I'd first found out about my nomination at the start of the year,whilst still in the mountains of Northern China. A teacher has put my name forward after I gave a tour of Belfast schools, encouraging kids to get outside and get active. I must admit that initially I felt quite detached from the whole thing. The email came through while I was sitting by a roadside in a remote area of Shanxi province watching snow cling stubbornly to the few brave (and bare) trees that dotted the hillside. I was less than a quarter of the way through the toughest journey of my life, and the idea that in a few months I would be jogging through a small Irish village carrying a flaming hunk of metal while hundreds of people cheered seemed remarkably alien. At that stage I didn't even know about the white jumpsuit, but I imagine I would equally have struggled with that.
As the months passed however and I happily found myself still alive on the other side of a rough winter, news of the build up for the Olympics filtered through, and I had time to ponder the whole thing. I'd be carrying a flame which would pass through the hands (not literally) of 8000 inspirational people, travelling the length and breadth of the UK and ending up in the Olympic Stadium to mark the start of one of the biggest moments ever in British Sport. That, I figured, was pretty cool.
For that reason, I have to be honest and say I didn't really enjoy the build up to the run. I was to run my 300 metre stretch in Cushendall - a picturesque fishing village looking out into the North Channel, and a meeting point for three of the Glens of Antrim. Rugged rocky outcrops and pebble beaches punctuate the coastline and on a clear day Scotland can be seen in the form of the Mull of Kintyre.
I arrived groggy and cold, and got changed into my fetching white uniform in the car. After a quick briefing in the Olympic bus, I was led outside and handed a sturdy golden torch. At nearly a metre tall and over a kilogram in weight, they're not an insignificant item to carry whilst running. The wind from the ocean tore through my thin Olympic vest but actually succeeded in jolting some life back into me, and I had what may be called a 'moment of clarity.' As I lit my torch from the beacon provided by the LOCOG team, people started to gather and cheer. What a privilege to be a part of this! I got the go-ahead from my police escort and broke into an uneasy wobbling jog, grimmacing like a madman.
I did ponder what my fellow Northern Irishmen and women must have made of this sight. After days of heroic, inspirational people around the UK carrying the torch strongly and proudly, waving cheerily to the crowds, those present at Cushendall were treated to a much different sight. My 6 month beard and scraggly hair combined unkindly with the perfect white torchbearer uniform to make me look as if I had just escaped from an asylum of some sort. In fact, one may have been forgiven for thinking that the police runners were not protecting me, but rather chasing me down. Happily, people seemed to enjoy the spectacle, whatever their reasons. 'Keep 'er lit!' was a common and hearteningly appropriate Northern Irish-ism I heard as I went by. 'Here comes flamin' Jesus!" was a more suprising utterance. How great it was to be back in Ireland, the sea wind in my face and the local accents buzzing all around!
300 metres went by quickly and I realised I'd been so focused on staying upright that I forgot to acknowledge the gathered supporters. I put in a few enthusiastic waves at the end, but I fear I only succeeded in scaring young children. Mild panic gripped me when I nearly set light to my beard by passing the flame between hands under my chin, but a minor singeing was my only punishment. I reached the endpoint - my flame was passed on, then extinguished and I was ushered back onto the bus to head home.
I'm a little sorry that I wasn't able to make more of the day, but I am extremely proud to have been able to take part. Now, writing after the Olympics has been and gone with huge success, that feeling is only deepened. For my part I am left with great (if hazy) memories and a lot of pictures of a maniac running wildly through the Irish countryside with a flame.