Born without legs, Lowdham’s Richard Whitehead was encouraged by his parents to play sport as a way of integrating. He now holds world records for full and half marathon and 200 metre distances, and can give able-bodied athletes a bloody good run for their money. After winning gold at the London Paralympics he set himself the challenge of running from John O’Groats to Land’s End, completing forty marathons in forty days. We caught up with him when his tour passed through his home town...
Richard Whitehead sits in the back of his tour vehicle, his artificial legs stretched into the front of the 4x4, dandling his baby daughter on his lap. Already 25 days into his challenge, he is about to run around Nottingham's Embankment as part of a family 5km race to raise funds for his charities. A couple of days earlier, supporters welcomed him to the Old Market Square and hundreds have turned out to run with him. He seems a quiet and down-to-earth person, so what does he think about the media attention? "It's just part of the job really. It's part of doing a challenge like this but sometimes it's quite overwhelming because you have to do two or three hours press before you go out and do a run."
He is a congenital amputee, meaning that his limbs were missing when he was born. After competing in and excelling at various sports including gymnastics, swimming and sledge hockey he decided to run the New York Marathon despite never having run a mile before. "I was inspired to start running by an athlete called Terry Fox who tried to run from the east to the west of Canada before he died of sarcoma cancer", he says. His first marathon was a tough but rewarding experience, helped by the gift of a pair of high-tech running legs from their manufacturer, Ossur.
Richard became hooked on running and was the first amputee to run a marathon in under three hours, now holding the world record of 2:42:52 for the full marathon and 1:14:59 for the half. He had wanted to run a marathon distance in the London Paralympics, but there is no marathon event for leg amputees and his request to run against arm amputees was rejected. Undeterred, he made an incredible switch from long distance running to sprinting, competing in both the 100m and 200m races, winning gold and setting another world record in the latter. "Obviously I was disappointed not to be allowed to run the marathon, but it opened up another opportunity and I did quite well. Whether it's 200m or a marathon, I give it my all. I enjoy running, whether on the track or the road. 200m is a bit short for a runner like me but running in a stadium in front of 80,000 people is quite nice."
So, what made him want to do this particular long distance challenge? "It's an event I've been planning for quite a while after winning gold last year. It's about celebrating life and breaking down barriers. I wanted to leave a lasting legacy on sport and for me, this forty marathon event is more important than winning the gold in London. The challenge is all about the determination it takes to run a marathon. There are obstacles and barriers to overcome every day but with a strong team around you, you can do anything." It's clear that teamwork is an important part of Richard's success. A support vehicle and entourage follows him on his runs; attending to both his well being, and the publicity and fundraising efforts.
His Paralympic gold medal and the greater attention given to disabled athletes since 2012 have enabled him to get sponsorship for this endeavour. "Now sponsors are looking at Paralympic sport in the same light as our Olympic counterparts. Virgin Media have sponsored my event on the same level as Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. It's really important to have role models within Paralympic sport to sustain the impact and awareness of Paralympic athletics." A few days earlier, newspapers had shown Richard running behind his support vehicle watching 'inspirational movies’ such as Chariots Of Fire on a fifty-inch plasma screen supplied, of course, by Virgin Media. "That's obviously a bit of a publicity stunt but it's five, six, seven hours of running a day and it’s important to keep yourself motivated and interested during that time."
So, how hard is he finding the challenge? "I've had to give up a lot of things to do this, including time with my family. A lot of the athletes who have finished their seasons are just relaxing at home but I'm putting in a thousand miles. I've missed my seven-month-old daughter, Zara, and it's nice to spend a bit of time with her before I get back on the road to smash the remaining fifteen days."
For an amputee, the fit of a prosthetic limb on the stump is all important and can make a huge difference to their comfort and ability to walk or run long distances. Painful sores are common and Richard had to swap to a hand-bike for three days of his tour after developing large blisters that wouldn't heal. "I've had lots of issues with my stumps for various reasons. People with disabilities have barriers and obstacles to overcome every day and this is just one of them". I ask whether, given that he is so much faster at running than the vast majority of people, he considers his condition to be a disability at all? "I think in life people get labelled and disability is just a label that's been stuck on me. I'm just an athlete that's lucky enough to have gone to a games and won a gold medal."
His route from John O'Groats to Land's End takes a significant diversion to pass through Nottingham, where he received a warm welcome in Market Square. "The diversion adds on about an extra hundred miles and days of running, but I feel the legacy of sport is not just for Great Britain but also for my home town. It's really important because Nottingham and Nottinghamshire have supported me in the past and this is where I grew up."
He says he has no particular plans yet for another endurance challenge. "But I plan to be at Rio 2016 to try and defend my 200m gold medal. I'll be forty then so after that I might take up another role within sport." He doesn't see any prospect of a marathon for leg amputees being included in the Paralympics soon but hopes that his achievements will encourage a reconsideration. "If I can facilitate some changes then that will my legacy in Paralympic sport. I hope leg amputees see me running and are inspired to break a three hour marathon and get towards my record."