Why do we embark on quests of exploration and endurance challenges? Is this part of who we are? Our ancestors leaving the Great Rift Valley were the first great explorers. Is it simply down to the neurotransmitters and levels of dopamine in our brains? Or is it something more spiritual?
There are moments in our lives which act as catalysts for change. Moments of failure, illness and death that cause us to stop and reflect on what it is to live a life. These moments mean that the challenges are not just physical journeys from A to B. They become existential journeys to ‘create oneself’ and then live in accordance with this self. They become moments of personal and inward discovery.
It was easy to spot Rob Chapman amongst the lunchtime suits in the trendy Cardiff cafe bar. Tanned, lean and casual. Sat quietly checking messages and completely anonymous amongst those lunching. After all, as Rob is keen to emphasise, he’s an ordinary guy. Except this ordinary guy has just finished running around a country. The first man to run around the perimeter of Wales.
“It’s surreal. I’ve looked at the map on the wall in the planning room and had to pinch myself. Have I really run all the way round? Now it’s over and I’ve come through unscathed, I’m just enjoying chilling out and spending some relaxing time with wife, Jackie”
Having completed a 16 day cycle ride around the UK in 2013, I struggled with the emptiness that existed afterwards. I’m surprised at Rob’s apparent ease with which he’s coming to terms with completing the run. You don’t run around Wales without being driven and I wonder how long it will be before he’s contemplating a new challenge. I don’t have to wait long. As we’re wrapping up Rob drops into the conversation that he’s planning on learning to play the saxophone.
The perimeter of Wales is approx 1040 miles. It’s a small country but is blessed with some of the finest coastline in the world. Much of Rob’s run was along the Wales coastal path, which is a long distance footpath which follows or runs close to the coastline of Wales from Chepstow in the south east corner to Queensferry in the north east. Wales is the first country in the world to provide a dedicated footpath close to most of its coastline. The path travels through 870 miles (1,400 km) of coastal landscape, from the mouth of the River Dee, along the north Wales coast with its seaside towns such as Conwy, over the Menai Strait onto the Isle of Anglesey, past Caernarfon, and then around the Llŷn Peninsula and down the sweep of Cardigan Bay past Harlech, Aberystwyth, and Cardigan, through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park to Tenby, around the Gower Peninsula to Swansea, along the waterfront of Cardiff Bay and Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, to the market town of Chepstow.The path runs through eleven National Nature Reserves.
“My brain is brimming over with images. So much so, I have had some really bizarre dreams. One was quite memorable. It was a dream in which somehow I was hovering above the path and mile after mile I was going up and down. I was re-living the run. There is so much footage in my head that the dream suggests I had to play it out. I was literally visualising where I had been. It was utterly bizarre. I’ve been privileged to see absolutely fantastic landscapes. Wales really is a little gem. It’s brought a greater richness to my understanding of Wales.”
What makes a middle aged, self confessed ordinary guy decide to run around a country? Rob’s friend, Tony John, had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2013. The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot first described motor neurone disease (MND) in 1874. The term motor neurone disease, describes a group of related diseases, affecting the motor nerves or neurones in the brain and spinal cord, which pass messages to the muscles telling them what to do. MND is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the upper and lower motor neurones. Degeneration of the motor neurones leads to weakness and wasting of muscles, causing increasing loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing. The muscles first affected tend to be those in the hands, feet and mouth, dependent on which type of the disease you are diagnosed with. The effects of MND can vary enormously from person to person, from the presenting symptoms; the rate and pattern of the disease progression, to the length of survival time after diagnosis.
At a critical time in Tony’s illness Rob attended the Do Lectures, in the small, coastal town of Cardigan. The Do Lectures were the brainchild of David and Clare Hieatt who set out to bring the ‘do-ers’ of the world together – the movers and shakers, the disrupters and the change-makers – and ask them to tell their stories. The idea is a simple one. That people who do things, can inspire the rest of us to go and do things too. A morning run with Alex Jungmayr sowed the do-er seed for the Moonshadow Challenge. As is customary for those attending the Do Lectures, Rob wrote on the chalk board that he would run around Wales to raise awareness of MND.
All the more remarkable is that whilst Rob was undertaking the challenge he continued to run his own commercial property, land and regeneration consultancy. Juggling the demands of both his practice and the challenge meant completing it over 19 consecutive weekends. The enormity of the challenge can be a little difficult to take in. Rob ran 39 marathons over 19 weeks. An astonishing undertaking. Anyone embarking on a challenge of the scale of Rob’s needs to be organised. Kit, food, route, preparation etc everything needs to be meticulously planned. When I undertake endurance challenges I often use the planning and organising as a means to help me ‘get into’ the challenge, often deploying visualisation techniques. I’m convinced it’s the best way for the brain to compute what it’s about to be put through and helps the coping mechanism. I wasn’t surprised to hear Rob talk in a similar vein.
