JUNE 2021: Toby Merrett joined RunBrighton for several, back-to-back seasons before becoming an ambassador this year.

It has not all been an easy ride, though, as he has had to battle through serious illness and a major operation… proving that, if you put your mind to it and train sensibly, health setbacks don’t necessarily mean staying away from endurance events.

Toby, perhaps you could tell us a bit about yourself / what you do for a living?

I was born and bred in Brighton and love this city, having both the beach and the Downs on my doorstep.

I work for Honeywell, and am a senior remote support engineer. We connect to sites around the world and can investigate their HVAC (Heating and Ventilation), lighting and energy management. Once in, we can actually open and close valves to see where the issues are and direct engineers straight to the fault. You’ll find our controls in schools, hospitals, supermarkets, etc, and even in private homes. I’ve been working for them, for the last 21 years.

Have you always been sporty?

I have. I was reserve for Sussex at squash at the age of 13, and have always taken to different sports like a duck to water. You name it, I’ve probably played it. I’ve always loved being active, whether on a snowboard or in a gym!

Although I hadn’t run for a number of years, due to my illness, I discovered about four years ago that running wasn’t a problem.

And Michelle and I have just invested in a pair of paddleboards, which are challenging but extremely fun.

It must have been quite a shock to have been hit with health issues. What do you recall of how you initially coped with the news, and what were you able to do to try and maintain some fitness?

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of 24. I had a few years when I was really ill, then once I got it under control I had four years of no trouble with it.

At the time, I had my own business, and was bumped for a lot of money. The stress of all that made me really ill and I was eventually rushed into hospital.

I was there for a few weeks, before it was decided that my colon should be removed. In fact, the operation was brought forward by three days, as they didn’t think I’d make it, and I was given a 50/50 chance of survival.

Once removed, they found it was Ulcerative Colitis. This gave me the opportunity to have a pouch made from my intestine, to act like the colon.

Since all of that, it has been pretty plain sailing, with my focus being on regaining my fitness. I initially found running was too much, so stopped and took up Salsa dancing instead.

Unfortunately, last year, I started getting back pain and spasms at night, and was diagnosed with arthritis on the spine and pelvis. This only causes pain when your body is at rest, so for a year I was only getting three hours of pain-free sleep at night. Luckily, though, there’s an injection I can take that puts it at bay, and for the last three weeks I’ve been getting eight hours sleep, which is fantastic. I can’t tell you how good that feels!

I know so much about my body now, and as long as I keep strong and fit, I know I can get through it.

How did you first come to join RunBrighton?

Thanks to my best mate, Julius, prior to the pandemic we used to go out drinking most weekends. On the odd occasion, he brought me along to the RunBrighton social events. I believe it was one of those (ahem, drunken) nights that I signed up, and I’ve never looked back.

What have you enjoyed about your seasons with RunBrighton and how do you think it has helped you most with your training?

It’s the ambassadors and the friendliness of everyone that has made it for me. I met Michelle and now have some good friends whom I see regularly. Special thanks to Brigitte, Daz, Steve, Brian and Rick, for the knowledge that they shared with me and still do. Especially Rick for pacing me round the Brighton Marathon. (I still can’t believe he had a cheeky beer halfway round!)

Also, the talks you’ve put on, with the guest speakers, have been invaluable… really helpful!

What do you enjoy about being an ambassador?

It’s great helping other runners and seeing how they progress, and I can teach them all that I’ve learnt along the way. I was gutted the when the Brighton Half was recently postponed, as I believe the group I’ve been looking after would have all smashed their target times.

What’s next on your race calendar, Toby?

I was due to do the Castle to Coast triathlon next month, but due to my recent back issues and a knee niggle, I’ve decided to pull out and do it next year instead. I’d rather keep training for now, as I’d likely do more damage racing. It only actually hurts when cycling, but it’s a 68-mile ride!

I do have a few half marathons coming up, though, postponed due to the pandemic.

And do you tend to aim to finish as quickly as possible, or is it more a case of enjoying the event, without any time pressure?

I’d like to say I’m not competitive, but everyone who knows me would call me a liar. Haha. I do like to finish a race as quickly as possible, but there are some you can’t… like the Jurassic Coast I ran earlier this year, which was stunningly beautiful.

What would be your key tips for anyone preparing for their first half or full marathon, this autumn?

Follow the training plan you provide; it got me through it all! Make sure you stretch, and get the right diet. I still eat the same food the night before, and at breakfast, the day of a run, and it’s not failed me yet. I ran in the same clothes, socks and shoes every Sunday to know they wouldn’t cause me any problem. Having said that, I got a huge blister on my foot at mile 10 of the marathon, but if the training has taught you anything, it’s to keep going. Don’t stop! Even if you slow your pace, keep moving. If you stop and start to seize up, you’ll find it tough to get going again.

Toby, it’s been great to chat. I’m delighted you continue to be on our ambassador team. And good luck with your preparation for the forthcoming half marathons… and the Castle to Coast next year!

By Mike Bannister