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Let me lie here, I'm not well, I can't go on.

by Dermot Crowe was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 19th of January 2003

THE things you do for a living. I'm flat on my back in the grounds of Birr Community School, like a capsized insect, toes numbed from the cold, sweating like a Guard, in need of a vet, and Mike McNamara is telling me to get up and not let anyone see me beaten.

Fine, but I'm 34 and the most demanding exercise I've undergone since October was the Siege of Ennis at a wedding in west Limerick. I stagger back to my feet, swaying like a drunkard, senses askew, to brace myself for the next ordeal.

At times like this you seriously question those mind-over-matter theories. Maybe there's more in my jaded legs than I realise but they feel like lumps of steel. Mind and body are waging war. Physical and mental collapse can't be far off.

Let me lie here, please, I'm not well I can't go on. But there is no surrender in the Mike Mac manual. Any signal of defeat mine could hardly have been more blatant provides the cue for a snap lecture on character-building. He reminds the aching assembly that this is where the gains need to be made.

I know my ears are still functioning because I can hear him talk about next summer and how matches are won and lost on acts of individual courage, how those who ultimately endure in front of massive audiences first show their true grit in places like this with no one in attendance.

The ground is cold and the water seeps up through and into your skin. It was here that numerous Offaly hurling stars were reared, in these grounds, and tonight's assembly probably contains a few more in the making. Most of them are strangers to me, Stephen Byrne and Ger Oakley two notable exceptions.

We're over an hour of the way through and Mike Mac senses that this is a key juncture. When the will starts to flounder he has to impress upon you that there is no other option but to persist. He mentions the Offaly jersey and the great men who've worn it, but this doesn't stimulate any heroic rebirth in my physical condition.

It may strike a chord, though, with the 27 or so young hurlers who have gathered here tonight for the mid-week session, which is always the toughest. They're the next generation and not many of them have experienced torment like this before.

How my heart would have warmed had Joe Dooley walked into the dressing-room an hour earlier. Or a corpulent John Troy. Even the bon-vivant Johnny Pilkington. But this is the new wave. With Birr players club-tied, and other veterans injured, I'm stuck with a bunch of young lads who can probably run all night.

Earning his reputation.

IT IS 6.50 when Mike Mac's car rolls into the grounds of Birr Community School. He's 40 minutes ahead of schedule. The Offaly job marks his first major foray into management but the time of year means there's little deviation from former duties. Hurls are left at home.

On nights like this one he earned his reputation as a notorious physical trainer, furiously sculpting the Clare team that won two All-Irelands. Their stamina levels left rivals trailing; the results were revolutionary. It came as no great surprise, then, that McNamara's autobiography was called To Hell and Back.

But Clare were a special case, a team which melted in two Munster finals when the heat was turned on. For McNamara the task was to harden them mentally as much as physically, to drive them to their wit's end if needs be.

Anthony Daly says the training transformed him physically. "I played wing-back in '95 and I know there is no way I could have done it in '93 or '94. I wasn't strong enough. Even the strength in my legs, you could tell the difference right away."

Just after seven on Wednesday night McNamara tells me to make my way into the dressing-room, tog out, and not "say a word to anyone." But I feel like an impostor and introduce myself to several young players. I'm here, I tell them, to see what it's really like. From the inside.

I quickly become aware that Offaly has more than good young hurlers; they've some budding comedians as well. "I hope you didn't eat today," one of them says, removing any possible illusions about what lies ahead. Another wonders if I "brought a bag to puke into." Wiseguys.

Walking out I meet Paddy Kirwan, the former Offaly hurler and now a selector alongside McNamara, Ger Fogarty and Pat Delaney. "You know," he says, "you still owe me for that Chinese." That would have been the night he arrived in the Cherry Tree bar in Birr with the finest of Oriental cuisine in tow, and Johnny Pilkington and I ate most of it.

Tonight Paddy will have the pleasure of watching the Karma rebound on me. Following a selection of Offaly hurlers I reach the appointed training area five minutes late, due to some confusion over where the session is actually taking place. This incites a short lecture on the importance of timekeeping.

This is how the rot sets in, Mike Mac, tells us. He's been here 40 minutes. There can be no room for "prima donnas." He warms to the theme. "In Offaly we will train and play as a team, there will be no superstars. No one is more important than the team. It's about everyone giving it everything he's got between now and the end of the year."

And then we're off. The cones have been laid down, he signals the start of the session, and the group moves en masse at a slow canter around the mapped-out circuit. We are at this for up to 25 minutes, stretching, running sideways, backways, frontways, bucking and leppin' like young calves let loose for the first time.

