It’s not often you hear a gentleman in his eighties tell you that he has recently taken up extreme distance events. But Len Styles from Honiton is not your average eighty year old. Having always kept himself in good physical nick (in his younger years Len used to enjoy taking part in ½ marathons and triathlons), rather than easing off Len is increasing the mileage and has found it to be an essential outlet in helping him deal with grief.
Len explains, “My lovely partner, Christine Taylor, died in December 2015. Christine had three operations and had treatment over two years and then a stay in hospital. She came home for the last ten days of her life and was tended to by the Hospiscare nurses. Those ten sleepless days were very hard, very demanding and on reflection I was thinking about how I got through this difficult time. I think a lot comes down to the exercise. I’ve always kept myself physically fit, being able to train helped me eventually to avoid becoming overwhelmed by grief. It was like having my own support system.
“Training gives me an external focus, it’s a way of distracting myself from the stresses of life. I have always been outward-looking and I do Tai Chi, which helps me to zone in. You feel guilty about doing anything for yourself when your partner dies, but you are doing the right thing in taking some time out and setting yourself a challenge.
I had done some ultra-distance races in my seventies. I completed a 24-hour walking race, the Isle of Man 85-mile walk, a 24 hour run in the Cotswolds, a 23 hour non stop cycle ride covering 240 miles, then a parathlon last year (triathlon and a tandem 15000 ft parachute jump) but I was ready to go further.
“That’s how the Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) 1,000 mile bike ride came up. In Honiton we have a good group of friends who all enjoy, walking, running, swimming and cycling. We never talk about excellence in these activities, we just want to get together for a laugh, do events and enjoy some tea and cake. About 18 months ago, one of the group suggested LEJOG and 13 of us were interested, so that’s where it started. But life gets busy, so numbers did dwindle a bit, and by the time June came round there were just 3 of us.
“So it ended up with myself, Sue who is 69 and Keith who turned 70 while we were en-route to John O’Groats. We wondered if we were the oldest trio to do LEJOG with a combined age of 219 years! Sue is on the waiting list for a knee replacement and was advised to exercise, but I don’t think the doctors had this distance in mind.
“We set off on the 29th June and it took us 17 days in total. The first day we eased into it and covered 25 miles, then after that we averaged 70 miles a day, with 80 miles being the maximum we did in one go.
“The first three days were the toughest. Cornwall and Devon hills are consistently very steep but we didn’t really suffer from aches and pains. The hills in Scotland were higher but more forgiving as the gradients were gentler. You’re on your own on those long hill climbs, in solitude, it has similarities to losing a partner and you just have to keep going.
That’s when the mental strength is needed.
“My son Mark (aged 53) drove the support van and he was the good shepherd! He guided us when we got lost, sorted our mechanical breakdowns and made up cups of tea in the driving rain. He really was a support wizard.
“We did a collection for Hospiscare along the way and got £150. Sue and Keith have since raised another £200.
“Thanks to the kind folk of Honiton £601.84 was raised by selling plants on my drive. Grateful thanks goes to my good neighbours for tending those plants whilst I was cycling.
“Sincere thanks to PAUL BUTTERWORTH of UNICAM (ENGINEERING) CHARD who designed and machined a pedal attachment to enable Sue to compensate for an unequal power stroke and to the guys at THE BIKE SHED, EXETER who were involved with Paul in not only getting Sue ‘on the road’ but dropping everything to sort out Keith’s gear problem on day 3.
“Very special thanks to my amazing companions who always had a ready smile, were ready to go each and every day without one day's rest.
“Well, age doesn’t come into my mind - numbers? I’m always inspired by people older than myself who are doing amazing things. I read recently about a 100 year old who did a tandem parachute jump, veterans in athletics, endeavouring and breaking records. We learn that older people who do things like volunteering feel great for doing it and in doing so push the hands of the ‘ageing clock’ back. Being positive and active is so important. I’m in training for my next ultra which will be a 24-hour running event in May 2018, the HOPE24 in Plymouth.
“Oh and I’ve signed up for the Hospiscare Breakfast Run in September just for fun.” Come and join us!