Sunday, 21 December 2014

London, Here I Come

I was good at most sports at school, but was never very good at any. I made most of the school teams, but was never the star player. I was good enough at running to make the cross country team each year; but when competing against other schools was only ever an also-ran. A born athlete I most certainly am not.

Looking back on my adult life I've always been an occasional runner. I'd run for spells, most usually during the summer when the weather was better and the days were longer. Come the colder months it'd all come grinding to a natural halt; insufficiently motivated, or committed, I suppose. I've also had lengthy periods, lasting numbers of years, when the only running I ever did involved attempting to catch a train.

In 2007 I saw a physiotherapist after having problems with my right leg, affecting range of movement, and causing constant low-level pain that had started to become debilitating. It was during this period that I began running again, which seemed to ease the discomfort. Apparently one of my muscles, having been neglected for so long, had gone on strike, and a co-worker was doing two jobs to compensate. The more I ran (and the more the physio stuck needles into me) the better my leg felt. When the nights grew shorter I invested in some cold weather running gear. I had my gait analysed on a treadmill and bought proper running shoes. And I embarked on my first ever winter of running.

In 2008 my running became more serious, and I started doing more events. For as long as I can remember I've always wanted to run the London Marathon. And I mean run, not simply get round (which is fine, just not for me). Sometime during 2008 I realised for the first time that I might actually be able to do it. I applied for a ballot place. And received my first rejection (of six and counting). Undeterred, and helped by six months off work whilst between jobs, I started running farther and faster.

And then, the following summer my youngest child, Adam, fell ill. In July 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer; a paediatric cancer called neuroblastoma, of which none of us had ever heard. By the time he became symptomatic it had already spread throughout his body. Despite the prospect of a year undergoing the most brutal and intensive of treatment regimens, his chances of survival were a mere 30%. Running came to an abrupt and complete halt. Marathon ambitions became the furthest thing from my mind.

Adam's disease did not respond well to treatment, but at least it stabilised and stopped spreading. With no further treatments available in the UK we spent the second half of 2011 taking Adam back-and-forth to a small university town in North East Germany. I started running again - well there was nothing else to do there. And it was flat. Like being back at home in Norfolk. Flat. And a bit dull. Starting again was tough, but also quite therapeutic. I'd think a lot about what was going on during those runs, get my head straight. Once more my mind began flirting with marathon thoughts. I had another London ballot rejection (the third of six and counting). And despite always saying my first (and possibly only) marathon would be London I duly signed up to do Edinburgh the following May instead.

Training had been going well. I'd recently run the Surrey Spitfire; at 20 miles it was my longest event thus far. I was starting once more to really believe I was capable. Then on Easter Sunday, whilst out on another long training run, I broke down. Luckily for me at the farthest point from home, with no phone and no money. I couldn't put my foot down without pain shooting up the outside of my lower leg. I managed to walk for a bit, but soon even that became painful. I approached a lady pulling into her driveway and asked if I could use her phone … she told me she'd fetch her husband. Clearly I cut a more menacing figure in shorts and running vest than I had hitherto realised! I called Alison to come and collect me, my marathon dream over once more. A fibular stress fracture would render me inactive for the next couple of months.

In mid-2012 Adam's disease began to progress, and from there things became steadily worse. Any thoughts of getting back to running after my injury quickly ceased. We managed his pain, and we took him to America to one of the leading hospitals, for experimental treatments not available in the UK. We lived out of a suitcase, we slept badly, we ate badly. We were emotional wrecks, and our stress levels were permanently high. I went running once, in Michigan over the winter. It was bitterly cold. I ran/walked about two miles, then spent the rest of the day coughing and wheezing from the freezing air that had invaded my lungs.

In July 2013, four years after he was diagnosed, Adam died at home in our arms. He was just nine years old. Wed known for months that he was dying, but the loss when it happened was so much worse than I could have ever possibly imagined. For me lacing up my shoes and hitting the road was one of the most important things that helped me cope. I say 'hitting'; the first time I went out I managed less than a mile before I had to stop and walk. There was something slightly demoralising about how much worse I had gotten, about being back to square one; except when stacked up against the fact my child had just died, then it didn't matter a jot. The morning after Adam's funeral I completed my first, albeit very slow, non-stop 5K in more than a year. Including shouting every expletive imaginable at myself whilst trying to make it up a (very short but fairly steep) hill past some allotments. It's hard to convey the out-sized sense of joy I felt at achieving this particular feat on this particular day.

And so my running continued. After going back to work I'd return home some days and be full of anger and hatred, and generally unpleasant to be around. By going for a run I'd get most of it out of my system, and come back in a much more agreeable mood. The mileage began to steadily increase again. Worried about my stress fracture I started cycling and swimming to cross train, which almost inevitably led me to triathlon. At school I was a rubbish swimmer and hadn't swum, except messing about on holiday, for over 25 years. I've been at it now for just over a year and I'm still distinctly average, but that's still a lot better than I ever thought I’d be.

When the first anniversary of Adam's death came round, and the dark clouds descended, I threw myself into exercise. An olympic distance triathlon at Eton Dorney, the London Triathlon (sprint distance), the British London 10K, Thunder Run 24, and Ride London 100. All in the space of four weeks. It was my way of coping. I'd have done more if I could have gotten away with it.

And so to my date with destiny and the London Marathon. In October I was notified of my latest ballot rejection (number six and counting in case you were wondering). Having said I'd only do it if I got in through the ballot, because then it was meant to be, I simply couldn't accept not getting in this time round. And so next April I will be lining up several miles back from the start line proudly wearing the vest of Rays of Sunshine Children's Charity. Since Adam died we have been working our way through all the charities and organisations that helped him, and us, throughout his illness. Trying to give something back. RoS are a wish charity who arranged our final ever day out as a family two months before Adam’s death, at Harry Potter Studio Tour. I've not watched the video they shot yet, it's still too painful to bear. However, on the afternoon before Adam's death he and I sat on the bed together and looked through the photos from that day. It's a memory that will live in my heart forever.

I hope to raise as much money as possible for this wonderful charity. And I have also set myself a target finish time of 3 hours 45 minutes. A tough ask for a first-timer, but I think it’s achievable if everything goes in my favour. In any case I’m going to give it my absolute best. For myself, and for my little boy. 

Whenever I ran an event I'd always have the same conversation with Adam when I came home:

"Did you win, Dad?"

"No, Adam"

"Where did you come then?"

"Seven hundred and sixty eighth" (or whatever it was).

"You're rubbish!"

He still took my finishers medal each time though, and kept it as a souvenir. They all hang on his bed, including those I've gained since he died. Adding a VLM finishers medal would just about complete the collection I think. And in the meantime all that running (and cycling and swimming) will continue to help keep me on an even keel, and be my release whenever the darkness descends.

Please visit my JustGiving page at, or by clicking on the image below.