Human Race: ‘Running is like therapy’

Photo: Tom Miles

In March 2008, Ben Lindon was out running in the Cotswolds when his left arm suddenly began tingling and twitching. ‘My first thought was that I was having a stroke,’ says Ben, 35. ‘I had been running really fast because I felt particularly good that night, and I was worried that I’d pushed too hard.’ Real fear set in as numbness spread throughout his arm, and his MP3 player dropped to the ground and smashed. ‘I could see the lights of a house ahead and I tried to make it there to get help. But the next thing I knew, two men were helping me up off the ground. I was totally disorientated by this time and thought I’d been hit by a car – but they said that I’d suffered some kind of seizure and collapsed.’

Ben was taken to Warwickshire Hospital by ambulance. ‘I felt better by then and I told the paramedics that it was probably low blood sugar, as I hadn’t eaten before the run, and had probably overdone it. But they wanted to keep me in overnight and do a few tests.’ One night in hospital became two, and then three, as Ben suffered further seizures. ‘It was soon clear that something was very wrong.’ A CT scan showed up a shadow on his brain and then deeper investigation revealed the worst possible news – it was a brain tumour.

Ben was transferred to University Hospital Coventry, where he had a biopsy – a frightening procedure in itself, which involved removing part of his skull – to confirm the diagnosis. ‘The tumour they found was small, but its location, close to the motor cortex – the region of the brain that controls movement – made it inoperable,’ explains Ben. ‘The risks associated with surgery were too great.’ Instead, the specialist oncologist proposed an urgent management plan to prevent the tumour growing and to reduce the swelling surrounding it, which was pressing on the motor cortex and causing the seizures.

A week later, on his 29th birthday, Ben began radiotherapy treatment, followed by monthly cycles of chemotherapy, which left him feeling drained and sick. He found himself looking up survival rates for his type of brain tumour – a grade II glioblastoma multiforme tumour. ‘I was reading two years, three years, and envisaging the worst possible outcome – and then I switched off the internet and just got on with it.’

On his oncologist’s advice, Ben began to take better care of his health. ‘I was the editor of a local newspaper at the time, which meant long hours – many spent staring at a screen – high stress levels and endless cups of sugary black coffee. I stopped smoking the odd roll-up, cut out drinking and improved my diet,’ he says. ‘Instead of having cheesy chips and a pint for dinner, I started preparing and cooking my meals from scratch, and drinking green tea.’

Ben’s employers were very supportive, but when he returned to work and the seizures became more frequent, he decided he needed to find something else to do. ‘I’d already had plans for a career change, so I retrained as a tree surgeon,’ he says.

His new profession opened the door to a healthier, more active lifestyle, but it took a leap of faith for Ben to pull on his running shoes again. ‘I associated running with the most terrifying moment of my life, so I didn’t do it for a year. But I missed it and when I did finally run, I found it really helped. The first few times were scary, but it was a way of bringing my experience full circle and facing my fears. It’s like therapy – I run, and everything clears in my head.’

He began to line up for 10Ks and half marathons, and three years after his initial diagnosis, Ben ran the Brighton Marathon, clocking up a 4:30 finish. The same year, he met Kate, who is now his wife. ‘Domesticity has done me a world of good,’ he laughs. ‘Kate has been unbelievably supportive. I have been seizure-free ever since I met her.’

And that’s not been the only blessing. Ben had been warned that the repeated rounds of chemotherapy would render him infertile. ‘Kate and I had put the idea of children out of our heads,’ he says. But nature had other plans, and in September 2012 Kate gave birth to their daughter, Martha. ‘Martha coming along was a surprise, to say the least,’ says Ben. When her little brother, Sid, turned up last year, it was another wonderful, but very welcome, shock.

Ben has been fundraising for the Brain Tumour Research Trust since 2013. He ran the London Marathon on their behalf this year and in 2015 he plans to cycle the British Isles from end to end – on a fixed-gear Raleigh Chopper bike. ‘I want to use my experiences, good and bad, to help other people,’ he says. ‘I hope to achieve three things: raising money for underfunded research, raising awareness of funding issues and showing people that having a serious health condition doesn’t have to stop you from doing anything. In fact, it gives you something to fight against.’

Ben’s medication and treatment will continue for the rest of his life. To date, he’s had a staggering 66 rounds of chemotherapy – the youngest person in the UK to have undergone so many cycles. And his prognosis is unknown. ‘I actually feel extremely lucky,’ says Ben. ‘People always assume a brain tumour is a death sentence, as I did. But the management plan is working, and I’m still here.