RunAway Challenge: Interview with Scott Cunliffe

This blog post is a little bit different from our usual construction health and safety related content but we hope you find it interesting as it relates to physical and mental health issues. Prior to the 2018-2019 Premier League season Burnley F.C. fan and keen ultra-marathon runner Scott Cunliffe set himself the enormous challenge of running to all 19 of Burnley’s away fixtures that season, which soon became known as the RunAway Challenge. As the profile of Scott’s efforts received more and more exposure over the course of the season the RunAway Challenge was featured in various local, regional and national press titles, covering online, print, radio and TV outlets. Having set an initial fundraising target of £10,000, at the time of writing Scott’s efforts have raisied an absolutely staggering amount of over £51,000!

Scott is a longstanding friend of RJD’s Director Damien Ratcliffe, and over a very nice pub lunch at the Kettledrum Inn in Burnley he kindly gave us some insight on this incredible undertaking:

Damien Ratcliffe: I remember you first told me about your idea for the RunAway Challenge around one year ago whilst we were walking up Pendle Hill, which funnily enough was a recce for another run you were doing! Was your initial idea to run to every away ground or was it something that took a bit of time to think through and develop?

Scott Cunliffe: To be honest, I can’t remember the exact eureka moment when I thought of running to every away ground. In November 2017, I ran my first challenge, becoming the first person to run across the Asian country of East Timor. This was a gruelling 23-hour run of 125 kilometres with a lot of elevation gain. I loved it. Since then, I tried to think of my next challenge. The Runaway idea took shape in April 2018 after I returned to Burnley from my travels. I was inspired by the group who cycled to the  Burnley away game at Bournemouth. I also went to several inspirational talks and read about people doing crazy running adventures like Elise Downing, who ran around the coastal path of Britain, and Peter Thompson, who ran the Tour de France route. A friend remembers that I told him of the plan, in the Woodman Pub, after the final game of the 2017/18 season. I think I’d had a few pints that day. When the fixtures for the 2018/19 fixtures were announced a month later, there was no turning back.

DR: In addition to all the hours spent running I can imagine a lot of time also went into planning the routes, stops, travel arrangements etc., effectively making it your full time job for the past 12 months. Did you look at it like that i.e. did you allow a certain amount of time each day when you weren’t doing the Challenge for training and planning, or did you find yourself dedicating most of your waking hours to it?

SC: Initially, I thought that I’d still be able to do some online consultancy work, especially during the international break periods, when I would not have to run for up to two weeks. However, the logistical planning, social media engagement and resource mobilization made it a full time job. As I also had to maintain my physical and mental fitness between runs I had no time to work, the Challenge became all consuming.

DR: In the various interviews you done in connection with the RunAway Challenge you’ve talked about the mental health issues that you’ve had and how running has helped you through some dark times. Within the construction industry the focus in recent years has shifted towards health issues, in so much as safety is probably easier to quantify, certainly statistically – you can put suitable measures in place to stop people falling or slipping, but construction is a high-risk industry for health issues too. The health issues usually identified with construction are occupational cancer, inhaling hazardous substances and physical health risks such as muscular injuries or ill health caused by noise and vibration, but the construction sector can be very stressful to work in whether you are an office-based consultant or a construction site worker, with severe pressure to meet deadlines, budgets, quality control etc., causing people to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression. Hopefully talking about mental health issues these days doesn’t carry the same stigma that it once did, and I think that people are generally aware that regular exercise can help reduce stress, but do you have an ideas on measures employers can put in place to help protect their staff against mental health issues?

SC: Over the last decade there has been a massive shift in mental health awareness with it being regularly discussed in the media. This is all positive, especially if it means the stigma to acknowledge poor mental health conditions is being lifted. The challenge now is knowing how to prevent stressful work environments for employees. This could include improving office and site conditions, encouraging employees to do more exercise within working hours and improving poor eating habits. Another challenge is how to respond, as an employer, a friend or relative to those who make themselves vulnerable by acknowledging their mental illness. Here, a good first step is for employers to take Mental Health First Aid courses alongside their conventional first aid certificates.

DR: And what about people in generally, especially folks who haven’t done any exercise for a long time and might find the thought of walking, running or cycling a bit daunting?

SC: As Sean Dyche would say, just take it one game at a time. A decade ago I struggled to run over a mile. Getting fit wasn’t easy, it was a long process. You’ve just got to trust the process and focus on small daily gains. The couch to 5k program or other apps are a really good place to start. One of the lads who ran most of the way to Man Utd with us at the end of January 2019 only started his couch to 5k program in August 2018. He struggled to run to the end of the street in August. By January he had 20 miles in his legs. It wasn’t a miracle it was down to consistency and small daily gains.

DR: Back to the RunAway Challenge, is there one particular day or run that stands out as the hardest? I can imagine the back to back runs to London for the Tottenham and Arsenal games during December were right up there?

SC: I think the first run to Southampton was the hardest. I stepped into the unknown physically, mentally and logistically. Every morning, my body was so sore, I struggled to get out of bed. Figuring out the route was difficult too, especially as I was staying with friends of friends who’s homes weren’t always on the route. My mind was also full of worry about getting injured. At the same time, completing one of the longest runs at the stat of the season (10-days) was a real confidence boost for what was to follow. The Tottenham/Arsenal double header in December was also tough, but by that time I had less to worry about as my body had adapted to long multi-day runs, I had the route to London memorized and all my accommodation was booked on route, allowing for longer rest periods overnight.

DR: What was the best or most memorable place you visited on your travels?

SC: It’s hard to pick one. Running up the Pennine Way to Newcastle was a highlight, as was running over the Brecon Beacons to Cardiff. Overall though, having spent most of my adult life living and travelling abroad, I am grateful that I got to see more of Britain in one year than I have in the previous 44 years. It really it is one of the finest places on the planet filled with so many decent folk.

DR: And what was the funniest thing that happened during the Challenge (that we can share on the RJD website!)?

SC: Being told to ‘get ov my land’ by an estate security guard who made us (I was running with a friend at the time) turn back and take an alternative route into Bournemouth. Not what you need at the end of nine days running but it’s the first and only time someone was openly aggressive to me. Not sure it was all that funny but I’ve learnt that laughing is the best response to adversity, especially to farmers with a West Country accent.

DR: As someone who’s been friends with you for nearly 30 years I’m immensely proud of what you’ve achieved, which I think is a sentiment shared by everyone who knows you or has followed you during this remarkable season, and whilst people have run greater distances I think what you’ve done over the last 9 months or so is pretty much unprecedented. So what’s next? I’ve seen the World Cup in 2022 mentioned as a possible RA Challenge destination, just the small matter of it being held in Qatar though. According to an online route planner the Lusail Iconic Stadium in Qatar is 4435.5 miles from Turf Moor, so when are you thinking of setting off?

SC: Firstly, I’ll be trying to ensure that all the money raised is put to good use. Over the next few months we’ll be selecting the projects that will receive funds. Together with Burnley FC in the Community, we’ll be putting in measures to ensure we get maximum impact from the donations received. I will also set up a Runaway Foundation, that will exist to take on other challenges like running to the 2022 World Cup finals. Several things have to fall in place for this big challenge to take place: England must qualify, the dates and location of the tournament need to be confirmed, we’ll also need to do a thorough risk assessment and get some major sponsors to back the project. If all this comes to fruition I figure it will take around 6 months to run to Qatar.

For more information on the RunAway Challenge please visit:  http://therunawaychallenge.org/