Editor’s Note: There are some people who take a back seat in life and who find themselves disappointed when things don’t go the way that they might like. There are others who consider how to respond to life’s little challenges, and take things into their own hands: not just for themselves, but for the sake of others. This might be to inspire others; to support a cause; or to simply to prove that it can be done. And if they can do it, so can you.
Meet Stephen Wright. Over 11 months, he ran along the length of all of the lines of London’s Underground rail network. This was 435 miles, equivalent to 17 marathons, over 36 runs. Whilst originally starting out to fulfill primarily a personal challenge, midway through his adventure, his quest was refocused very personally with the miscarriage of his third child. After a short pause, he continued on his challenge, and finished his run, persevering with raising awareness and funds – over £7,300 ($11,800) in total – for stillbirth and neo-natal death charities. In this way, his efforts have helped to provide support for other families that have done through similar traumas and heartache.
He’s also demonstrated the importance of needing to keep going when emotionally it looks like the whole world is falling apart.
*Today, we have the chance to share an interview with Stephen about this inspiring story, run, and goal. *
You embarked on your mission to “Run the Tube Lines” to support and bring awareness about stillbirth and pre-birth trauma. Can you tell us a bit about your story?
I ran my first marathon in April 2006 aged 31, after joining a running club the previous year. Later in 2006, my wife Zoe and I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions: initially, joy – after years of trying, of conceiving a twin pregnancy; next, the excitement of making preparations for a new family life; and then – without warning – the devastation of a second-trimester miscarriage, which led to the loss of our baby boy and girl. This is something for which there was no preparation for and something that is very much unspoken about in society. We struggled to work our way through the myriad of emotions and for a long time we kept this experience limited to close friends and family. As the years went by, in considering how to ‘put something back’ I could think of no better cause than the charities that supported us in our time of sadness. Not being particularly talented or adventurous, I chose to do something related to running. In a time of increased financial hardship and charity fatigue, I released that to raise real interest I needed to do something more than just a “standard” running activity.
What was your ultimate goal for this mission, from start to finish, to say you’ve completed the Tube Runs? And by the time you were done, how long did it take, how many miles run? How did you plan it out?
When you spend time in London – whether it’s a day or a decade, there is no way that you can’t be influenced by the Underground network. The “Tube” carries over a billion passengers every year. The iconic Tube Map, first developed in the 1930s, is something that represents many people’s view of London. Most journeys are taken as a means to an end: to get from home to work; to visit friends; to travel somewhere for entertainment, or for greater travel: to/from an airport, or across London to interchange over-ground rail across the country. Whilst passengers are gently carried towards their destination, it is irresistible not to daydream about all of the funny sounding places represented uniformly and equally spaced out on this map.
I’ve spent over 15 years working in/near London and it struck me that whilst I’d travelled across much of the network, I had no idea what these places looked like above ground. I formulated the idea to run the shortest by-foot distance between each station on each line. I used online mapping tools to create a point-to-point route on the first line – the Victoria Line – and found it to be a manageable 15 miles. My challenge would be not only to cover the distance, but to photograph anything interesting I saw, and to write about on a new blog. I also set up an online fundraising page for charitable donations, but hadn’t thought about how I might incorporate sharing knowledge about this charity’s work, or my connection to our own stillbirth experience.
As the weekends passed, I started to plan ahead for the routes that I would cover, as it became apparent that after my second run, covering the distance of the next shortest line (22 miles), that I would have to do things in stages. It perhaps wasn’t until early January that I calculated the total distance to be some 400 miles. This is interesting when comparing to the official track distance length of the network – just 249 miles. As a pedestrian it was necessary to make detours for obstacles – whether natural (e.g. the River Thames) or man-made (e.g. Europe’s largest Airport). Also, for a variety of planned or unplanned reasons I ended up making detours – that is to say, even with maps, I got lost! Hey, no-one’s perfect. But the important thing is that I eventually covered the whole lot.
I ran cross-country at school mainly to get out of playing the tough sport of rugby. In 2005, I joined a local running club, when the prospect loomed of an early middle-aged spread caused by travelling abroad on expenses and living a relatively sedentary lifestyle. I ran my first half marathon in 2005; my first marathon in April 2006; and then a cross-country marathon in October of the same year. The loss of the twins, and subsequently also having to get out of a difficult job situation, and also moving house meant I needed to put my fitness plans on hold for a while. I restarted running in 2008, and I typically completed two marathons a year with other shorter events in between. I love the social aspect of running – whether its learning about what motivates other people or developing great relationships with people and their families. I think that runners are generally sociable people. Some people take their sports very seriously, which can if not kept in check lead to disillusionment. I think it’s really important to keep performance, achievement, training, and life in balance as they all feed off each other – if it works the right way in a positive loop; but also potentially in a negative cycle.
