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The Comedy of Errors

Rory Coleman is the OG Marathon Man

4 October 17 words: Shariff Ibrahim
illustrations: Raph Achache

We can all be guilty of overindulging and being less active than we should be. After all, a post-work pub trip on a sunny Friday afternoon sounds infinitely better than hammering away on a treadmill with the lycra-clad gang, or traipsing down a canal towpath while a robotic voice on an app barks sarcastic-sounding encouragement at you, doesn’t it? Well, not for our Rory Coleman...

For Rory, a tipping point had been reached. A devoted chugger of booze, chuffer of fags, and neglecter of fitness, one day he packed it all in in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. He found it through running, transforming himself into a marathon machine, and later becoming the UK’s leading ultra-marathon trainer before being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome last year. Paralysed and wheelchair-bound, Rory fought back, is now in recovery, and just returned to Nottingham to complete his 1000th marathon ever; a far cry from the unfit thirty-something he was in 1994.

“I was successful in my business, but I was unhappy in my home life and the way I conducted myself,” Rory begins. “My second son was born in 1993 and I worked out that by Christmas of that year, I’d been drunk pretty much every day of his life. I got a particularly nasty flu, and continued to smoke like an idiot. I had an asthma attack and got really frightened thinking, ‘God, this is what it must be like to have lung cancer.’ On Boxing Day, I stubbed out my last ever cigarette.”

Over the New Year, Rory got thinking, and knew that he had to give up the after-work pub trips and get running if he was to sort his life out. “I stepped out of my front door, in the dark, in my work clothes and leather shoes. I ran 100 steps, then virtually passed out on the pavement,” Rory explains. “I was frightened to be so unfit at the age of 31, but it didn’t matter because I’d found my thing.”

Rory began to build his training up, doubling the distance to 200 steps, then 400. Three months later, he ran his local half marathon in a good time. “I felt euphoric,” he says. “It was a real Road-to-Damascus moment. 5 January 1994; that day changed my life forever.”

He didn’t stop there, though. Rory ran the London Marathon the year after and was fully bitten by the running bug, deciding to run a marathon every subsequent week, as well as pushing himself during longer endurance races. Starting with 33 miles from Nottingham to Grantham along the disused Grantham canal, he then looked for a 50-miler, a 100-miler, and then completed the treadmill world record. “I’d never been on one. I just stood on it, pressed the button and knocked out 101 miles,” Rory says casually.

“It’s like writing your own epitaph; I wanted to make my mark on the world. I’d seen all these famous people in the Guinness book when I was a child, and I’ve been in it myself now, so that was good. I’m also very lucky to have done the world’s toughest marathon, the Marathon des Sables, fourteen times.”

The Marathon des Sables, by the way, is a particularly gruelling six-day, 251 km ultra-marathon through the Sahara Desert. “Put your fan oven on 200 degrees and open the door; that’s how hot it is. It’s probably one of the toughest things you could ever do, like climbing Everest or walking to the South Pole. It’s an extraordinary place to go.” But Rory sees it more as a vacation. “Every time I’ve been back to the Marathon des Sables, it’s some downtime where I’m off the internet, my clients can’t chase me, and actually, it’s a bit like a retreat.”

Those experiences have led Rory to coaching, and he now has a client list as long as your quadriceps. “Along the way, I’ve turned my passion into my job, and now coach other people to run. I coach people like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Helen Skelton off Blue Peter, Game of Thrones people, Star Wars actors. And I ended up going to Downing Street with Sir Ranulph, my childhood hero. He told me many stories in the dark of the desert. Much better than reading books.”

It all almost came crashing down when, after returning from the Marathon des Sables last year, Rory was mysteriously struck down with Guillain-Barre syndrome – an incurable condition whereby the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system – leaving him paralysed and wheelchair-bound. “You literally become a floppy puppet; you can’t stand, and nothing in your body works. It kills 7% of people in two hours. You ask the doctors ‘Will I ever walk again?’ and nobody will say yes.”

But Rory refused to be bowed by the condition. “It took me 21 days to learn to walk again, and I’ve done 22 marathons since then,” he says. “That’s just down to resilience, endurance, and sheer bloody-mindedness, because I didn’t want to be a victim. I’ve been back and done the Marathon des Sables since, and I wouldn’t say I’m better, but I know I can run marathons.”

Miraculously, Rory just completed his 1000th marathon, and he chose right here in Nottingham, at The Ikano Bank Robin Hood Marathon, to complete this very special milestone. Speaking to us before the race, he reckoned it’d bring back some very special memories for him. “I’m looking forward to running round with my family and friends. All the things I’ve done, from the beginnings of being an overweight alcohol- and nicotine-addicted guy, everything has just been really positive. When I do the Robin Hood, it’ll remind me of the first time I did it back in 1995. I love it, it really is my favourite marathon. I’ve got great memories, I’ve done some really good times there, I did my 500th marathon there, my 300th marathon there, and now I’m doing my 1000th.”

While not from Nottingham – actually Cardiff by way of Stratford-upon-Avon and a stint in Long Eaton – the city is a special place for Rory. “The marathon goes through some really lovely parts of the city, and I’ve had some wonderful experiences there,” he says. “My daughter’s running her first marathon, she’s 29 and lives in Nottingham, and my wife’s running with me; she’s a Great Britain marathon international, and I met her in the desert for the Marathon des Sables. If I hadn’t decided to go for a run that day, I’d have never met her.”

So, does Rory think that anyone would be able to walk in his rather remarkable marathon-running footsteps? “My thoughts are that actually, anybody is elite. Anybody can do anything they want to do as long as they want to do it.

“We’re all designed to run; we’re not designed to sit at desks and answer emails, it’s just that we’ve developed this modern-day thing of being sedentary, and it’s something that’s reflected everywhere. People are overweight and unfit, and hopefully, something’s going to make it trendy to be fit and leaner. Hopefully the government’s going to help people out.”

A few tips to take away as we hurtle towards the festive period, then? “I would start by investing one hour a day to changing your life,” Rory says. “The way I do it is I get people to choose three things they don’t want to do any more, and substitute them with three things they do want to do. I decided to give up smoking, give up drinking, clean up my diet, and then chose three things that I did want to do, like lose some weight, go for a run, or just feel better. People should go out and enjoy the outside world because it feels two seconds since I was twenty. Time goes so quickly. Also, people should try to make their mark on the world. I feel like I have. I’m a very lucky person.”

Feel inspired? Entries for next year’s Ikano Bank Robin Hood Marathon events have now opened.

Rory Coleman website

The Ikano Bank Robin Hood Marathon events website

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