I wrote this in 2009. This was one of the most moving experiences I have had since I became involved in raising funds for people with dementia and their carers. I have been thinking about this special day and I know that Alan is no longer with us but on that day, this man whose condition had robbed him of his ability to communicate through speech, was absolutely brilliant. He challenged all my perceptions about people with dementia and, if you read this, I hope it will challenge yours too.
It was a lovely summer’s day – light breeze, warm sun, just a few pale clouds scudding across the blue – a perfect day for running the Seven Bridges from Studley Roger and through the Deer Park at Fountains Abbey near Ripon. On a normal day, I would run alone with my i-pod playing, trying to maintain a steady pace and waiting for the reward of the endorphins kicking in at the end. But this was not a normal day. This afternoon I was meeting John who works for the local Alzheimer’s Society, and Alan, who has run marathons in New York and London as well as a host of other races at a seriously competitive level but who now in his mid-sixties has Alzheimer’s.
John greeted me warmly. I had met John before – he is one of a rare breed that makes caring for others and giving up his time seem like the best job in the world. John had told me some time ago that he ran regularly with Alan and that single thought challenged so many preconceived ideas about dementia that I pleaded to be allowed to join them on one of their regular runs.
Alan was obviously wary of this intrusion into his established routine with John. It would not be safe for Alan to run without John by his side and he genuinely relishes this opportunity to put on his running vest and shoes and recapture the buzz of running. If you are not a runner, this may sound an unlikely concept but, trust me, running is addictive.
Introductions were made and we set off up the track, walking briskly to warm up muscles. Then John remembered that he had wanted to capture our run on film and shot back to the car to get his camera. Instantly, Alan suggested sprinting ahead to give John a chase to catch us. His wicked sense of humour was infectious and though I could not easily understand every word, his plan was brilliant and we set off at a brisk pace. Of course, we let John catch us, but by then we were laughing together and a connection had been made. We trusted each other and were friends.
Across the fields and through the woods and Deer Park, sometimes walking but mostly running with occasional pauses to admire the remarkably large trout in the stream or the dappled woodland, we chatted – all three of us – about the scenery and the run and just about the joy of being out on such a perfect day. Alan had such a twinkle in his eye and sometimes he and I ran ahead, hand in hand laughing while John took less than flattering photographs from behind.
The last part of the run is down the straight road from St Mary’s Church to the park gates. The road runs gently down hill in an absolutely straight line – it begs you to race it. We started slowly, then Alan kicked off. He changed gear from a steady jog to a sprint with John keeping up easily and me – well, hopelessly outpaced. Alan’s confidence and sense of belonging as a runner were palpable – he was, as sports commentators sometimes say, ‘in the zone’.
At the gates, we had to slow down to cross the cattle grids. Alan strode across and John remarked to me how fantastic it was that he was still able to do that so easily. We ran the last few yards to the car and our run was over.
John told me that the drugs Alan takes affect his ability to run and his condition has changed his life in so many ways but his joy in being able to run and his love of the outdoors remains undimmed. Someone who had lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s told me once that even to the end, the essence of the man always remains. That afternoon, I was able to glimpse the Alan that had run marathons, laughed and joked with friends and had a wicked sense of humour. All of that is still there and I am very much a fan.
Postscript: I have asked to run again with John and Alan. It was such a special afternoon and one which touched my heart. I could never have kept up with the Alan of old, but running through the Deer Park hand in hand with this extraordinary man – that was a treat.