The competitive juices are flowing again for Neil Featherby ahead of Hadrian's Wall charity challenge
© 2013 Mark Hewlett
Running the length of Hadrian's Wall has fuelled the fire again for one of Norfolk's favourite running sons, Neil Featherby, as Mark Armstrong found out
A selfish streak is a key quality in any elite runner.
It’s not the most endearing of qualities in every day life but it’s what separates those who have and have not.
For any top athlete there has to be an understanding in their support network that running and their training has to be their top priority.
Neil Featherby used to be like this. He won’t thank me for saying it, but it’s what made him one of the best runners to have come out of Norfolk.
Perhaps not blessed with the natural talent of others, he made up for it in hard training and it took him to several marathon victories and a personal best of 2-17.
But just over five years ago, he tempered his hard running obsession after deciding to put his own training on the backburner, preferring to dedicate his daily running regime (which stretches back to 1981), to running with his pack of five dogs as opposed to the many highly tuned sportspeople he was training with at that time.
It also allowed him to put even more drive and focus into his business, Sportlink, whilst also helping to coach others to achieve their goals.
That was until recently when the prospect was raised of running the length of Hadrian’s Wall in 24 hours for charity.
This would be beyond most 60-year-olds but this weekend Neil, alongside close friends Charles (Chas) Allen and Jason Wright, will attempt to run the 84 miles within 24 hours.
Neil undertook the same challenge 10 years ago and completed it over three days but finishing within a shorter timeframe, aged 60, has reawakened the competitive edge in him.
“I have spent the last five years really focusing on my business, doing more coaching whilst also doing a lot of studying to further enhance my knowledge,” he said.
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“I am getting older and there are still a lot of things I want to do in my life for which my own running during the last few years has become nothing more than doing a few miles each day with my dogs whilst I catch up on other things.
“Having spent a huge part of my life focusing on my career as a runner during my 20s and early 30s, prior to then getting wrapped up in professional football and boxing, the truth is that I neglected lots of other areas of my life.
“When I turned 55, I made the decision to back off and spend a bit more time trying to prioritise personal aspects of my life as well as doing more for helping other runners achieve their goals.
“Don’t get me wrong, my life in high level sport has been an absolute privilege and I consider myself so lucky.
“Nevertheless this challenge has definitely fired me up again and it has been really good having a goal and direction with my own training again.”
Training for such an ultra challenge has not been without its obstacles for Neil in particular. A heavy cold aggravated the asthma that dogged his competitive career although a course of antibiotics seems to have cleared a chest infection just in time.
Neil, Chas and Jason have got a lot of the miles in they wanted to. It’s just about executing the plan they have got into action.
“Getting the pace right will be key,” added Neil, who will be supported by Baz Hipwell and Mark Hewlett in a campervan as crew members.
“The terrain is very rugged and hilly in the mid-section too. Looking at the long range weather forecast, it looks like it is going to be pretty cool and misty. Not the best conditions especially on the higher ground and what with being asthmatic it’s not exactly ideal conditions for me.
“Even if I don’t do it this time (complete the challenge in 24 hours) my nature is one where I will look at where I can improve my conditioning and then have another go when the weather conditions will be better next spring.
“Well, providing my partner Steph let’s me. I think it has been a bit of an eye-opener for her.
“She has always known how focused I am, but has never witnessed what I am like when it comes to preparing for a running challenge.”
The trio are well aware of the mental challenges such an undertaking is likely to present.
This is where their main reason for taking on the ultra will come to the forefront - raising money for Hallswood Animal Sanctuary and Nelson’s Journey.
“I have been raising money for various local charities for several years now, but at the same time I love all animals and wildlife for which I was introduced to the Hallswood Animal Sanctuary by a friend,” added Neil, who alongside Jason and Chas have already raised close to £2,000 going into this weekend’s challenge. “The work they do at the sanctuary is amazing.
“It is never ending and full on. The way I see it, they do their best to save and look after the animals which makes me feel happy and I do my very best to help them keep doing it by way of fund raising.
“At the same time and what many people don’t realise is, that the sanctuary has also helped lots of young people overcome some difficulties which they may have had in their lives.
“With regards to Nelson’s Journey, we are all friends of Simon Wright who is the CEO at the charity and of course an excellent runner himself.
“It made it an obvious choice when it came to deciding who to co-sponsor.
“Nelson’s Journey provides support to young people who have to deal with the trauma and indeed grief and sadness after losing a ley figure during such an early stage of their lives.
“That is invaluable and once again a very worth cause to support.”
As Neil and Co, use their sense of tunnel vision as a force for good, he admitted to letting his mind wander to how the trio will celebrate once the challenge is over...
“It is a toss up between a pint of Guinness or Newcastle Brown Ale….”
No-one will begrudge them that.
Chas and Jason’s story...
Helping the vulnerable will be what drives Chas Allen along Hadrian’s Wall.
Nelson’s Journey and Hallswood Animal Sanctuary were chosen as the charities Neil Featherby, Jason Wright and Chas will be running for this weekend and it is hoped in excess of £2,000 can be raised.
Chas lost his mother to cancer as a child and it was only thanks to the help of his family that he has been able to live with such a loss. Others aren’t quite so lucky.
“I cannot remember a memory of my mum which isn’t in a medical set up or recovering from an operation,” he said. “I didn’t understand at the time. Hell, the morning my mum died I woke to hear her talking to my dad. I actually thought she might be getting better as she had been in a coma for a while. It wasn’t, as we know, they knew it was nearly the end and they had simply lowered the drugs to let the final stages act out. I could focus on these horrible memories but I am so lucky to have had such a great father and loving sisters that I can squeeze these out with memories of love and laughter. I see what Nelson’s Journey does and it humbles me. It is something which is worth more than any money can sponsor to give a young person something happy to hang on to.
“As for choosing Hallswood, I hate the way humans use them and so often disregard them. We are all on this planet and they own it as much as us. So animal charities just fill in where humans fail.”
Jason hadn’t run beyond 10 miles until recently and is wary of hitting the dreaded wall during the challenge. However, weeks of training and getting the miles in along with the mindset of his days as a karting champion will get him through.
“I used to race karts for many years and the same principle seems to apply where 90 percent of winning back then was done in the workshop with my late dad, preparing the car for competition,” he said. “I even managed to become World ministox champion 28 years ago. The rest was down to getting it right on the day. Come this weekend, I will be applying the same principle knowing my dad will be with me in my mind and body as well as hopefully making my mum, wife Clare and son Jack proud of me. At the same time, I am sure we will have some fun and of course raise money for two great charities.”