world for 28 days at a time. It breeds a certain… you learn not to give a shit about stuff. I have a fortitude that you don’t get from anything else. And I realise even when I entered that first race, people talk about these really tough races, and I’m supposed to have the toughest job in the world… so I thought, ‘let’s see... let’s see how tough I am’. And I realised I’m really good at it. I’m really good at putting up with endless abuse.”

Out of 25 competitors, only six finished. Hennigan placed fourth, though he was keen to point out, “it was a race, but at that stage, I was just going out there to finish it.” Since the race began, in 2009, only 30 have completed it. 

When Hennigan was made redundant in 2015, after ten years of diving around the globe, he decided to dedicate all of his energy to his new addiction, endurance events, spending around £100,00 to compete in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, which began on December 14, just weeks after his father died.

Ben Duffy
A jubilant Hennigan crosses the finish line in Antigua during the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge

Hennigan rowed up to 19 hours a day to secure third place, jumping up the field and holding the position from the third day when he took on big waves and high winds, when other teams took shelter. Christmas Day was also used to get ahead, with Hannigan rowing “more than anyone else that day”. On New Year’s Day he took just five minutes out of his meticulous schedule to “lay on the deck and look up at the stars and just reflect on all the places I had been over the years.” (Read more about’s Hennigan’s row, in support of Jigsaw Galway and Cancer Care West, and his owner adventures here).

Crossing the line into English Harbour, Antigua, Hennigan told reporters: “This has been a life changing experience. I’ve experienced the beauty of the Atlantic sunsets and sunrises, the thrill of open ocean rowboat surfing, the despair of driving headwinds and the joy of arriving back on land today. For the past 49 days I’ve had one single goal. To live life. I’ve embraced every minute and I’m so happy to be here finally. I’d like to thank Talisker and Atlantic campaigns for giving me the opportunity to make this journey. I’ll never forget it.”

Like every good story, Hennigan’s is only just beginning. In June he plans to row from New York to Galway, around 3,000 nautical miles, because his earlier Canary Island race followed what is known as the “holiday route” and is supposedly the “easiest way to cross the Atlantic”.

“Having grown up on the west coast. Having surfed here, dived, everything… to look out at that ocean, to me that’s the real Atlantic, and for me to be able to come across from New York to my hometown. Now that’s an epic challenge.

“I want to unlock my potential through these expeditions and adventures and I want to see this out and make the most out of what I have, you know, and the foundation I’ve built, and that row (the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge) was just the start of what I’m about going forward.”

Useful websites and helplines:

http://samaritans.org

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123  (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)

http://www.mind.org.uk

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

http://www.getconnected.org.uk

Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk 

http://www.papyrus-uk.org

HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41

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