Human Race: ‘Running is what I do’

In September 2014, Graydon Widdicombe and his wife, Claire, were hugely excited because they were about to become first-time parents.

‘We’d been together since we were both 16 and we got married in 2005,’ says Graydon, an IT project manager from Newton Abbot, Devon. The couple were keen runners – Graydon had completed his first marathon in 2010, while Claire had a few half marathons and numerous shorter events under her belt.

At 38 weeks, Claire started having labour pains. ‘She’d been to all her routine check-ups and the baby was growing well, so we didn’t suspect anything was wrong,’ says Graydon. But when they arrived at the hospital, everything quickly changed.

‘When the midwife checked the baby, she couldn’t find a heartbeat,’ says Graydon. ‘It was a massive shock when it was confirmed that our baby – whom we named Jay – had died in the womb. We were distraught. I had to ring our families and friends to tell them our heartbreaking news.’

But the full tragedy had yet to play out. Soon after the delivery, Claire’s health deteriorated and she was moved to intensive care for monitoring. When her condition worsened further she was put into an induced coma, but a few hours later she passed away. The cause of death was acute fatty liver of pregnancy (AFLP), a rare complication that can develop in the third trimester or just after birth. It affects around one in every 20,000 pregnancies.

‘I was devastated, confused and numb,’ says Graydon. ‘I simply couldn’t believe what had happened.’

Two days after Claire’s death, Graydon went for a run. ‘It sounds an odd thing to do, but I was in total shock,’ he says. ‘I needed to do something – and running is what I do.’

A week later, Graydon went to the parkrun that he and Claire had run together so many times – this time, he was accompanied by Claire’s younger sister, Steph. ‘The emotions as I ran around were almost overwhelming,’ he recalls. ‘There were memories of benches we had sat on, talks we’d had about our future together. I was running in tears, but still knowing I absolutely wanted to be there.’

At Claire’s funeral, Graydon was keen to acknowledge the couple’s shared love of running; the theme tune to Chariots of Fire and The Trap, the music used during the BBC’s coverage of the London Marathon, were played at her funeral service.

While Graydon was signed off work on compassionate grounds, he spent many hours running and taking long walks to help process what had happened. ‘I’m not sure what made me want to get out and run in those early days and weeks,’ he says. ‘I just knew I needed to get out of the house, see people, keep busy, try to eat well and get some exercise. And from
my experience, I knew that running helped with all of those things.’

It took him a little longer to return to his running club, Teignbridge Trotters.
‘I was worried about breaking down in front of people,’ he says. ‘When I first ventured back, some members came up to me, while others weren’t sure what to say, but I knew they were thinking of me. We did a social six-mile run that eased me back into going again.’

A few months after the death of Jay and Claire, Graydon ran a 10K in nearby Exeter, knocking almost a minute off his PB. But instead of elation, he felt a profound sense of emptiness. ‘In the past I would have had Claire cheering me on, buying me a beer afterwards and chatting about the race on the drive home. She would have been there to share the moment with me. That day, I remember thinking, “What’s the point?” The one person I wanted to talk to wasn’t there anymore.’

Graydon joined WAY - Widowed
 and Young - a support group for men and women under 50 whose partner has died. ‘WAY offers its members a bond through shared experience,’ he says. ‘The people there understand how things have totally changed for you because they all know what it means to lose a partner.’ He ran this year’s London Marathon to fundraise for WAY and raise awareness of their work, especially among other men, who currently make up just 20 per cent of the group’s membership.
The marathon was a bittersweet experience. Graydon knocked more than an hour off his time from seven years earlier, but on that occasion Claire had been there to cheer him on. ‘I became quite emotional at the 24-mile mark because I remembered seeing her out there supporting me,’ he says.

These days, while certain locations or seemingly minor occurrences will trigger specific memories, Claire is never out of Graydon’s thoughts. ‘For me it’s a case of moving forward rather than moving on,’ he says. ‘There’s always going to be immense sadness about Claire and Jay, wondering what might have been. I know my life has taken a very different course and nothing will ever be the same again.’

But running remains a constant in
his life. In May, he took part in the race held in honour of Claire by the school where she had worked as a primary teacher. Over 200 people ran in the 10K and 3km events.

‘Running has helped me cope with what has happened,’ he says. ‘When times are particularly bad, I know that when I come back from a run I’ll feel at least marginally better than when I went out. The power of running is amazing.’


To find out more about Widowed And Young (WAY), visit widowedandyoung.org.uk