When you chat to most runners, they’ll tell you that running is their stress reliever. And, if you’re someone who has experienced these benefits for yourself, you’ll be able to appreciate how important running has become to the Jeffrey family.
Nicola Jeffrey, 48, from Devon, discovered that her daughter, Isobel, now 20, had a life-limiting neurodegenerative disease when she was nine years old. “She was diagnosed as having developmental delay when she was about four but it wasn’t known that she had a neurodegenerative disease then,” explains Nicola. “It was only over the next four to five years that her development continued to stall but there were other medical problems as well.”
Isobel’s complex medical needs require round-the-clock care. “She has difficult-to-control epilepsy, she’s tube-fed, she’s severely visually impaired, and she has some muscle weakness,” explains Nicola. “On top of that, she also has an autoimmune disease called lupus. She’s severely learning disabled but she’s also articulate, she knows her own mind.”
Since taking up running 10 years ago, Nicola has found it helps her cope with the physical and emotional demands of caring for Isobel, and for her youngest daughter, Katie. “We adopted Katie when she was three-and-a-half,” says Nicola. “She has severe learning disabilities and foetal alcohol syndrome, so she has extreme hyperactivity and ADHD-type behaviours.”
“[Running] gives me enough energy to cope; both of the girls are very demanding in different ways. Just being fit and having the energy to deal with that helps, but [also] having a good excuse to go out and be by yourself for a little while.”
Nicola runs four times a week and is currently training for the extreme two-day trail ultramarathon OMM in October. She also took part in the Women’s Running Race Series event in Exeter in June to fundraise for Children’s Hospice South West, a regional charity sponsor for the event and one that has supported Nicola’s family for nine years. Nicola fits her training around caring for Isobel and full-time work as a scientist. “It is flat out and I think if you didn’t have a pressure release, you wouldn’t cope very well,” she says.
After losing her grandmother to cancer last year, Isobel, too, was motivated to start running, signing up to Race For Life with her mum. “What she’s gained from that is realising what she is actually capable of… and it’s given her increased confidence,” says Nicola. The whole family now run together every Saturday morning. As with Isobel, Nicola has found running to have had a positive impact on Katie’s wellbeing. “She started running when she was about 11 and it’s made a big difference,” says Nicola. “We found that, because of her hyperactivity, it’s been a way of running some of that energy off and using it for positive things. She takes part in special Olympics and she competed nationally last year. So we’ve all got something from it.”
While the family run together once a week, opportunities are limited for Nicola and her husband, Keven, to get out running together – or even spend time together as a couple. However, Children’s Hospice South West’s Little Bridge House in North Devon has provided the couple with much-needed respite over the years – and invaluable emotional support. “We went along [to Little Bridge House] quite sceptical… and we were really pleasantly surprised that it was, from our point of view, a place to go for a bit of respite and a little bit of a break. Like staying in a really nice country hotel is how I would describe it. What we chose to do with our time was go off for a run or a bike ride so we could do it together.”
Keen to give something back to CHSW for its support over the years, the family is taking part in a number of sporting events to fundraise this year. “There have been times when Izzy has been bedridden for months on end so the fact that she’s as well as she is now is fantastic, it’s amazing,” says Nicola. “And Little Bridge supported us when we thought we were about to lose her. We just keep doing what we’re doing and keeping her fit and active… because I don’t think we know what’s going to happen. I’ve found that, with all things, the fitter you are, the better.”
To donate to Nicola’s Just Giving page, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/actively-living.