Often, when we experience a tragedy, you want the world to stop so that you can get off for a while. But of course, that doesn’t happen in reality. When you were just over 60% through your Tube Running, you and your wife had a second miscarriage. What inspired you to keep going?
Since 2006 we experienced further challenges – changing jobs, further health problems, and so on. In January 2011, we were delighted to find out that we were pregnant again – some four years after the loss of our twins. Of course having been touched by the previous experience we kept knowledge of this pregnancy under wraps, and I did my best to ensure that Zoe was well looked after. As the weeks of Tube Running progressed, we shared the journey of building a nurtured environment of love for our new precious child in waiting. We made it through the critical 12 week scans; with one or two scares along the way. Slowly but surely we were able to relax and gradually got to a position whereby we could reveal to close friends and family that Zoe was pregnant again – not until the 19 th/20th week. We were mindful of the critical 21st week, at which point we’d lost the twins, and as a singleton pregnancy were feeling like this could be our time. It was around the weekend of the Royal Wedding and we were just having a fantastic time. I was considering that I could coordinate the conclusion of my Tube Running with the safe arrival of our son.
With the similar lack of fore-warning, we found ourselves in the Accident/Emergency ward of a central London hospital in early May with similar (rare) complications arising at this late 2nd trimester point in a pregnancy. Everything happened so fast; within the course of 24 hours, our hopes and dreams of a new small but perfectly formed family were swiped away from us without explanation.
As I sat in the room in the middle of the night some hours after Zoe had gone through the traumatic process of giving birth to a baby that everyone knew would not survive outside the womb, my thoughts turned to why I was even doing Tube Running. What difference was I making in the grand scheme of things? I had raised some funds for a charity; I had amassed a following on Twitter and Facebook. I had found a social reach well beyond our collective network of friends and family.
Whereas at some point during early 2011 I had included in my blog candid stories about the loss of our twins and the neonatal death of a good friend’s boy, in a sense this was relatively straightforward because this was referring to stories in the past sense. What I had now was the perspective of going through all of the emotions again, and this would be a unique opportunity to relate to the many people that were interested in what I was doing to tell them about our story. It was something we discussed together as to what to do. I had considered just stopping the Runs indefinitely. After a few weeks of necessary love and support to Zoe (and for myself), I continued my Tube Running and committed to complete this journey for the benefit of our three “angel babies” and also for the lost children of many other loving parents that we’d met along the way.
Where a tube line went underneath the River Thames, it was necessary for me to plot a detour. The Jubilee Line for example crosses the river three or four times on successive stations. One segment (between stations) – that would take just three minutes by rail – required me to run nine miles Eastwards along the bank of the River and to then traverse a foot tunnel, then ricochet back West to get to the station! Other times I had to take a ferry to cross between banks.
I came up with a challenge within a challenge in conjunction with Sophie, a travel writer and blogger that I got connected with as a result of my blog extending its reach over social networks. We thought about conducting a ‘tube versus foot’ race on one particular line (the pink one – Hammersmith & City).
The idea was that we’d start at the station entrance; I’d run as fast as I could to the next station, while Sophie would take the tube. It was really good fun as she made an excellent video of the day. The length between stations meant that it wasn’t always clear cut who would be victorious. It was also novel because we used Twitter to publicize the event whilst we were doing it. People at my work had signed up to a sweepstake to see how many times tube would beat foot. I’m delighted to say that I won more of the segments than I lost!
Of all the Tube runs you did, which one was your favorite and why? The most beautiful? The most difficult?
It is difficult to pick out the best moments when considering the equivalent of 17 marathons, or 71 hours of continuous running. The distance was equivalent to the length of Britain. I found that the times I remembered more were those runs with partners – over twenty people joined me along the way. There were running club friends, who knew our family situation and were passionate to do something to keep me motivated – particularly during the winter runs. There were work and home friends, who I’d managed to get into their running kit and to join me for some unusual touristic trip around our City. There were also the people I met who I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for my blog, for Twitter, or the Facebook page that I set up. I ran over 30 miles with an individual who I first agreed to meet face-to-face in an almost deserted tube station on the other part of town. There was also my dad, who cycled along with me for one enjoyable but rainy Sunday morning.
