The first half was a mix of fortunes, the half time talk was inspirational, while the second half has been a stop-start affair due to declining fitness levels but as I approach my 40th year milestone, it looks like my sporting life could well be taking me into extra time…
Without a shadow of a doubt, a large part of my longevity in my battle to defy Cystic Fibrosis (CF)* can be credited to the amount of sport I have played throughout my life – mainly hockey, basketball, tennis, rugby, football and cricket. I find it far easier to get my exercise while running around after a ball!
Exercise is not actually straight forward for most CF sufferers as the build up of mucous in the lungs means that less oxygen is available which causes problems for breathing and general fitness. It is also an extremely exhausting condition – just think how tired you get after five minutes of coughing!
However, regular exercise has become a necessity to keep my lungs ‘tuned’ and it impacts me both physically and mentally. Although I appreciate that not everyone is sporty, I always encourage anyone, but particularly CF sufferers, to find a form of exercise (walking, jogging, cycling, ball games, dancing, weight-lifting) that suits them.
I coulda been a contender
It’s fortunate that I come from a family of field hockey players – my Dad and both my brothers (Chris and Jez) all play and my Mum is a useful tennis player.
I have played hockey to County, Divisional and England Juniors and have been playing club hockey for nearly 30 consecutive years. I was playing 1st team hockey till I was 32 and I now play a reasonably competitive level for London Edwardians 3rd team, though this is ad hoc depending on my health and parental duties.
Representing England Juniors, like my brother Chris before me, was the pinnacle of my sporting life. The immense pride I felt during those national anthems is something that can never be taken away from me.
Unfortunately, the unavoidable demise of my lung function and a hectic University life took its toll and at just 20 I had to come to terms with the harsh realisation that I would never be able to fulfil my obvious hockey talent.
Rising from the ashes
How was I going to deal with my shattered dreams? If I was unable to be the player I ought to be, should I just give up? It took many years to get my head around how to make sport work best for me.
I was given a real health boost in 1994 by a drug called Pulmozyme, which I nebulise daily. This really has been a miracle medication for me – before it I was only working part-time and was struggling to play better than lower league club hockey. After it, I had the health and vitality to work full-time and play 1st team hockey.
For most of my 20’s and early 30’s, I played hockey both Saturday and Sunday and would go on summer tours around the UK and Europe – this made me feel ‘normal’ as I was competing and socialising with relatively healthy and fit people. It was through this hockey social scene that I met my now wife Katie; so partying hard does pay!
Over the years I have matured in my approach to exercise and finessed my appreciation of how my body and lungs feel and the appropriate times to exercise. To supplement my hockey, I joined a local tennis club; had some coaching and play quite regularly.
A matter of life and death
For me, still playing sport, running and competing is the best barometer for how my health is. It also serves as an indication for others, not least my Dad, to know that if I’m still able to play, CF can’t be winning the battle. Indeed, when most old friends see me, it’s one of their leading questions: “Are you still playing hockey?”
At times, I feel the weight of their hope and expectations on my shoulders. What would they think should I ever reply: “Actually, I’ve had to pack it in as it became too much for me!”
I play on for my own health but also for the positive lift it gives to others. I now feel a tremendous sense of elation on completing any sport as it feels like ‘my Everest’ moment. It’s hard and I do have to get pretty psyched up these days before most exercise. When jogging, I dig my nails into the palm of my hand to keep going and often listen to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty on my iPod – “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
My lungs do definitely benefit from exercise, even small jogs and I feel more vibrant and alive afterwards. I wouldn’t say the exercise is always enjoyable, but the rewards and positive sensation drive me on.
My motivation is both physical and mental: What’s more of a benefit to me – running (and a short-term discomfort) or not running (and let the effects of CF build up). Exercise is my two fingers salute to CF, stating: “I won’t be beaten. I can do this. I will do this. Just watch me… JUST DO IT!!”
It’s especially tough in this country with the inclement weather. I often jog early in the evening or in a secluded park so when I need to cough, I can be more discreet.
They say you are a long time retired from sport. To still be playing competitive hockey when I reach 40 feels gargantuan. Winning used to be everything, it’s now a nice to have – just being there on the pitch or court feels amazing and is worth celebrating! This has been magnified with my recent diagnosis as a Type 1 diabetic. Now just getting on the pitch, let alone actually playing, takes a lot of effort.
When I’m struggling on the pitch, the chaps (who know about my CF) ask me if I’m OK, but the opposition jokingly check if I had a night on the town or bad cold. Very recently, after a negative comment about my coughing from an umpire, I spoke with my Dad about retiring from hockey as I was so upset.
That very night, when reading some scriptures, I came across 1 Kings 18:43 – ‘Get up and go again’.
Those words gave me the strength to carry on… get past the 40 landmark and like father like son, look ahead to coaching my son Felix how to play.
I used to live to play sport… now I play sport to live!
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If you want to raise funds for CF through exercise like marathons and 10K’s, go to the Fundraising section of the CF Trust website below for more information.
Look out for my next post as I countdown to my 40 year milestone…
* Cystic Fibrosis is one of the UK’s most common life threatening inherited diseases, affecting over 8,500 people. The condition affects the internal organs, especially the lungs and digestive system, by clogging them with thick sticky mucus. This makes it hard to breathe and digest food. Each week, five babies are born with the condition, however, each week, three young lives are also lost to it. There is currently no cure for CF. However, existing gene therapy trials in the UK are bringing people with the illness closer to a form of cure but CF is not that well known and would benefit from more public donations.
For more information and to find out more view the CF Trust Website