Human Race: ‘I resolved that I would prove the doctors wrong’

Photo: Ben Knight

In 2013, Ben Abdelnoor won the Lakeland 50 trail ultra. He also broke the course record. Such a victory would be sweet for any runner, but Ben had conquered a lot more than 50 tough miles of trails when he stepped on the podium. You could say his journey began 10 years earlier, when doctors told him his running days were over.

Ben grew up in Newcastle, in an outdoorsy family who went on holidays to the Lake District. ‘I walked up Skiddaw when I was five or six years old,’ he remembers. And he loved to run. ‘As soon as I was allowed out on my own, I’d go and run on the Town Moor.’

He moved to the Lake District in 2003 and joined a running club for the first time, Ambleside AC. ‘I was having fun racing, coming halfway down the field.’ He packed his running shoes when he flew to New Zealand, in February 2003, to attend his brother’s wedding.

‘I decided to spend some time out there, enjoying the outdoors,’ says Ben, now 35. ‘I moved in with a paragliding instructor and his wife, decorating their house in return for board and lodging and being taught how to fly.’

Ben had more than 50 flights under his belt by the August morning when he took off from a hillside, planning to land on the beach. But a gust of wind caught the wing (canopy), flipping it inside out and tangling it up in the lines. Ben crashed into the hillside at speed and though he landed on his feet, the force travelled up through him, ramming him into the ground and breaking his spine.

‘I recall lying there, the parachute fluttering in the breeze, thinking, “That’s it, I’m paralysed”,’ he says. ‘But then I realised I could still wiggle my toes.’

Ben was airlifted to a spinal unit in Christchurch. The surgeons inserted crews and brackets above and below the crushed vertebrae and fused them together. ‘They told me to lie on my back and stay off my feet as much as possible,’ he says. ‘It was all they could do at that stage. But being told I shouldn’t expect to run again was probably the darkest moment of my life.’

Unable to fly home, Ben moved in with his brother and his new wife in Auckland. ‘I had crutches to get around, but I spent a lot of time just staring at the ceiling,’ he says. ‘I faced the awful prospect of not going back to the lakes, because I couldn’t even walk, let alone run. There and then, I resolved that I would prove the doctors wrong. Not only would I get back to running, but I’d get back stronger.’

Six months later, Ben flew back to the UK and moved in with his parents. ‘It was tough,’ he says. ‘Everything hurt. Sitting in a car hurt, sitting at the dining table hurt and for months I didn’t have the strength to stand up without holding on to something.’ The hospital visits weren’t over, either – the metalwork in Ben’s spine became infected and had to be removed.

But he persisted. He had regular physiotherapy and did exercises at home.  ‘Little improvements kept me going,’ he says. ‘I wanted to build on each one. I remember cleaning my teeth one day and realising that I could do it without holding on to the basin.’

A year to the day from the accident, Ben put on his running shoes again. ‘It felt weird trying to run after months of protecting my back and being told not to run. It didn’t come naturally. I had to figure out what to do with my arms.’ But he made good progress, even entering a short fell race a couple of months later.

However, the moment when Ben knew he’d achieved his goal of ‘coming back stronger’ was still some way off. ‘In 2009, an old friend who was a running coach, Keith Wood, came up to me at the end of a race and said, “You know, you could be really good – in the top three at the English Fell Running Champs. Have you thought about having some coaching?” I couldn’t quite believe he wasn’t just massaging my ego, but a few months later I took him up on his offer. It was great to have his belief in me.’

A belief, it turned out, that was well founded. In 2011, Ben gained sponsorship from British running brand Inov-8 and earned his first England vest, helping the team to a bronze medal in the World Long Distance Championships in Slovenia. The following year, he won silver in the English Fell Running Championships.

Ben then set his sights on the Lakeland 50, one of the UK’s most highly regarded trail ultras. ‘It was something I’d always wanted to do. The route goes past my house, and I’d supported my girlfriend, Britta, in the Lakeland 100 in 2010.’

Ben trained for the 2013 race – with the course record as his target. ‘I pictured what it would be like to win the race. I ran on sections of the course and at night I’d run through it all in my mind, adding more and more detail,’ he says.

He finished in 7:39:26, knocking eight minutes off the previous course record. ‘It left me feeling positive for weeks and made me realise you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it and believe in yourself. I wonder if it hadn’t been for the accident whether I’d have ever pushed myself as hard. Maybe I’d have just remained a mid-pack runner.’

Ben was out for most of 2014 with injury, but, already experienced in the art of patient and slow recovery, he stayed positive and is now back up to full speed. ‘I do feel fortunate. I’ve got a job I enjoy, a lovely part of the world to live in and the opportunity to get out running and biking whenever I want.

When I’m out running or walking with Britta and our dog, Rook, we try to make a point of stopping for a moment to look at the view and say to each other, “This is amazing.” It’s important to appreciate what you’ve got.’


Read Ben’s blog here.