‘I just felt like I had to do something’ – John Fensom on why he took on the 12 in 12 challenge
After learning of his friend’s personal agony John Fensom had to do something. Twelve marathons later he tells Mark Armstrong how he went about the challenge, raising thousands in the process
Someone else's grief can be so heartbreaking that you find yourself having to do something… anything.
In October 2017 Bryan and Georgie Hall lost their son, Ollie, to meningitis B.
Seeing his friends go through that kind of pain made John Fensom feel powerless and whilst he knew nothing could ease their hurt, John and the Halls didn't want other families to feel that same devastation.
Part of the tragedy is that it was preventable - there is a vaccine available that inoculates against the disease but a lot of families don't know if their child has had it.
So John wanted to raise awareness to ensure parents check if their children are at risk and stop other families going through the heartbreak that the Halls have been through.
Running, as it so often does, would provide the vehicle and John set about devising a challenge that would raise awareness, and a lot of money for the charity, Meningitis Now, in the process.
He'd already run marathons and merely doing another one didn't feel enough of a challenge. He therefore decided to embark on the kind of undertaking that would strike fear into many runners that have ever hit the wall during a marathon. He wouldn't just run one marathon, he would run 12… in 12 months.
"I just felt like I had to do something," said John, 40, from Halesworth. "My niece is the same age as Ollie and I've got other friends who have got children of a similar age. It's just that whole thought of a beautiful innocent little boy dying within 24 hours.
"Just seeing that sort of pain… I didn't want anyone else to go through it.
"Running has saved my life so I thought I could do something. A marathon wasn't enough because I'd already done that.
"I'd heard about the 12 in 12 challenge and that felt more appropriate and enough of a challenge."
John admits he didn't fully know the scale of what he was going to do. Runners build their whole year around one marathon… factoring in another 11 would take some planning.
He turned to Neil Featherby for advice and, as his coach, the Sportlink owner set John on a path that would lead him to conquer the challenge.
"I'd already run a marathon and I had Edinburgh booked so that was always going to be the start," he said. "I had trained for that so I was pretty much marathon ready. I had got up to the distance but I needed some advice about how to go from one marathon to another."
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Despite John being a very capable runner, this challenge was never about speed. The risk of injury was too great to continually chase times. This was about getting each marathon done as comfortably as possible to ensure it didn't undermine the next one.
"In terms of training we treated each marathon as my long run," he added. "The middle weekend - two weeks before would be 12-15 miles.
"We tried to do a bit of speed work and I didn't have to taper too much because my body was getting so used to it."
There were bumps in the road - the marathon is a distance that has to be respected no matter how many you have done.
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"Most of them were done in about four hours but I remember the fifth marathon at Richmond we decided to do a bit of a pacier one and I just felt great all the way through. I did that one in 3:36 - it was one of those when everything came together.
"But then the next month at Dunwich was my worst one - I hit the wall at mile 18 and it never went. I probably needed that to be honest to remind myself that this isn't easy - it made me realise that I've really got to think carefully about how I approach each one and not be complacent."
The 11th marathon was particularly poignant as a route was planned that took in a lot of Ollie's favourite spots. John was joined by Bryan on a bike and it again brought home the importance of the challenge.
It all set up the final marathon in London where John wanted to release some of the shackles and run as hard as he could, safe in the knowledge he didn't have preserve himself for another one.
From a race perspective it didn't go well, but from an experience point of view, it couldn't have gone any better.
"The race was going fine and I was hitting my splits (for a 3:15 time) until about halfway and then I knew that as I went through Tower Bridge things weren't quite right. A lot was going round my head with Oliver and also the fact the race fell two years to the day that my dad died.
"But I knew I was just going to have to get through it and I tried to change my perspective and bring it back to what it's about.
"I tried to use the crowd and I remember standing in front of a load of people pointing to my shirt saying 'this is why I'm doing it and make sure you get your kids checked out'. I was properly gibbering away!
"If everything had gone to plan it would have been a totally different experience and I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as much."
John, a filmmaker, made a video after the event of footage from the marathon and after posting it on social media it got the response he had hoped for.
"People were saying that you've inspired me to run a marathon, which is great," he said. "But more importantly I got messages from people saying thanks for sharing and that they are going to get their kids checked out and some had got their children vaccinated as a result. That really was what it's all about."
John raised £9,425 for charity Menigitis Now - if you would like to donate check out https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/12in12oliverhall
If your children were born before September 2015 it's highly unlikely they will have been vaccinated against Meningitis B. For more information log on to www.meningitisnow.org
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