Human Race: ‘I just love it all!’

Photography by Jo Hanley

It’s 7am on a Scottish winter’s morning and Ben Murphy is warming up with fellow runners from Edinburgh University’s Hare and Hounds club. Dragging yourself out to train in the icy gloom can be tough, but Ben, 20, loves every moment of his running: ‘I’m just appreciative of being able to use my legs fully every day,’ he says.

In May 2009, Ben, then a sport-mad 12-year-old, was mountain biking on some trails with his father when his wheel hit a rock and he was thrown off, sustaining a brain injury. ‘I was in a coma for nearly three weeks,’ says Ben, from Crieff, Perthshire.

‘My parents were warned I had less than a 10 per cent chance of survival, and was not expected to be able to walk again, let alone run.’

When Ben finally woke up, he couldn’t speak, walk or perform any basic movements. His left side and both legs were paralysed as a result of the brain injury (‘They told me the bike helmet saved my life’), and his collarbone and left arm were broken.

Many months of intense daily occupational, physical and speech therapy followed, with Ben using a wheelchair most of the time. ‘The lack of independence was frustrating but I had almost no balance and an extremely weak neck and core,’ he says. ‘I just hated not being active. I’d done so much sport before the accident [Ben was in two football teams, a basketball team and the regional swimming team] and I just wanted to get back to it.’

It took almost a year before he could walk with any degree of independence and confidence. ‘Neither I nor my family could envisage a day when I wouldn’t need the wheelchair,’ he says. The accident didn’t just take a physical toll – Ben also suffered from post-traumatic stress and underwent therapy to help him come to terms with what had happened. ‘It was difficult accepting that I’d never get those years of my life back,’ he explains. ‘My confidence was shattered and therapy helped me regain it. It also helped me deal with not having anyone or anything to blame for what happened, and the guilt and sadness I felt about the ordeal my family had been through.’

Two years after the accident, Ben had made enough progress to return to some of his beloved sports. ‘Initially it was within disability sports, but eventually I returned to my old football team,’ he says. ‘It was such a great feeling to get back to a bit of normality.’

Having put on weight during his incapacitation, Ben was keen to lose a few pounds and regain some fitness. Running seemed the perfect activity. ‘At first it was a big struggle even to finish a local mile-long loop, but I kept at it, and a year later was up to 10K and became hooked! Having been constantly surrounded by therapists, worried family and friends, the me-time running provided was a big appeal,’ he admits. ‘It offered me some peace and time to reflect.’

But progress wasn’t easy. ‘There were a lot of biomechanical issues to deal with at first,’ Ben explains. ‘Structurally, I was in a bad way, but I worked hard to correct some of the weaknesses and imbalances through strength training, stretching and foam rolling. It takes time but it pays off in the long term.’

In 2013, a friend encouraged him to try a session with the local club, Strathearn Harriers. ‘It was a 10K fartlek run – seriously brutal on the hills – but I found I liked pushing myself and wanted to try to improve and hang on to the guys at the front.’ Running regularly with a club and following a more structured training programme paid programme paid dividends for Ben. Over the next three years, his 10K time dropped from 48 minutes to under 38, and in June he ran his first marathon, on home turf, in an incredible 3:15.

‘To run the Strathearn Marathon – organised by my local club, marshalled by people who have known me since I first started running – was amazing,’ he says. ‘It was just over six years since the accident and crossing the finish line felt like completing the journey to where I wanted to be as a person.’

Ben’s life is ‘pretty much normal’ these days, though he continues to suffer from day-to-day fatigue as a result of the accident. He started at Edinburgh University in September 2015, studying geography, and joined the Hare and Hounds, where he is now social secretary.

His next major goal is to achieve a sub-three-hour marathon, but he’s learned over the last few years that racing is just a small part of what running is about. ‘There’s training, racing, even spectating and cheering others on – I just bloody love it all!’ he says. ‘For me, being in both clubs is like being part of a massive family where everyone encourages and helps each other. Running isn’t about beating others – it’s about setting personal goals and striving to achieve them. That’s one of the main reasons I love the sport – it’s just you versus you.’