Chris Rayner turned his life around in his mid-30s and competed beyond his wildest dreams
Watching athletics with my Dad when Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram flew the flag for our country is one of my earliest sporting memories. However, if you had told me back in 1983 that I would one day pull on my country’s colours in competition, I would have found that hard to believe. Skip forward to October 2019 and I found myself proudly slipping into my England vest ahead of the Yorkshire Marathon!
During my early 30s, as is often the case, I’d put on a bit of weight and didn’t really exercise. I was stuck all day behind the wheel of a car as a sales rep, and my eating habits weren’t the best.
The big change happened when my marriage failed. I began jogging to try and do something positive. It’s well known that running can really boost mental health, and I was feeling a bit lonely. A friend suggested I go along with her to an event organised by Chiltern Runners. I became a regular.
I was adamant I would never enter a race, but one night, after several post-run beers, I was persuaded to enter the 2013 Leeds Abbey Dash 10k and, during the same beer session, declared I’d be able to do it in under 40 minutes. I didn’t even have a running watch back then so decided I’d better train hard, and crossed the finish line in 39 minutes 22 seconds. I was hooked!
The excitement of Leeds was short lived, however. A few days later I was in an awful car accident near Aberdeen which saw me upside down in a field. A week later my spleen ruptured, which resulted in major abdominal surgery to save my life. I felt lucky and so thankful to be alive and was desperate to get back to running to put events behind me. Six weeks after surgery and now minus my spleen, I cautiously took part in the South Manchester parkrun and it felt great to be back.
My first marathon
The next huge event in my running story was, again, after a few beers when I was persuaded to enter the 2016 Manchester Marathon. I woke the following morning thinking I’d made a terrible mistake, but then I promised myself I would dedicate the next three months to doing every single run on the plan, come rain, sun, snow or sleet.
I stood on the start line that sunny April morning knowing that I could not have done any more and that, whatever happened in the race, I had already achieved the real value the marathon. The icing on the cake was that after a rather frantic sprint to the finish line, my watch said 2 hours, 59 minutes and 57 seconds!
After that, there was no stopping me and I competed in the prestigious Boston Marathon, then Venice, then London, and then the Chester Marathon. I managed to finish in under 2 hours 45 minutes and, a week later, I received an email to say I’d qualified to represent England Masters in the 2019 Yorkshire Marathon!
My first charity marathon
It was going to be a proud day for me pulling on an England vest in my home county with my parents watching. I decided to use the occasion to do some good and considered running for charity, something I had not done previously. My grandfather Thomas Rayner had multiple sclerosis (MS) and died before I was born. I knew my father and uncle would be very delighted if I ran to support an MS charity and I chose MS-UK because of the fabulous support they provide to people living with the illness, including friends and work colleagues. Having set up a Just Giving page, I was amazed when £1,000 was donated in just 48 hours and £1,500 in total was pledged. I am fortunate to have some very generous friends and family.
The big day
The day itself was amazing. Lining up with my England colleagues for the team photo made it suddenly seem very real, but I quickly got my race head on as I had a job to do. I had my girlfriend and friends cheering me at the start and knew my parents would be at mile 14/15. Despite having had a few issues in training was determined to give it my all.
Standing alongside my Chorlton team mate Matt in the start pen, we wished each other luck and waited for the off. The conditions were pretty good – dry, cool, but a bit windy in places. I went out hard in the early stages and waited for the wheels to fall off, but got to halfway feeling good.
The shout of “Go on England!” from my mum gave me a boost at 15 miles, but a mile later, I started cramping a bit in my left hamstring. Fortunately, I managed to get rid of the cramp but lost touch with the group I had been running in, which meant running into the wind on my own, which is hard both physically and mentally.
The marathon is a massive mental game – you have so much time out there where you need to maintain form and focus and also remain hard in the head. Fortunately, Yorkshire folk are famed for this! The last six miles are always a battle in every marathon – they often say it’s a 20 mile warm up for a six mile race. I kept thinking of the finish line, all the people who I knew would be tracking my progress, the people who had sponsored me, and I shut out the message from my body that was saying Stop!
Two miles to go and my pace had just dipped a touch between 20 and 24 miles, but I rallied myself and knew I had this race and another personal best was within my grasp. With half a mile to go, the organisers kindly put a short but sharp hill in your way, but you know when you crest it you have a 400 meter downhill run to the finish. My cheer squad was placed on that hill and I flew up it, then belted it down to the finish line as the commentator called my name over the public address. I crossed the line, arm aloft, in a new best of 2 hours, 40 minutes and 51 seconds.
It is only when you finish a marathon that you realise how much pain you are in and you go from sprinting to the line to suddenly finding it hard to walk! However, I am so lucky to be able to enjoy my sport and it serves as a great reminder that things I sometimes take for granted are not so easy for others. Whilst I am very proud of my progress from taking up running in my late 30s to running for England in my mid-40s, the amazing donations I raised for MS-UK was the something that meant the day was truly special.