That Extra Mile

11/04/2012

In preparation for this year's Virgin London Marathon, Nick Duxbury from Inside Housing interviews some of the HACT team to see how they're feeling with the race just around the corner.

11 April 2012.

This article was published in Inside Housing on the 5 April 2012.

A team of dedicated housing professionals - including one of Inside Housing’s very own reporters - is gearing up to run the London Marathon for HACT. Nick Duxbury has the inside story - and a bit of a limp.

Matt Leach, chief executive of housing charity HACT, sets a high bar. He has run a marathon before, an experience that was both remarkable and slightly bloody.

Matt entered a competition in a newspaper hoping to win a pair of trainers. Instead he won the top prize - a place in the 2006 London Marathon with just two-and-a-half months to train. ‘I had done a bit of boxing, so I got a former army boxing champion in to batter the hell out of me once a week. I think that’s what got me through it,’ he says.

However, having not done much running, five miles into the marathon Matt’s feet had ‘blistered entirely’. ‘The skin was coming off and it was like running in warm wet slippers,’ he says. Despite being hit by this gory occurrence barely a fifth of the way through, Matt completed the marathon in an impressive 4 hours 29 minutes.

This achievement is not lost on the four housing professionals sitting in London’s Green Park, who themselves will be running 26.2 miles for the housing action charity HACT in just two weeks’ time. It is their first group meet, and also their first attempt at running a marathon, so they are sponging up the experiences of the boss of the charity for which they have each promised to raise at least £2,000.

‘There is something kind of reassuring when you get past 20 or 22 miles, you start to see people lying by the side of the road twitching because they have cramp or something has happened to them,’ he tells the group matter-of-factly. ‘But when you run past and you are feeling strong it makes you even stronger as you think “thank God that’s not me”.’The main reason they are here, though, is to explain why they are running the London Marathon for HACT - or indeed, why they are running 26.2 miles at all. Because, from what Matt is saying, the experience sounds more than a little bit masochistic.

‘But that could be anyone of us,’ protests Sandra Maguire, property manager at Genesis Housing Group. She, John Taylor, a service manager at Midland Heart, and Gavriel Hollander, business reporter at Inside Housing, exchange looks of mutual fear.

Judging by the number of hours they have spent pounding the pavement they needn’t be worried. Like the other seven runners, including housing bosses Nick Atkin, chief executive of Halton Housing and regular HACT marathon runner Paul Bridge, chief executive of Homes for Haringey, these runners have trained in the cold, dark, wet winter months, often at unthinkable hours of the morning.

I count myself among the four HACT runners here today because I too have braved the elements and sacrificed weekends in preparation for running 26.2 miles to raise money for the charity. But unlike the other three, I will be running the Amsterdam marathon in October instead. The reason for this is that, like Matt, who is nursing a damaged foot, I have injured myself.

We have that much in common, but that’s where any similarities end. I picked up a stress fracture coupled with knee problems as a result of ignoring advice from Matt six weeks earlier to slow down my training. Matt, the otherwise understated chief executive, hurt his foot kicking someone (he’s a black belt in Kung Fu).

Added to the embarrassment of having to postpone a challenge that I’ve bored my friends and colleagues talking about for so many months and have received so many generous donations for, I am also dressed as a genie in a lamp.

Had other especially munificent sponsors, such as arm’s-length management organisation First Choice Homes Oldham, and law firms Trowers & Hamlins and TLT, provided me with other costume options, goodness knows what I’d be wearing.The spout is unfortunately located. It also bears the logo of my biggest sponsor to date pledging £300, Gentoo Group - the costume is reference to the housing association’s Gentoo Genie scheme for buyers without deposits or mortgages. But things could be worse - underneath Gentoo’s sticker are the words ‘rub me’.

To add insult to injury, Sandra reveals that Irish pop-twins Jedward have recently run a marathon in America with no training at all. How is this fair, or even possible? A pair of identikit X Factor rejects managed to notch up 26.2 miles - probably without so much as a limp in either their legs or gravity defying hair cuts - yet it hurts me to walk.

‘They are young,’ offers John charitably. ‘Yeah,’ agrees Sandra, ‘plus I think they used to be elite athletes when they were growing up.’

One thing our runners have in common is that they are by no means elite athletes. John is the most experienced of our group. He has been running for around two-and-a-half years and has notched up eight half marathons with an impressive personal best time of one hour 52 minutes. Now he has his sights set on a four-hour marathon.

Training regime

‘I went for a run on Boxing Day and decided that was the official start of my training,’ he recalls. ‘I run a minimum of three times a week, sometimes four. I was already at a level where I could run six miles so I carried on doing that throughout the week and started doing some 10s [10-mile runs] at the weekend and increased it by a couple of miles each time - now I am tapering it off to make sure I have plenty in the tank for the big day.’

Sandra, 41, had no running experience. She has wanted to run a marathon for some time, but until this year, had never been able to get a place. 

‘I started training at the end of October,’ she says. ‘I started very gradually. The training is gruelling. Going out at 5am when it’s cold and wet and icy has been a proper challenge - as has fitting it all in around a full-time job and looking after a family. I am quite looking forward to it now and am quietly confident. I have stayed injury-free and been super-sensible.’

Gav reveals he has run a half marathon, in which he matched John’s time of 1 hour 52 minutes. He adds that he’s faster now than he was then. A competitive glance is exchanged.Gav’s experience is perhaps the least typical. ‘It was my first day in the job [as business reporter at Inside Housing], and an email went round asking if anyone would put themselves forward to run the marathon for HACT - I assumed volunteering my services was part of my probation,’ says, the 32-year-old, only half-joking. ‘I’d wanted to run a marathon for a while but never got round to actually doing it.’

So what are the lowest lows and highest high of his marathon experience to date?

‘Both are probably yet to come,’ he says. ‘The lowest low was around Christmas when I did my first 10-miler and woke up the next day and couldn’t really walk. I couldn’t walk properly for about a week afterwards.‘There have been a couple of real highs on Saturday mornings when I have got up early and run past clubbers coming back from a night out and thought, “I feel great and you look awful”. That feels good knowing you used to be like them.’

Our runners compare tips: don’t take energy-filled gels during the marathon as they make you nauseous, but gobble jelly babies instead. Don’t worry about changing your diet - if you want that bacon sandwich you have probably earned it. Buy your race day socks months in advance.

Choosing the charity

The discussion moves on to the relative merits of ‘carb loading’ the week before the race. I interrupt to ask a more fundamental question: why are they running for HACT? Why not run for Marie Curie or Amnesty UK, or any of the hundreds of other equally deserving charities?

‘It makes sense,’ says Midland Heart’s John. ‘When so many people run for Cancer Research or whatever, it felt right to say, “yeah, let’s do something for a cause that we all believe in and that’s related to the job I do”.’

Gav, agrees. ‘When you are collecting sponsorship and you are asking people you work around and with, everyone understands what the issues are and what HACT does. I think that’s important when you are asking people for money.’

For Sandra who has set herself a target of raising £2,500, collecting money was ‘a bit of a mission’ to begin with. Now that the end is in sight, things have improved, she says.

More than this, she’s found the experience of explaining what HACT does to potential sponsors has improved her working life. ‘It has reinstated my passion for housing actually,’ she enthuses. ‘I have been working in the sector for quite some time now and quite honestly you do get a bit frazzled.

‘You forget the fundamentals because you go along with it as a business. This has reminded me of why I do what I do.’

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