RUGBY LEAGUE legend Kevin Sinfield OBE set out this morning at 8.40am on his latest ‘Extra Mile’ fundraising challenge for those impacted by motor neurone disease (MND).
It is his second major fundraising event.
In December 2020 he led a team that raised over £2.7 million by running seven marathons in seven days.
Today (Monday) the former England captain, who joined the coaching staff at Premiership rugby union side Leicester Tigers earlier this year, is attempting to run from Leicester’s home at Welford Road to Headingley Stadium in Leeds in 24 hours.
The run will be split into 7km segments, with Sinfield aiming to complete each one within an hour before the next one starts on the hour. Originally, the journey was planned to cover a distance of 100 miles, but the actual final distance will be 101 miles, with Sinfield once again proving he will always go the ‘extra mile’ for his friend and former team-mate Rob Burrow.
Sinfield’s initial target for ‘The Extra Mile Challenge’ was to raise £100,000 as he runs a distance that will be just short of four marathons back-to-back in a day to raise money directly to benefit people living with MND.
But that target has already been beaten, with around £150,000 having been raised last week, five days before the run was due to start.
Donations will be split equally between the Leeds Hospitals Charity appeal to build the Rob Burrow Centre for MND, which will support people living with MND and their families, and the MND Association, which funds multi-disciplinary care delivered at the Centre and others across the country, as well as research into potential treatments for the disease.
How the idea arose
“On the back of what we did last year our WhatsApp group was pinging for a number of weeks, trying to come up with different ideas,” Sinfield explained, when discussing how his latest idea came about.
“If I’m honest, we weren’t going to run. We were going to do a cycle or a big walk. But the BBC advertised a run in America called ‘Big Dogs Backyard Ultra’, which inspired us. I read about it and thought I wouldn’t mind having a crack at running for 24 hours.
“And then I changed jobs and the difficulty of trying to find seven days around that time of year is pretty tough, so I asked myself whether we could do 24 hours and that seemed to work.
“So we asked where we could run for 24 hours and it was my wife who came up with the idea of running from Leicester to Leeds. With the help of some expertise from Leeds Beckett University the route got planned and we ended up at 101 miles.”
And Sinfield has been putting in some serious practice, while also undergoing tests to ensure he has the physical constitution for the job and putting together a team that will accompany him on the journey.
“Hopefully there are two others – David Spencer and Chris Stephenson – who were part of the seven in seven last year who will also do the 100 miles.
“So there are two more on the starting line, there are four on bikes and they are really important in the role they play. And then we have some guest runners who will do some 7K legs with us.
“I did my first big run last week. When I started to research running 100 miles, I realised that you need six to nine months preparation to step up from the marathon distance. A big challenge will be mental, it will be tortuous at times and emotionally it will be tough, as I found last year. Your mind takes you to different places.
“We won’t know until we are 18 hours in, but I want it to be horrible, I want it to be unpleasant, with uncertainties and unknowns. The team are prepared for it. The team know that we will do whatever we have to do to get through. We are all friends and we know what buttons we have to press. If they have to pick me up, they’ll do it; if we need a laugh, there’ll be someone cracking a joke. We’ll get it done.”
When asked about his mate’s reaction to his latest challenge, Sinfield smiled.
“Rob just burst out laughing when I told him, which was the response I expected,” he said.
“Rob gets a lot of visitors and I know how much it means to him. That’s what teams do, isn’t it? They stick together and look after each other. We may be retired now and are getting a little older, but we still look after each other. That’s the great thing about rugby.
“Every time I see him, I get that big smile on his face. The spirit is there and he is so happy to see people when he gets visits. But he is massively humbled by everything people have done over the last two years. The support, the well-wishers, the documentary, the book, the support of the MND Association, the support from the Rhinos and former team-mates and everybody across the UK.
“We are running on behalf of Rob, but we are running for two great charities that Rob is so passionate about. I think it’s really important to all of us that he is so passionate about it. He is certainly the big motivator and driver – the inspiration, if you like – and we want to try and do our best for him and show him and all the others across the UK who have been suffering from motor neurone disease.
“It’s great for the full team to represent them on Monday and Tuesday. We are really proud to represent these two charities with that big number 7 on our back.”
