Running possibly saved my life

AUGUST 2018: Chris Arnold of Arena 80 has been training with RunBrighton for the last 9 years, and has been a RunBrighton ambassador since 2014.

Having completed 10 marathons to date, he is currently preparing for his longest run yet, the Downslink Ultra (35 miles).

What is particularly impressive about taking on such distance, is the health issues, both physical and mental, that Chris has battled through to get to this point.

What prompted the decision to take on your first ultra, Chris?

I’ve drawn inspiration from my fellow ambassadors and their endeavours in much longer races. It’s been on my radar for a while now and I decided to take the plunge this year. I’ve adjusted my training slightly, to include more mileage and running on tired legs.

Why specifically the Downslink?

The Downslink seemed the perfect step-up from a marathon, with a near-flat course making it an easier decision to sign up. Although I love hills, I didn’t want to make my first attempt at an ultra too difficult.

What was the extent of your running, prior to joining RunBrighton?

Before joining RunBrighton, I was a bit of a lazy runner. I found it very difficult to motivate myself to go out and train. I did have two marathons under my belt before I joined and they were both in London; my best time was 4 hours 15 minutes 43 seconds! That got me thinking about what I could achieve if I prepared properly, so I started to train for the 2010 Brighton Marathon. However, it was not meant to be, owing to health setbacks.

I know you’ve had a few periods of time-out, owing to serious illness and operations, including on-going recurring problems. What was the nature of your illness and how has it impacted on your running?

I was Diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, which is a form of bowel disease, causing ulcers to spread throughout my entire colon. I would find myself having to visit the toilet at least twenty or more times in a day and, coupled with blood loss, it left me exhausted. I was given two types of medication and steroids throughout a 10-year period.

I tried to keep up with my running, but had to really scale it back at times and be sensible. The disease was very debilitating, so any running had to be planned for when I had periods of remission.

In 2010, I was given no choice but to have my entire colon removed. The date for the operation was set for January, so my chances of running in the first Brighton Marathon were nil. The operation took 6 hours. I was in hospital for 3 weeks and then I had 9 weeks at home.

I was not allowed to do any running until the following September. I took my first tentative steps, and then in April 2011 I took part in the Brighton marathon. It wasn’t pretty, but I finished.

And you’ve also suffered with mental health issues. Are you happy to talk about what you’ve been through, and how running has helped?

Mental health tends to be this taboo subject that you should keep to yourself. I would like to say and impress upon anyone who has mental health issues that you must talk about it. I did and it possibly saved my life.

And I’ve been lucky to have a very loving and supportive wife and network of friends.

I remember the doctors telling me to do what I enjoy doing. The first thing that came to mind was running. They then said to me that I must not stop running, and that I should get back out there, because if I were to stop doing what I enjoyed, I would further withdraw into myself. So, I continued with the running and a little bit of a spark ignited in me. It lit a flame deep within that started to burn brighter as I began to feel that little bit better in myself.

It has been a long hard journey, but running has been the perfect tonic.

What do you anticipate being the biggest challenge, taking on the 35 miles, and how do you plan to address that?

The biggest challenge for me will be getting to the marathon distance, knowing I then have another 9 miles to go. I’ve given this some thought and will break the run down in to smaller chunks and tick them off like a checklist. I aim to start at a slower, steady pace, and then increase the pace from 26.2 miles through to the finish.

You’ve been with RunBrighton since 2009 and been an ambassador for us since 2014. What do you enjoy most about the role?

For me, it’s watching all the runners grow in confidence throughout the winter or summer training, knowing that I’ve been a part of their journey. And seeing the runners come back, again and again, improving on their times, some going on to be ambassadors.

After all, I started out as a participant, 11-minute miling with the lovely Brigitte Groves. I always looked back at the journey I’d taken, and it spurred me on to become an ambassador.

We’ll have lots of runners with RunBrighton over the winter, preparing for their first ever marathon next spring. What advice would you give to any first-timers?

My advice would be to follow the training plans that accompany the training, and do most of the long Sunday runs at about a minute-per-mile slower than race pace. Also, make sure you have the right kit, most importantly suitable running shoes! And, at least, try to get out during the week, so as not to rely solely on the Sunday runs.

Our Autumn Introduction to Running course starts, 21st October. What would you say to anyone thinking of taking up running, but apprehensive about taking the first steps?

Never be apprehensive! We are a very friendly group and cater for runners of all abilities, so don’t feel you won’t fit in, because you will. Take each session, one at a time. You may alternate between running and walking, and it’s important to realise that this is ok! As you progress, you’ll be able to run for longer. It just takes practice.

Chris, congratulations on everything you’ve achieved with your running, particularly in the light of various health issues. Thanks for being an awesome ambassador and good luck with the build-up to the Downslink. We look forward to seeing how you get on.

By Mike Bannister