“My life changed completely in 2005 when my older sister Karen was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow) cancer, aged just 54,” says Dawn Paul, 56, from Peacehaven in East Sussex. “For the next few years I pretended everything was OK, but then she started becoming increasingly ill. In April 2009, while tackling a marathon pile of ironing and watching the London Marathon on TV, I was having my usual thoughts about how brilliant it must be to run a marathon when it dawned on me that the only person stopping me doing so was me. I also wanted to support Karen, to almost share her pain, as she always tried to hide it right until the end.
“I taught myself to run by cycling a mile to a secluded field where nobody could see me and repeatedly running downhill for one minute, then walking back up again. Over several weeks, I built up to running for a whole song on my iPod. During that time, I also quit my 35-year, 30-a-day smoking habit. In October 2010, I ran my first 10K. It rained the whole time, but I didn’t care, as it felt so good to have done it. By then I’d already been rejected in the London Marathon ballot and instead decided to volunteer at the first-ever Brighton Marathon, something I’m still proud to be involved in eight years later. However, my marathon dream wasn’t over and, in 2011, I ran the Brighton Marathon in five hours and 50 minutes and had an absolute ball. I dressed as a hula girl and, at the finish, as I hugged my husband and children, I felt elated and thankful. And yet so very sad, as Karen, who’d planned to come and support me, was by then too ill to travel.
“On 24 October, 2011, Karen passed away – her funeral was held 10 days later, on what would have been her 60th birthday. That November, I ran a 10K. It was my last race for several years because it was impossible to run and cry at the same time. Running that race was horrendous: the only reason I turned up was because I’d promised to raise money for the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in Karen’s name. I didn’t want to give up being active entirely, however, and I soon signed up for a 100K walk in May 2012, which I completed in 27 hours. I had such fun that I quickly entered a 50K along the Thames Path four months later. It was a great event, but something was missing and I felt really low afterwards, even though I’d finished it in under 11 hours.
“The following week I went to see my doctor, I can’t remember what for, but I came out with a prescription for Prozac, a referral to the mental health team and was told I’d had a breakdown and was deeply depressed. Something about that locum doctor had touched a nerve and opened the floodgates. Through the tears, I repeatedly apologised for taking up so much of her time, and she kept reassuring me that I wouldn’t still be there with her if I didn’t need to be. I believe my appointment lasted over two hours. The root cause of my depression was losing Karen while trying to carry on being a ‘supermum’ and simply not having the time to grieve, as everyone still expected me to carry on as before.
“I knew from the outset that taking pills was not for me so, after a couple of telephone psychiatric evaluations and some therapy sessions, I began looking for something to occupy my mind and give me that spark to keep training. I found just the thing in an NSPCC leaflet: a five-day charity trek in Iceland the following June. Up until then I’d never been away from my son, Marc, overnight as he has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But I reckoned at 15 he could cope without me if he was safely at home and not at school. I signed up to several more 50K and 100K events before Iceland, to make sure I put the training in. I needn’t have worried, however, because despite Iceland throwing every kind of weather imaginable at us, it was a truly magical experience. I wanted more!
“In April 2014, I began running again by attending the Preston Park parkrun in Brighton with my daughter Hannah and very quickly became hooked. This April, I became the event director of the Peacehaven junior parkrun, having taken 18 months to secure funding to start both a junior (2K) and 5K parkrun in my home town. Yes, I’m a very proud mother hen!
“However, what I’m most happy about is my fundraising for the NSPCC. Karen had asked for donations to the NSPCC in lieu of flowers at her funeral, so I knew that this would be a way to ensure her memory lives on. In November 2013, I organised the first NSPCC Angels Walk, a fundraising walk in memory of loved ones we’ve lost. So far I’ve raised about £18,000 through this and other events I’ve been sponsored to take part in. I’m aiming to reach £30,000 by the end of 2020. A few months ago, in acknowledgment of, and to thank me for my fundraising, I was honoured to receive an invitation to attend the Queen’s Garden Party. Sometimes I need to pinch myself to check it’s still me!
“Another life-changing event occurred in February 2015 when I set out to climb Kilimanjaro. I left as a wife, mum of four, sister and daughter and came back as Dawn! Finally after 54 years I discovered that it’s fine to be just me. I faced many challenges during that trek, from first-night panic attacks to a third-night tent collapse due to snow and hail. I hope never to forget the lessons that mountain taught me, and to use them when I tackle the Amazon Survivor Challenge this September, go to Patagonia in 2018 and when I trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal in 2020 to celebrate my 60th birthday.
“So far I’ve done six 100K-plus walking events, and run three marathons. The NSPCC nicknamed me ‘The Unstoppable Dawn Paul’ and I often run in fancy dress: it shows the world I don’t take the events very seriously, which enables me to just enjoy them and have fun. What I love most about running is the feeling of belonging, the company I find along the way, and getting to the finish. It’s not how fast you are or how far you go, it’s about having the heart to take part and giving yourself credit for staying the course. Just because I’m now nearer my 60s, I never want to stop learning what I’m capable of or having adventures. Life is full of possibilities, places to see, friendships to make and memories to share.”
To sponsor dawn, visit justgiving.com/theunstoppabledawnpaul or text Angels to 70744 to donate £4 (the cost of one call to childline).
To follow Angels Walk, visit Facebook.com/angelswalksussex.