I have run a few half-marathons before, but never a full marathon. Fifteen years ago, when I was 43 years old, I was training for my first ever marathon. I was living a very different life to the one I live now, caught up in a world driven by values which now seem alien to me. My life was in disarray.
In February 2001, I found myself in hospital in Bourg St Maurice, France. I was in serious danger because no one knew what was the matter with me. Some form of infection had destroyed my immune system, my lungs were failing and I could barely breathe. I was dying. I was diagnosed as having acute bacterial pneumonia but, as tests had failed to identify the strain of bacteria causing it, all that could be done was to feed me a cocktail of drugs in the hope that something might work.
A few days after I was admitted to hospital I became suddenly very aware that I was faced with a huge decision. I knew that I could, in that moment, just let go, leave all the chaos of my life behind, and drift peacefully away. I confess that this was not an entirely unappealing option. My alternative was to accept possibility and choose life.
I remember distinctly the moment I chose to live, when I decided to abandon every piece of expectation that had been placed on me, and to live a life based on my own deepest values rather than on those of others. From that moment I slowly began to get better as something in the cocktail of drugs began to fight the unidentified bacteria. The speed of my recovery was later described by my doctors as miraculous.
In the years that followed, and with the stark understanding of the fragility of life which such experiences bring, I slowly extracted myself from the narrow horizons I had created, and gradually built a very different existence. I was driven to seek new purpose and meaning in order to justify my decision to live. I continued to make mistakes, though largely with much purer motivations.
I was drawn towards trying to make a positive difference to the lives of others and particularly to young people. I am constantly aware that in being given the chance to live, I was handed the ultimate gift, one that deserves to be respected more than any other. I constantly tested my motivations, something that made the selfishness and arrogance of my previous existence, and the imaginary boundaries I had constructed, ever more repugnant.
A pivotal point in my transition came almost exactly 10 years after I was taken ill, when I encountered someone who helped to change the way I think. Richard Moore had been blinded in 1972 by a rubber bullet during the troubles in Northern Ireland when he was just 10 years old. Despite this horrific event Richard had never felt a moment’s bitterness towards the soldier who shot him. He recognised that, despite his blindness, he had still had opportunities that many other children throughout the world had not. Out of gratitude for the possibilities he had been provided and as a response to an awareness of the plight of children and young people caught in the crossfire of global poverty, injustice and inequality, Richard founded the charity Children in Crossfire in 1996. Children in Crossfire envisions a world where every child can reach their potential.
From our very first encounter, Richard demonstrated to me a very different approach to life, one where our responses to misfortune, unfairness and suffering can be a matter of personal choice. I realised that I had encountered someone very special and found Richard’s approach to life inspiring, liberating and transformative. It was clear that the choices he made in the face of tragedy had allowed him to live a full, meaningful and happy life. I immediately understood why someone like the Dalai Lama would come to refer to him as his hero. Since that first meeting our dialogue has continued unabated and, in many ways, Richard has been guiding me ever since.
In October 2012 Ben, my nephew and godson, became a victim of an accidental heroin overdose. His death brought the despair and disillusionment felt by so many young people painfully into focus. This tragedy led directly to the formation of the Secure Base Foundation, as a response, not only to Ben’s death, but also to the reality of the difficult struggle, potential for isolation and lack of confidence that so many young people feel all over the world today. Secure Base is a charity whose primary purpose is to find ways of helping young people to recognize their value and achieve their potential.
My daughter Holly persuaded me to run with her in last September’s Great North Run, the biggest half-marathon in the world, in support of the RNIB. I had taken part in the Great North Run on two occasions before my illness but had never been so aware of the incredible experience of being part of a 60,000+ river of compassion. I also realised that most of those running carried and drew strength from their own meaningful stories. In this sea of humanity, I felt strongly that I had to do more and this led to my filling out an application to run in the London Marathon for the RNIB, never imaging that I might actually be selected. Running a marathon has always been one of my life’s ambitions, but one which I thought had died when I almost did.
If I had run the London Marathon fifteen years ago it would have been for very different reasons to those I have now. I still cannot claim that my motivations are entirely altruistic, if I succeed I’ll still be fulfilling a personal dream. However, I know that I am nothing in this. I will be running for and with many others who are foremost in my heart and mind. As my training has deepened I have become increasingly aware of those who run with me.
I will be running for and with young people and those whose bravery and selflessness supports and inspires them. I will be running for the RNIB, for Richard Moore who led me to their door, for every blind or sight-impaired person who bravely steps out into the world every day with unimaginable courage and for all associated with and supported by Children in Crossfire.
Secure Base supports charities, such as the RNIB and Children in Crossfire, who share the common goal of helping young people to make positive changes in their lives. Through Secure Base I will also be running for the Solace Foundation of Orange County, an organization set up in response to my nephew Ben’s death, whose work has already helped to save the lives of many young people whose addiction is so widely regarded as a crime rather than as an illness. I will be running for Global Dialogues, the thousands of young people who have participated in their story-writing contests, the millions who have been impacted by their films and community engagement initiatives, and for all who suffer from discrimination and persecution on the basis of difference.
I will be running for Relais de la Mémoire, for the millions of people displaced by conflict, persecution and poverty, many of whom weren’t given the choice of living, and particularly for those who bravely choose to tell their stories to young people in the hope of their building a better future. From my training, I know that I will draw particular inspiration and strength from two of the founders of Relais de la Mémoire, Abel and Yvette Farnoux.
In January 1945 Yvette was sent on a death march, in extreme cold, from Birkenau in Germany to another concentration camp in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Whilst she didn’t know how many people were in the death march, she was told that the column leaving the camp was seven kilometres long. When it arrived at the train station for the final part of their journey it was only three kilometres long. Four kilometres of people had died during the march. Yvette, who died last November, spoke of the great sense of companionship among all and how, every 20 minutes, people moved spontaneously from the more sheltered centre to the windy, cold sides of the column. I often think of this when I run.
When asked how he found the strength to endure his experiences in concentration camps, Abel Farnoux, who survived being put before a firing squad on five consecutive days, replied “you have to promise yourself something you can do, so I say resist today, perhaps today and tomorrow, and after this, one day at a time”. When I think about Abel I know I can always take one more step. Abel also provided another powerful lesson “my life is not about protecting myself from dying, it is about doing something”.
Abel and Yvette’s stories, and many others I have encountered, both inspire and humble me. Their presence helps me with every step I take. The London Marathon is nothing in comparison to the suffering encountered by so many through history and of those suffering today. I am very aware that there are things that I am able to do to help today’s young people that many cannot, if I were not to do those things, where would it leave me as member of humanity?
Please support the RNIB, Secure Base and those it supports by sponsoring someone who shouldn’t even be here. Join all of those who run with me and help to make a difference.