Pancreatic Cancer UK supporter Graham Sturge blogs about his running journey, losing his dad to pancreatic cancer in 2017 and how this led to him becoming the 5th person in the UK to complete all 6 of the World Marathon Majors in one year.
"In a month of marathon world records, of barriers broken and inspiration passed around the globe of limitless possibilities, I’d like to tell you of a far humbler achievement.
I’m in my late 40’s, a married man with 3 kids. We live in a small village in the middle of the UK who’s only note of fame is that it’s the next village from the one Paula Radcliffe grew up in. I’m slightly under average height, slightly over average weight and most certainly an average runner. However, on the 3rd November 2019 I became the 5th person in the UK to have completed all 6 of the world major marathons in a single calendar year.
This in itself is not really a story worth reading, ‘an average man becomes the 5th or may be 6th person in the UK to run the world major marathons in a year’. The story behind the journey to this point I believe however is, and one that just may encourage others to take themselves a little bit further than they thought possible.
As an overweight man soon to be turning 40 I decided to lose some weight and try to get fit. Following a couple of years of going to a gym my weight was heading towards healthy and I was lucky enough to stumble on a small local village running group called ‘Happy Feet Bromham’. The group was organized by a lady in the village who herself was a runner and decided to give something back to her community. For a couple of years, I got to know other people from the village who also had started to progress through ‘couch to 5k’ style training plans and then 4-5 mile runs with Happy Feet.
Most of the group progressed onto 10k or half marathons with a typical running comradery of support from the group. I myself with a couple of others managed to get to the full marathon distance. The group was also blessed with an experienced marathon runner who shared knowledge and wisdom to guide us through this achievement.
Graham with the Happy Feet Group
In 2015, unfortunately for the group the organizer moved to Scotland with her family and then slowly diminished in numbers. Eventually we had reduced to just two of us, myself and Mike, going out on the regular Monday evening run joined now and then by a couple of the original group.
With a bit of effort and the help of the ever-expanding social media, myself and Mike managed to bring a few of the original runners back to a regular Monday evening run and Happy Feet had been re-born.
The group grew back to a regular 8-12 runners every week and friendships became strong, regardless of individual backgrounds or social standing. It was a supportive and encouraging environment away from any work or family pressures. This is the point in my life when running became far more than losing weight or gaining fitness. It had created bonds and friendships which gave a new and positive outlook on life.
In 2016 my father was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 pancreatic cancer which devastated our family. Initially it was suggested that he may only have a short time (weeks not months) to live but managed to be accepted for a trial treatment at a hospital. Running with Happy Feet gave me a focus, a positive outlet to channel my feelings. It also gave me enormous support from my fellow runners during bad days that gave me the strength to be strong for my Father and Mother when they needed me.
Graham with his Dad
My Father battled through 15 months of treatment with 3 weeks on Chemotherapy and 1 week off. In the week off he did whatever he could with the family and ensured memories were made for us, his three boys, along with the wives and his seven grandchildren. During this time, I decided with the support of the Happy Feet group now up to about 15 members, to run the London Marathon and help raise money for Pancreatic Cancer UK. The year of fundraising galvanized our family and gave my father another outlet to focus on during his treatment. Along with 3 others in the Happy Feet group we also set about to run everyday in 2016 which brought added focus to training working up to the marathon.
The Pancreatic Cancer UK team were amazing and supportive. It was like gaining another family member to help lessen the burden of stress. Not only did they assist with training but understood the emotions the whole family was going through.
On 22nd April 2017, just before midnight, my father passed away at home peacefully following a 3-day vigil by his side. He had helped raise nearly £11,000 for the charity. 10 hours later, on the 23rd April 2017, I was at the start line of the London Marathon numb with the loss.
5 miles into the race it got too much for me and for the first time in my running life I was in a big race that I had no belief I could finish. At mile 6 I was caught by a friend who got me going again and she stayed with me for a couple of miles until we lost each other in the crowd. I was back to being on my own amongst 40,000 runners and 1,000,000 supporters. At mile 9 I was then caught by Mike, my Happy Feet fellow organizer. Whilst we had run together many times we had always run our own races in an attempt to beat each other, in fact we had never finished a race together. Despite foregoing his own marathon time he decided to for the first time stay with me and get me round to the finish, crying and walking most of the rest of the 26 miles. The experience however helped release my grieve and gave me some meaning to my father’s passing. He had given so much to people through his life and in the end, he was still helping to give to others with the money we had raised for the charity.
That following year both the charity and the group gave me continued support and helped me deal with the loss. It is hard to express in words the unconditional support this group of people gave to a non-family member.
12 months on and I was back in London for marathon in support of Pancreatic Cancer UK on the 1st anniversary of his passing to the day. In fact, the story was picked up by BBC sport and I was interviewed on Tower Bridge with a short clip being played. The coverage was a great boost for the charity but unfortunately for me it brought his passing back to the front of my mind and once again I struggled to complete the second half of the marathon. As with the previous year I was lucky to be running with a member of the Happy Feet Group, Paul, who would forgo his own time to help me walk, jog and cry my way around the course again. Once again running had brought life back into perspective with the support of the charity and the Happy Feet group.
By the start of 2019 the Happy Feet group had grown to a core of around 30 people who all have embraced the same supportive ethos. Most starting from 5k runs and progressing with the group to push themselves to strive for something more. It is irrelevant how quick you can run or how far you can run the only thing that’s matters to the group is that you want to run and enjoy running.
Socially the group has moved forward to have organized events, weekends away, fundraisers and family days. Still it encourages others from the village and surrounding area to join to support us in using running to help deal with their issues of stress, weight loss, confidence or simply to just better themselves for their next running challenge.
The core group of 30, from very different backgrounds, have supported each other so much over the past couple of years. In fact, 22 of them have now completed a full marathon with a further 7 of them booked in to run their first full marathon next spring. The group is all free and voluntary with many hours spent by the group members helping each other.
So that brings us back to the start of this year’s challenge for me, the six world major marathons, Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York all completed in 2019.
The stories for each of the Majors from my viewpoint could fill many pages of text and they have all been wonderful and amazing experiences. I have met some amazing people on each of them and made some new friendships with runners of all different abilities. I have been supported every step by the Happy Feet group and encourage to push harder and further. Along the way I have gained my own marathon PB, I’ve helped pace three others around courses in order they have achieved PBs. I’ve realized that the running community is indeed friendly, supportive and encouraging.
Running New York will see the charity fundraising for Pancreatic Cancer UK that my father started with me hopefully reach the lofty sum of over £60,000. This year alone my aim was to raise £30,000 but we are already at over £32,000.
I was joined on the course by 6 of my fellow Happy Feet group members with 3 more of them supporting making it a very special occasion. This may I remind you is a group of people who have, in the majority, had significant personal issues from serious weight loss, anxiety and depression, family challenges and bereavements. This is a group of very average standing people who between them have formed a support network that has helped everyone move forward and achieve their own personal triumphs.
I’m hoping that within this text is a story that will help in a small part to encourage others to join the running community, to help others and help themselves. World records are indeed very inspiring and certainly, when they break barriers thought impossible. I also believe however, that inspiration can come from something you feel is impossible but then achieved by a person of your own ability and standing".