Perhaps the most difficult of the runs were where I ran by myself through tough times, where I had time to contemplate why I was doing what I was doing. On just my second run, which was one of my longest runs, I felt quite alone at one point and considered whether my then two angel babies were watching over me and if they were alive whether they’d be proud of their dad. A second run where I felt particularly isolated was in running around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport. This was an industrial and impersonal landscape and I felt like an intruder in this man-made territory. It was striking to view the airport in a way that not many of the millions of air passengers would have done – I have a greater appreciation of the supporting infrastructure for air travel but wouldn’t recommend it at all as a training run!
It was just fantastic to see the variety of landscapes across London – from the rural countryside of the North West, or North East (through Epping Forest), to the classically traditional City of London and City of Westminster. There were also districts in decline and districts on their ascendency. I have a unique perspective of a time in the life of London and documenting the lives and experiences of people that I met along the way.
I particularly enjoyed my final run, where I was joined by nearly a dozen running buddies, including a surprise appearance from my brother who I thought was still in Thailand. Their role on that final leisurely 10km route was to delay my arrival time at The Monument (an iconic place marking the ‘great fire’ of London) so that lots of other people could applaud me over the finish line.
What lessons did you learn on this journey?
I was pleasantly surprised about the generosity of strangers – both in financial and supportive terms - and the genuine interest that some people take in other people’s life experiences. For that time, I felt that the Tube was my guardian and my guide through my own journey. It was the greatest concentrated adventure that I’ve ever had. I learned a lot about working with charities and working with social media to get a message across, and of photography, and writing blogs, and working with traditional print media – getting an article published in a national weekend newspaper.
What are you most proud of looking back on your Tube run?
The biggest has to having been the catalyst for raising money which has been set aside for research into preventing the incidence of stillbirth and neonatal loss. I also feel that I’ve been able to put a spotlight onto a subject that many people still find very difficult to talk about or even engage with. In some ways, raising awareness is more important than fundraising, because sadly it will never be possible to totally eliminate the incidence of stillbirth or neonatal loss. In Britain, for example, seventeen babies will die every day – the tragic victims of stillbirth or neonatal death. Stillbirth is ten times more common than cot death. Is this acceptable in a modern, stable and industrialized society?
What advice would you give others who wish to raise money for causes they care about? What were some of the most effective strategies and outreach you did to help you reach your goal?
Be realistic about the expectations of support that you hope to get from a charity. In the UK the sector is typically fragmented with just a few very large national charities with suitable infrastructure to be able to link to media and provide resources to assist individuals. The majority of charities – particularly those catering for more ‘niche’ causes, operate with minimal overheads, and so it is down to the individual to do everything they can to amplify their own activities and that of the cause. That said, there is a lot of experience in the charitable sector to help people get started. At the end of the day, if you’re enthusiastic enough about a cause, you’ll find that opportunities can be explored and these lead to further opportunities. At the outset of my first run I set what I thought to be an ambitious target of £500 [$810]. By the end I’d smashed this beyond all expectations, raising over £7,300 [$11,800].
Delivery through others is also important. Social media can help amplify your cause. For example my Twitter account grew to over 800 followers since I set up my account, and this brings together people with similar causes and interests. Consider using as many channels as possible: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Blogs, as well as conventional print media, local TV/radio, and leaflets, your local church, sports center, office, and e-mailing absolutely everyone you know. I was careful not to bombard people with requests for sponsorship. The goal was not to acquire funds; it was to tell a story about a journey and an adventure, and to have fun along the way.
It’s been about a year since you’ve completed your run. What have you been doing since, and what’s next for you?
I completed my final run in August 2011 and set up plans to conduct further ‘tube running’ in the run up to the 2012 London Marathon. As has proven to be the case previously, life sometimes gets in the way of the best plans. The combination of moving to a new project at work, and various health complications meant that my running plans for the first half of 2012 were somewhat put on hold. I’m pleased to say that things are now improving considerably and since August 2012 my running is now back on target. My wife and I have spent a fantastic summer volunteering for the London Olympics, and also playing a small role as part of the core volunteer group for setting up a regular 5km run on Saturday mornings.
After I’ve completed a half marathon or two in October I’m looking to raise some more awareness and funds for charities in this field in the run up to the 2013 London Marathon. I’ve mapped out a further 130 miles worth of similar transport network that will allow me to explore parts of London I didn’t get to cover before, and so I’m looking for willing running buddies to join the continuing adventure.