73 Year Old John Dawson, from Lichfield in Staffordshire, has overcome health problems and extreme visual impairment, in an attempt to break a startling Brathay 10 in 10 record.
Whilst uncertainty surrounds the historical accuracy of the mythical ancient Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians, few can doubt the consequences of the much repeated fable about the brave Athenian.
Tales of his gruelling 150 mile run soon captured the imagination of the public and ever since the introduction of the first Olympic Marathon, in 1896; his story has inspired millions of runners.
His commitment, determination, desire and willingness to run until he dropped, are attributes that are mirrored in today’s Marathon runners as they strive to achieve set goals and beat personal bests. Hours of planning, training and diet management, combined with exceptional mental strength, allow a relatively ‘lucky few’ to experience the achievement of crossing a Marathon finishing line.
However one man, beset by health problems after suffering a heart attack, has overcome a catalogue of medical issues to compete with a passion and drive that would put the likes of Pheidippides, Abebe Bikila, and Paula Radcliffe to shame.
John Dawson came to running late in life. Smoking and drinking were his priority, for many years, as he sought to entertain himself in a less cerebral way than some. Fried foods, snacks and zero exercise led him to suffer the predictable, pulmonary, problems that beset many.
However, his brush with death had a profound effect on the erstwhile ‘greasy spoon’ regular. Energised by the need to catch up on lost time, John, hit the streets in his bid to improve his fitness. Stopwatch in hand he became a regular sight, pounding the pavements of Lichfield, in his quest to revitalise his neglected body.
Before long anxiety, and the fear of failure, gave way to confidence and an inner belief that he could achieve great things. Overcoming adversity his expectations began to rise and he ran his first marathon in 1993, at the age of 56, only two years after suffering his near fatal heart attack.
Since then he has indeed done remarkable things. He ran his 65th marathon on his 65th birthday, he has completed 295 marathons as an OAP, and in March this year he successfully ran the course of the Berlin Wall (Mauerlauf) to mark World Down’s Syndrome Day – a distance of 156km.
He’s completed 360 marathons to date, including the Brathay 10 in 10 in 2007, and is now set to become the oldest runner to complete this event. If he finishes the course in 2011 he will beat the record currently held by its founder, Sir Christopher Ball, who was 72 years old when he successfully ran the race in 2007.
John Dawson out on the roads. Right: John after finishing the 2007 10 in 10
But what drives the septuagenarian to keep running despite his obvious success? What makes him tick?
Q: You overcame a heart attack to change your lifestyle through running but you’ve had other medical issues, can you tell us about them?
A: The heart attack was in December 1989. Following that I still felt lousy. I was lethargic and put on a lot of weight until finally, after two years, I was diagnosed with an under active thyroid for which I still take pills. That really changed my life because I felt younger, more rejuvenated and receptive to weight loss and exercise. The week after the Brathay 2007, 10 in 10 I had a prostrate operation, this was just a 'plumbing job' common in older men but it did stop me running for a couple of months. I had postponed the operation until after the 10 in 10 was over (not advised by Consultant!). In April this year I went for a routine eye test and the optician spotted something and made an appointment for me the following day with an eye consultant. He thought it was an Eye tumour and referred me to The Hallamshire Teaching Hospital in Sheffield (who specialise in tumours) for more extensive checks. After the tests I found that I had a melanoma inside my left eye and the only sensible treatment was immediate enucleation (removal of the eye). This was delayed for a week to allow me to run the London Marathon. The surgeon told me that I would be running again in four weeks and I did my first Post-op marathon one month and one day afterwards.
Q: Why running? Why not swimming or the gym?
A: I can’t swim!
Q: When did you realise running was for you?
A: I got fed up with walking around Lichfield (after the heart attack) so one evening I ran about two hundred yards to get a video for my children. The next day I went into the local park and walked/jogged for a few minutes and gradually, over a number of weeks, I began to build up the distance I ran. It was then that I thought there was something in it.
Q: How quickly was your progression from training to full marathon?
A: I then saw an advert for the New York marathon about ten months ahead. That gave me focus to keep at it and so that became my first marathon. Having never run with anyone else until then I had nightmares about seeing 30,000 runners disappearing into the distance with me, alone, about two miles behind.
Q: Which marathons particularly stand out in your memory?
A: I have done them in gorgeous scenery, like Brathay, in tunnels two metres wide, in cities like Berlin, New York and Rome, at night when completely light in the Midnight sun and in the complete dark starting at midnight in Zurich on New Year’s Eve. They all have their unique qualities and I can remember them all but I would not like to pick one out.
Q: What are the particular challenges as a runner that you face given your background?
A: No particular challenges - just the realisation and frustration that getting older makes it harder.
Q: What is your training regime?
A: My regular training regime is about 45 miles a week. I do a marathon most weekends. I run 4 miles Tuesday, 10 miles Wednesday, 3 miles Thursday and 3 miles on a Friday. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I run with Simon - he is a 42 year old with Down's Syndrome - and I have run with him for the last 5 years (he gets lost if he runs alone). I’m sure that he is the first person with Down's to run the London Marathon and he and I have now done 8 marathons together. In Germany he has inspired a Down's Running club and has become a complete star. The Berlin Wall 156 K run was dedicated to him. Simon and I raised £25,000 for the UK Down's Syndrome organisation. We have been on television, radio and were invited to a Downing Street reception by Mrs Brown (visit www.kinleanita.de for details).
Q: What makes you continue to run?
A: I simply love running and it becomes an addiction (I think!).
Q: How important do you think it is for runners to raise money for good causes?
A: Not everyone runs for charity and you can't do it all the time, but most marathons have a charitable objective. I limit mine to Brathay Trust and the Down's Syndrome organisations in Britain and Germany. It is very satisfying to help other people. But the contribution from runners to charitable causes is fantastic; how many millions would be missing from charitable income without the sponsorship of runners. How many good causes wouldn’t be helped!
Q: What is your running ambition?
A: At 73 my ambition has to be limited but I think to aspire to 500 marathons (God willing) is a reasonable objective. And obviously becoming the oldest runner to complete the Brathay 10 in 10 would be a fantastic achievement. If I beat that record I’d feel justifiably proud.
Q: What inspires you about running?
A: The biggest inspiration for me is seeing people finish. Without exception, from young to old, overweight to thin, they all have a unique look of satisfaction about them as they go across the line and I am sure that all would have a tale to tell about personal ambitions achieved, or demons overcome, injuries, cash raised for charity etc. etc. The last few miles can be very tough and to get through it can need a lot of courage and will power.
Q: Brathay Marathon 10 in 10. Why?
A: It is a supreme Challenge (especially the first one!) and how else would you get to meet Joss Naylor, an honour in itself.
John will be attending a course inspection and training session, with his fellow Brathay 10 in 10 competitors, over the weekend of 15 & 16 January 2011.
The Brathay 10 in 10 starts on 13 May, 2011.
The Brathay Windermere Marathon is on 22 May, 2011.
For further information visit www.brathaywindermeremarathon.org.uk