“As the weekend approached, I would get into a zone, particularly on a Friday night. My brain would sublimely get into a zone to prepare for the forthcoming weekend. I would have a conversation with Alex Jungmayr, typically on a Wednesday or Thursday evening each week. We would have the plan in front of us and we would talk through the route. Alex had walked around Wales and knew a significant portion of the route. He was able to talk me through some of the more visual descriptions of the experience. Mid to end of the week I would always be looking at the weather. What’s happening with the weather? The first weekend was into the teeth of Storm Katie, which was interesting.
I would get my kit together which would be 2 or 3 bags depending on whether I was doing 2 or 3 runs. Each bag would be marked A, B or C. 3 sets of kit. I would run through what food I would take with me, salt tablets etc.”
Endurance challenges require an unbelievable degree of fortitude. It’s not always apparent whether you have that when you embark on these things. I’ve witnessed a ‘master of the universe trader’ in charge of macho trading floors crumble at the foot of a series of cycling climbs. ‘I’ve never been broken like that before’ are words I’ve heard several times. On the other hand, I’ve cycled with quiet, unassuming women who if they were cut open would have cores of steel. With such a monumentous task as Rob faced, were there moments of doubt?
It’s about mindset. I’m not an extraordinary person. I’m an ordinary guy. I think I have a stubborn side in a sense of getting a job done and not failing. There is something about strength of mindset and a determination not to give up. I knew I had the mental strength from previous experiences to say ‘I’m going to give this a really good go’. There were moments where I thought the wheels might come off, but it was about completing the entire perimeter of Wales and I couldn’t not complete it.”
I had met Rob back in July 2015 to initially discuss the challenge. I vividly recall having lunch outside on a glorious day in Cardiff’s Capital Quarter. Rob had a rough sketch of the plans but had yet to tackle the detail. Tony had died the previous day. I could sense the enormity of it all was weighing very heavily on him. Tony’s death, the run, training, fundraising was all starting to overwhelm him. Experience told me that it was impossible to do everything on your own. I suggested Rob build a team around him to help take the load of some of the logistics, allowing him to focus on training and the route. Chatting now, I hadn’t appreciated how seminal the lunch had been. It had galvanised Rob and crucially the dates had been set in stone, with the decision to end the run on Saturday 30 July 2016, the first anniversary of Tony’s death.
“You know, no man is an island. I can’t take all the credit. 50% of the credit has to go to my wife Jackie. You can attempt to do something on your own but don’t be pig headed and stubborn. If there is someone who can give you assistance it just makes a huge difference. Jackie and I would talk about what I needed. It was a big plus for me. We talked about food and importance of diet, protein and power foods. We both ate really healthy foods during the week. Jackie got into it so much that she put an article together for run ultra. It was made much easier by the support I had from Jackie.”
There are moments in our lives that make us stop in our tracks. They cause us to veer off our safe and planned routes and explore places within ourselves that ordinarily would remain out of bounds. These journeys of self discovery are what ultimately make us who we are, like rich seams of strata that have been layered down throughout your life. There is no telling when a moment will strike and sometimes there is no foresight that can predict when they strike. They are deeply emotional and processing takes place in the primitive limbic system of the brain. Our responses are not always rational and occasionally lead us to do things out of the ordinary. We need to do these extraordinary things to help us; help us process and deal with these cataclysmic moments that challenge who we are. The death of Tony John was one such moment for Rob.
However, adventures like Rob’s are not just solitary tales. We are social creatures and people weave their way into these journeys in many ways. Rob’s story isn’t just about him and his personal journey but also about the people who have been touched in some way by his challenge. People who have been right at the heart of it and others who are merely strangers, who won’t have known the details, but will have been moved by Rob’s desire to want to help raise awareness of MND in memory of his friend.
‘On the way I did meet people. We had no end of people expressing an interest and giving donations there and then. Fantastic generosity. I remember reaching a vantage point at Llangranog. I’d stopped to reflect and 3 walkers asked me what I was doing. I explained and they emptied their pockets of change. You really see the human spirit.’
Moonshadow Wales may have originated in the darkness of insidious illness but like many dark places there are specks of light. Determination, empathy, kindness and hope are all layers of light at the heart of this story. A story that is also about Lynne John [Tony’s wife] who had her life shattered back in July 2015. Rob’s challenge has been a catalyst moment for Lynne. A moment of personal and inward discovery that has helped her re-discover elements of her life that once seemed lost.
“The intention was to end on the anniversary of Tony’s death [Tony died on 30 July 2015]. There was a build up to the final day. I knew it was going to be emotional for Lynne. I’d had a few cries in the week but on the day I felt I had dealt with it. Part of the experience for me has been about being humble. Lynne wasn’t in a great place when this journey started. From the outset of the challenge she came out of her shell. Part of the process has been cathartic for Lynne. It’s been meaningful to see that it has helped her. When it came to the end and we talked about emotions I gave Lynne a great big hug and we both knew what that hug meant.
More information on Rob’s challenge can be found here: http://www.moonshadow.wales/
Original article posted – http://www.mamilsports.com/the-man-who-ran-around-wales-rob-chapman/