When I was asked to write a piece about my involvement with the Ambulance Wish Foundation for their ‘24 Days of Christmas’, I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I would!
I have taken part in two extraordinary sporting challenges to raise money for the AWF and have also volunteered for several wishes. So where do I start?
Swimming the Channel
The first fundraising event I organised for the AWF was a relay swim across the English Channel. A few years previously I had swum the English Channel solo but now I wanted to involve others in this amazing sport. It wasn’t long before I had recruited too many swimmers to make up the six-person relay that I required and so I had to change my plans and expand on my original idea. The next thing I knew, I was organising two teams of six swimmers to have a race across the Channel to France.
The teams predominately comprised of Paramedics and Student Paramedics and were from East and West Suffolk. It took just under two years to organise and train for this epic challenge, which involved a lot of cold open water swimming, regular hypothermia and lots of shivering (especially by me!) July 2017 arrived and both teams headed down to Dover for the big race. The swim would start just after 10:00 pm and as both escort boats headed out of the harbour to travel to the start line at Samphire Hoe, I realised the sea was not as calm as I had hoped for. The boats stopped a little way out and a discussion took place as to whether we should start in force four conditions. Ideally, we would have gone back and waited for a calmer day but unfortunately, the swim had already been put off several times in the preceding week and this was our last chance before many of us had to head back to work. It was either now or postpone it until the following year. As the event organiser, I had to make the very difficult decision to go ahead and hope the sea would soon start to behave itself.
We were Team West Suffolk and our first swimmer was Ria, our youngest member. Ria was vomiting over the side of the boat just moments before she had to jump into the cold dark water for the short swim to the beach to begin the race. Team East Suffolk had their captain Carl starting for them. The rules state that each swimmer must swim for an hour before the next takes over. If any swimmer fails to make the hour, then the whole team are pulled out and the race is over for them. The conditions were brutal and I feared that they were simply too harsh for both team’s first swimmers.
However, they soldiered on and soon our second swimmers had taken over and were ploughing through the moonlit water. For our team this was Richard. Just after midnight I entered the cold rough sea to begin my first hour of punishment. It was much harder than I imagined and I couldn’t wait for my stint to finish. George took over from me and by now we had lost sight of the other team’s boat. Next up was Tia and it was during her swim that we received the devastating news that Team East Suffolk had been beaten by the conditions and were heading back to Dover. I feared that this may have a damaging effect on our team’s morale and lead to thoughts that maybe we too should call it a day. But what actually happened was that it strengthened our determination to reach France for both teams.
Cathy was our sixth swimmer in the water and during her swim daybreak finally arrived and with it the sea became a little calmer. Somehow, we had made it through the night and Ria went in for her second hour with a new found optimism. We all agreed that our second swims were actually enjoyable, and after another six hours of swimming, the hot sun was now high in the sky and France was certainly looking close enough to reach.
Both Ria and Richard completed a third swim which left me with the privilege of finishing the task and landing on the soft sandy beach just south of Wissant in France. As I walked out of the sea feeling a huge amount of pride, a family enjoying a day out greeted me and then I heard clapping and cheering from the cliff top and I looked up to see a crowd had gathered to witness the finish of our epic challenge. Once I was clear of the water and on dry sand, I turned around and waved my arms in the air to signal to the official observer on the boat that we had finished. I then saw the other five members of my amazing team swimming towards the beach to join me for a celebration.
They brought with them a bottle of Prosecco and I had the honour of popping the cork. As we celebrated our success, there was obviously an underlying feeling of sadness that Team East Suffolk had not made it to France to join us on the beach. However, they could certainly hold their heads up high with pride as it is often said that just getting to the start line of an English Channel swim means you have already achieved great things. Not only that, but we had started in conditions that were too harsh to realistically begin a swim across the Channel and so the odds were against us right from the very start!
On the positive side, both teams had managed to raise a huge amount of money for the AWF.
- A triumphant Team West Suffolk after landing in Wissant, France.
100 mile Endurance Run
To be honest, I was never much of a runner. I occasionally ran to try and keep fit but it was never anything I really took seriously. In 2005, having developed reactive arthritis from Lyme Disease and then breaking the cartilage in my right knee in an horrific crash in the ambulance I was riving, my Consultant Rheumatologist said to me “Whatever you do, don’t ever run on that knee again!” A few years later I took up running! I was inspired by my wife Cherie when I witnessed her finishing her first half marathon at Silverstone. It wasn’t an easy journey for me and there were many setbacks along the way, but I was determined not to be constrained by any restrictions placed on me by another person, even if they were a Consultant.My first half marathon resulted in injury, followed by months of physiotherapy. I was determined not to be beaten and managed to move from half marathon to full marathon but still I wanted more and so an ultra-marathon was the next logical step. In 2015 I managed to complete a 40-mile run but only just! With 5 miles to go I felt so terrible that I just wanted to lay down in the dirt and call it a day. Luckily, with the support and encouragement of others, I managed to complete the race although I felt physically and mentally broken. I never wanted to go through that again! Yet soon enough I found myself entering a 100-mile run in the nature reserve of Samphire Hoe – the very place I had begun my solo English Channel swim a few years previously.