I'm beginning to think I might manage this, maybe the break since October was the thing, maybe DJ Carey has made us all quiz the logic of the training frenzy. Does less equal more? Are the two weeks of good-living since Christmas standing to me?

He hauls us in again as the clock nears eight. It's dry but too cold to loiter. "That's the warm-up lads," he says, "now the training can begin." I've had many training sessions less taxing than his warm-ups. The mind couldn't fathom what was coming next.

More than a taskmaster.

WHEN he was named Offaly manager it seemed to strengthen the theory that opposites attract: the champion of hellish training regimes embracing a culture renowned, largely through caricature, for being chronically laid-back and unreconstructed stylists who liked to do things their own way.

But perhaps McNamara has been as much the victim of caricature as Offaly were. In Clare he had a different set of circumstances. They went from routinely surrendering fifty-fifty balls to mostly winning them in one season largely due to his work. Offaly are from a different tradition.

Thejob grants McNamara the opportunity to prove that there is more to him than simply the celebrated taskmaster. Nor does he buy into the Offaly mythology. Pilkington, he reckons, can still do a job at inter-county level and he's had a meeting with him to try and coax him back.

Having also taken charge of the under-21 squad, McNamara currently has his hands full. There's plenty of time to sift through what new talent may be available before the Birr players come flooding back. That may be as late as April if they reach the All-Ireland final by beating Athenry.

On Friday night he took Offaly for a further physical session, followed by two more meetings at the weekend which concentrated more on hurling. When asked later, McNamara rated Wednesday night's session at 7/10 on the scale of hardship. He said more gruelling days are in store when the weather picks up.

"The toughest sessions will come with the hurl in hand: two hours with the tongue out and maybe hitting the ball 300 or 400 times."

At this time of year he says players can become despondent because the intensity of training may bring some regression before the benefits kick in. "You must get through it," he explains. "The match will come when you have to grit your teeth."

Bringing up the rear.

WE ARE gritting our teeth now, gritting them so much that the enamel must be chipping away. He calls a series of 200 metre sprints, the players breaking up into groups of four. Each run is carefully timed. They stop at six or seven. The first isn't too bad, but the next sees some slippage and by the third, I'm bringing up the rear. There won't be a fourth.

My legs have seized. This could be the end of the session, only 40 minutes in, but the unofficial rest gives me a second wind. Holy jaysus. Next up is a series of press-ups, sprints, jogging between cones, more sprints, sit-ups and further sprints. Around five in all.

There's a three-minute respite, then we face a small, steep hill and begin a number of sprints down and back up. By the second I am walking past the finishing line. My legs are jelly. I'm buckled. This goes on among pairs as you alternate between squats, press-ups or sit-ups and the hill runs.

I feel like I'm going to explode and hit the deck. I'm bet. I'm in Hell and I'm not going back. I'm staying right here. Ger Oakley is tearing up and down those hills like Fionn MacCumhaill; I can't match that. My head feels like it's a ticking timebomb. We're well past the hour mark. How much more?

"Get up, Dermot," goes Mike Mac, "don't let me see you down. Don't let anyone see you down." I rise for dignity's sake but there's nothing left in the tank.

The hill at the far end is next. With little enthusiasm I make my way over. We organise ourselves into fours and begin rushing up the slope. Oakley scampers up and it doesn't seem to take a puff out of him.

Mike Mac says we've to go up this hill 15 times and that that will be it. This news sets off a panic projection in your brain as it strives to calculate how many summits the body can handle before it breaks down. You've done everything else tonight except three 200m runs; it would be no disgrace to quit now.

We run up three times. Then four. One of the lads asks how many are left. The next one is only the fifth one-third of the way through and the legs are beginning to quake once more. Then comes sweet music to my ears: Mike says that we'll stop at seven, call it a night. Thank you. I promise never to eat Paddy Kirwan's Chinese again.

According to Anthony Daly he does that a lot, keeps moving the goalposts so you never really know what's coming next. You have to be ready for anything. I was thinking 15 at the end and the mind had already prepared for the challenge.

We're walking back. One of the Offaly lads says he's never seen anything like this before. Another claims that previous sessions have been far worse. I feel like my body has packed three months' training into one night. I might run back to Dublin.

Mike Mac is to training what Martin Scorsese is to film-making: no session is routine, each one instead a grand production, an epic, an adventure. For once in my life I was part of it and I can always say that, even if it means I can't walk today.

On Thursday I felt 30 years older, like I'd been the victim of a savage beating. There were pains everywhere. Even laughter hurt. It is now Friday and I'm only slightly improved. They're back in Birr again tonight for more punishment. Best of luck lads, I'll be thinking of ye.

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