The Odyssey of Acceptance

Someone recently asked me how I created an article from scratch. What was my ‘process’? To tell you the truth, the answer was woefully inadequate and tangential. It should have been easy. Find the story, do some digging, check your facts, write it in the same structure shared by Adie or Waugh or Churchill. Finally, deliver the number one message in a catchy headline: Man bites dog.

I haven’t published for a while. Instead, I’ve spent my time being inspired by others, researching my next projects and thinking. The plan was to write about outdoor superstars. On the final evening of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, Swiss über-athlete Ueli Steck took the stage. Until recently he held the Eiger Nordwand speed record at a scalding 2h47 from bergschrund to summit. To accomplish such a notoriously dangerous route at speed needs single-minded masochism and 100% conviction.

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden
Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden
However, rather than discuss those to whom all the accolades filter, I wanted to talk about sport for development. This ties in with planning the legacy from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, as well as a role I’ve taken on as mentor for Sported, which has its origins in the 2012 Olympics and aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people. I’ve also been reading about the use of sport in Rwanda to repair divided communities as the world remembers its massacre 20 years on. In more general terms, I’m fascinated by how group outdoor activities assist individuals and communities to grow stronger, remember their similarities and become more equipped for the future.

My inspiring subject this month is a couple from Leeds who’ve done something very punchy. Like Ueli, their endeavour required devotion, planning and buckets of optimism. I’d like to introduce you to Simon Buckden and Louisa Rodriguez. In March they ran from their home in Leeds to Downing Street, a total of 216 miles in a week.

You may be thinking that yes, this is a long way to run and needs a high level of fitness. Or you may choose to compare it to the headline-grabbing explorers – whether Ranulph Fiennes or James Ketchell – who travel infinite distances across sastrugi-covered poles and mind-twisting deserts with enormously heavy rucksacks. And there’s not even a pub at the end. The classic adventurers inspire because they take something that might seem physically impossible, but try their hardest to destroy everyone’s assumptions including their own.

The couple from Leeds had a different motive for their outdoor journey. It was to bring awareness for their recently-formed charity, Positive Action for PTSD. Simon is a survivor of multiple traumas and is not afraid to stand up and be honest, thereby helping himself and others. He and partner Louisa aim to educate everybody to remove stigma relating to witnessing and surviving traumatic events, to show that it’s not the preserve of the military, and to highlight the amazing things can be achieved by those who’ve suffered. It’s a wonderful mission.

My gran used to say ‘least said, soonest mended’. And my hope for 2014 is that this is no longer the case. The history of enlightenment shows us that ignorance and persecution can be followed by commonality and acceptance. You can trace this path with the ‘C’ word – from stigma, through medical trials of the nineteenth century, past the 1913 founding of the American Cancer Society, to this disease becoming something about which we talk and support openly. A physical impediment cannot be a reason to not be invited to participate, and nor should mental health, sexual preference, colour, race or gender. The only possible reason to exclude is apathy.

Most people can appreciate the physical endurance it takes to run back-to-back marathon distances. A journey of 216 miles is tough, especially without motorcycle outriders and marshals in fluorescent tabards. On the first afternoon, Simon got lost in the rain outside Sheffield. And I can appreciate how, day after day, the impact of each mile, furlong, lamppost and stride really starts to bite. It takes real mental strength.

The couple ran a strong communications campaign. They contacted all the press, used social media continually, met with the lord mayors of the towns en route and were greeted by MPs on arrival to the Big Smoke. And later that day the run was mentioned in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Having since spoken to Simon, I know that this is only the start. Like real sportspeople, they have the passion to take their vision global.

At a personal level, it wasn’t the run or the media effort that inspired me most, nor that they did everything with a small team and very little money. It was a book that they carried. Weeks before, they had asked as many people to share their stories of trauma and survival. Among the writers were ex-policemen and prison officers, victims of domestic abuse and road traffic accidents: a terrible catalogue that makes for grim but important reading. As a survivor of mountaineering incidents, I also contributed. Simon and Louisa ran with that book, showed it to everyone they met and delivered copies to ministers.

But it wasn’t until they kicked off the physical challenge that I appreciated the symbolism. They had printed very private stories, some of which had never been shared, to be taken on a street-pounding journey to Westminster. Simon and Louisa helped bring the extraordinary tales of ordinary people into the light, and perhaps helped, in some small way, to turn down the volume on the original memories with the new narrative of their odyssey. No speed mountaineer could humble me in this way. Like the daughter who wears a message to her mother as she warms up before the Race for Life, or the family who turns up to watch the returning Royal Scots Dragoon Guards parade from Holland Street to George Square, it felt like the perfect act of redemption.

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NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.