I didn’t actually give it much thought and entered it on a whim, despite the fact that I had nowhere near enough ultra-running experience to take on such a challenge, and that my 40-mile run the previous year had nearly finished me off! Stupidly, I didn’t enter any shorter ultra-runs in the lead up to this huge challenge, but instead stuck to standard marathons for my training plan. This was only about a quarter of the distance I was hoping to run on the day. In July 2016 it was time to head down to Dover to take on this ridiculous challenge. Again, I had gathered a lot of sponsorship for the AWF and this was certainly the driving force behind my determination to succeed. The event consisted of 27 laps of a 3.71-mile course around the reserve. At 8:00am on the Saturday morning the race begun and it also happened to be the day that summer decided to arrive in style. The course itself provided absolutely no shade at all from the scorching sun which was also being reflected from the White Cliffs on one side and the English Channel on the other. As the sun rose in the sky, conditions on this small outcrop of land became like a furnace. After an exhausting day running in the heat, the sun was beginning to set and my friend Sam arrived for some moral support and she had also brought with her a flask of tea and some jam sandwiches which felt like such a special treat. At this point I had completed 44.5 miles which was the furthest I had run in my life, however I still wasn’t even halfway to the finishing target! Several other competitors had already dropped out and as night began to fall, I witnessed a fellow runner telling the organiser that he was quitting. This played on my mind for some time as I ran through the night with my head torch on. I imagined him arriving home and climbing into a comfortable bed while I still had the prospect of running all night and into the next day.
The night hours became very surreal and a combination of exhaustion and sleep deprivation had caused me to hallucinate, have very weird thoughts and completely lose my concept of time. Somehow, I made it through the night but unfortunately others were not so fortunate and as the head torches came off and we could once again see the faces of our fellow competitors, we began to realise that some were no longer present. I was longing for some cloud cover on this new day, but unfortunately the sun was very soon out in all its glory and once again beating down on us with full intensity. I now had seven laps to go which was about the distance of a standard marathon, but I was feeling totally exhausted, my legs were simply killing me and I was in excruciating pain with every step due to the blisters on my feet. Very negative thoughts were popping up in my mind and I simply couldn’t fathom how on Earth I would complete another 26 miles in this state. I had to just apply the same principle that I learnt when I trained for my solo English Channel swim - ‘just keep putting one arm in front of the other until you reach France’. In this case it was one foot in front of the other until I reached my 100-mile target. With this in mind, I plodded along in a trace like state with the knowledge that every step I took, was a step closer to finishing.
I eventually headed out into the midday sun for my final lap and took a cup of tea with me, along with my friend Dave who had kindly offered to accompany me for moral support. Dave is a talker and his constant monologue of stories kept me amused and often laughing, at a time I would have probably been crying if I was on my own. As I shuffled my way along the dirt track, we came across a man and a young girl. The man looked at me and asked if I had run a long way. I assumed he saw the state I was in. Dave answered for me and told him I had been running since eight o’clock yesterday morning and was about to complete 100 miles. The man’s jaw dropped and he mumbled “Good luck” and then simply stared at us as we passed, with a slightly puzzled expression on his face and was probably wondering if he had heard correctly.
Eventually the finish line came into view and I didn’t care how much it hurt, I was determined to complete this race running rather than staggering. Tears joy and relief rolled down my face as I finally finished my 100 miles in a time of 28 hours and 42 minutes. It was later confirmed that my completion of this epic challenge had indeed made me the first person in history to start a successful English Channel swim and a 100-mile run at the same place – Samphire Hoe.
And in the process, I had raised a considerable amount of money for the Ambulance Wish Foundation.
- Finally, it’s over! Holding my well-earned 100-mile finishers buckle.
Volunteering for the Ambulance Wish Foundation
Although fundraising for the AWF is very rewarding, I still felt that I wanted to do more and so I volunteered to give my time to be a part of the ambulance crew that actually make the wishes happen. I have volunteered to help with several wishes and each one has been emotionally tough to deal with, especially when it comes to children. I’ve taken a fourteen-year-old boy out for the day where he got to experience his dream of driving a car, and then there was the young teenage girl who simply wanted to be taken from the hospice to spend one last night at home with her family and then had to be returned the following day. Heart wrenching stories, but it’s these seemingly ‘small’ things that can make such a difference to these people and their families, and maybe even give them a sense of completion in some way.
- John and I in the back of the ambulance.
Another special wish I volunteered for was taking John to watch a children’s football tournament. John was an ex-professional football player for Arsenal but also spent many years as a football scout, discovering new talent. He was now confined to his small room in the nursing home where he lived. Witnessing John at the side of the pitch, with a pint of beer in his hand and eagerly pointing out the young players he thought had real potential, was an absolute delight. If it wasn’t for the AWF, John would never have had this amazing experience.
Whether it is raising money or volunteering for the AWF, it leaves you with a great feeling that you have genuinely made a real difference to the lives of others.
You can find out more about volunteer opportunities and donating on our website.
Or donate at www.localgiving.org/charity/ambulance-wish-foundation and there's a chance that your donation will be doubled for free!
If you’re interested in reading more about Mark's swimming and running escapades for the AWF, he has written two books which you can find at links below.
From Mark, and all of us at AWF, we wish you a very happy Christmas and a safe 2021.