Human Race: A will of iron

Photo by Jo Hanley

‘I’ve always been a runner,’ says Steven Waterston. ‘Even as a kid of 12 or 13, being out for a run felt like the place I was meant to be.’

Tales of lifelong love affairs with running are not unusual in RW – but when you hear the litany of health setbacks this 41-year-old former British Army chef has faced, you may wonder how he has kept going.

In 2003, aged 31, Steven suffered a brain haemorrhage. ‘It came out of the blue. I was taking a shower and suddenly I experienced intense head pain, nausea and weakness,’ he says. He was diagnosed with a condition called Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) – in which capillary beds in part of the brain are missing, causing blood to travel from arteries to veins at high pressure, which can make them rupture.

The doctors said it was too risky to remove the AVM, so Steven found his army career restricted to the UK mainland. While he was recovering, his hometown of Edinburgh staged its first marathon. ‘I resolved that I would do it the following year to prove to myself – and the army – that I was fit and able.’ That autumn, he underwent surgery to minimise future AVM-related bleeds, and by Christmas he was in training. A year after his haemorrhage, Steven completed his first marathon. ‘I finished it in 3:50,’ he says. ‘I was hooked.’

So much so, in fact, that nothing could keep him away from the start line over the next three years, not a bout of viral meningitis, nor an ankle reconstruction (his third, the result of an old injury sustained during army training). He completed the 2007 race on crutches, having told his wife, Lynn, he was marshalling the race, not running it. ‘I was the last man to finish,’ he says.

Five days after the race, Steven was rushed to hospital with severe leg pain; a large blood clot was discovered. Blood-thinning agents are normally used to treat clots, but Steven’s AVM precluded this, making his treatment more complex.

‘There’s a saying in the army: no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. It’s the same with illness – you have to be prepared to adapt. That’s what I’ve had to do – adjust my plan and get back to it.’

So that’s what Steven did, completing his first double-marathon effort – London and Edinburgh – in 2008. But that August, he suffered a second brain

haemorrhage. ‘This time, I actually felt something “pop” in my head,’ he says.

When he woke up in hospital, a few days later, Steven faced a tough decision. ‘The doctors told me we needed to reconsider our options,’ he says. ‘I could carry on as I was, but the bleeds might become increasingly severe, or fatal. Or they could operate to remove the AVM.’ The high-risk cranial surgery was likely to leave Steven visually impaired, and with some loss of cognitive function – but he and Lynn felt it was the right decision.

Steven underwent 35 hours of surgery over six days at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol. On first regaining consciousness, he could barely move his fingers. ‘I was paralysed down my left side and had lost my left visual field,’ he explains. He then developed blood clots in his legs and a pulmonary embolism, and contracted pneumonia, necessitating a long stay in hospital before he could be moved to a neurological rehab unit in Edinburgh. There, he quickly progressed from being bed-bound to using a wheelchair.

‘I remember watching the London Marathon on TV and it brought home the impact the operation had had on my life,’ he says. ‘I felt so depressed.’ For some, that might have been the start of a slippery slope, but for Steven it merely served as reinforcement that he needed to adjust his plan and ‘get back out there’.

Still with major sight loss (Steven is registered partially sighted, having never regained the vision lost through the operation) and a weakened left side, he ran the Loch Ness Marathon that October using his white stick. Lynn was by his side. ‘No one else was brave enough to be my guide,’ he laughs. ‘People were saying I shouldn’t do it, but Lynn’s been so supportive through all of this. Our daughter, Laura, has been amazing, too.’

Steven continued his rehabilitation at Headley Court, the armed forces rehabilitation centre. ‘I wasn’t doing too badly, physically, by then, but I’d lost a lot of cognitive function as a result of the surgery,’ he explains. Occupational therapy sessions focused on speech, language and spatial skills, such as drawing maps or planning itineraries. ‘It was really tough, but all I wanted was to get back to some semblance of normality.’

Normality for Steven meant marathon running. He was discharged from Headley Court on a Friday and ran the London Marathon the following Sunday, sporting a ‘mad army chef’ fancy-dress costume and raising money for charity.

Steven received a medical discharge from the army in 2011. ‘I found it really difficult to face up to leaving the army,’ he admits. He became severely depressed and had to abandon the studies he’d taken on as part of his transition to civilian life.

Once again he found solace in running. He completed courses in fitness and coaching, joined Edinburgh AC, took on some athletics coaching for an under-sevens’ football team and is starting a voluntary role for Sport Scotland. At this year’s Commonwealth Games, he was selected not only as a Clyde-sider but also as a baton bearer in the Queen’s Baton Relay. He’s still running marathons, and has his sights set on an ultra next year.

‘If I didn’t have running, I think I’d be dead by now,’ he says. ‘It’s helped save my life, in terms of getting me through this and aiding my strong recovery.’