Sinfield was asked to contrast the prospect of undertaking his latest challenge with the seven marathons he undertook in seven days last December, which raised around £2.7 million, while he was also asked for his views on the recent announcement that the government would contribute £50 million to MND research.
“Last year gave us an incredible feeling that we were doing something that was good and hopefully we will get that feeling again,” he said.
“The campaigning that has gone on from Doddie (Weir), Rob (Burrow) and Stephen Darby has been incredible. Without their courageous work I don’t think the funding (£50m) would have come through.
“But I also have to say that the MND Association has done a wonderful job. That £50 million will make a huge difference. On Saturday night I was wondering whether I still had to run, but the reality is that I do, because we want to find a cure, things that enhance people’s lives, keep them on this earth a little bit longer and make life’s journey a little bit more pleasant for them.
“£50 million is a lot and that is why government involvement is so important. It has been inspired by Rob. He’s a good mate and we are prepared to keep going. He would do it for me and that’s what rugby does.
“But the other side of that is the kindness, care and love that the government doesn’t provide and that funding is for that, so we have to keep banging the drum and hopefully others will carry on too, driving and pushing to make it a little easier for everyone.
“There has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes and there are three guys heading it who are inspirations to all of us. The hard work they’ve done, their bravery and courage, and for how little this disease has been funded for the last 30 years, it needs it.”
And he explained why he had created this challenge to be completed within 24 hours.
“You have to factor in time,” he explained.
“Everybody involved in this is giving up their own personal time. They absolutely want to do it, but trying to get people to take seven days off work to take part in another challenge is pretty tough, especially in today’s climate with Covid and what’s gone on in the country for the last 18 months.
“I started a new job and we are in the middle of the season. I’d love to spend the rest of my life running and doing bits for charity. But the reality is that I can’t at the moment, so I’ll try and cram in as much as I can while I can. The rest of the team want to be part of it and make it work.
“It’s the same group that did the seven/seven, plus a lot more support this time. We have a doctor, a physio, some sports scientists, a nutritionist from British Cycling – a fourteen strong team, as opposed to six or seven last year. We are all friends, and we’ll make some more memories, as we did last year.
“Last Monday we did a twelve-hour stint as a challenge and covered 52 miles.
“It was tough, pretty brutal, but I think it’s important that we went there. My wife thinks I’m crackers when I say I’m going on a twelve-hour run and I’m starting at 3.00am. But she understands that we have to be prepared to go there.
“That’s the big message in some of this. Rob is going through some bits now where it’s uncertain and each day he wakes up a little bit worse than the day before. We’re not quite sure what the journey is going to be like for him and where it’s going to take him.
A dark place
“We’re in the same boat on Monday. Yes, we don’t have MND, but we are going into a pretty dark place and we’re not sure what nasty things are waiting for us.
“We are prepared to go in there, which he thinks is hilarious. But for him and everyone else around the UK who has been challenged by MND themselves or a family member has suffered from it, to see other people willing to go to those dark places is pretty powerful. We’ll give it our best shot.
“Again, we don’t know what’s coming. I know what the first twelve hours is going to be like.
“The psychological aspect of it is covered by my rugby career when there were some dark times as well as successful ones.
“A career in sport sets you up to face some difficult times. People don’t support it if it’s not a challenge. People will look at this and say they are not sure he’ll be able to do this. But I’ll do everything I can to get through it.
“I won’t get any opportunity to sleep. The biggest part of this challenge will be the mental side of it. Can I keep getting to the start line? Can I get up out of my chair and go again, no matter how bad I feel?
“As a rugby player a lot of our training was interval based, so once again my experiences in rugby give me the best psychological training for something like this.
When asked what he is hoping to achieve, Sinfield admits he has two aims in mind, while he also hopes that there will be some support along the way.
“The money is massively important but the awareness is also vital,” he said.
“There will be someone with MND in your town or village who was once ashamed to step out of the house. Hopefully they are not any more and they will understand that there are people out there who want to make a difference.
“So if people line the route, I’m not suggesting there will be many people out there at 2.00am, but if people can come out, give us a wave and beep their horn, then it will be much needed and the support has been incredible already.
“I’m handcuffed to it (the cause), but I handcuffed myself. I’m delighted to be a patron of the MND Association and I’m delighted to run on behalf of Rob. When you get a chance to do something in life that creates hope, then we’ll continue.”
Sinfield also paid tribute to Leeds Rhinos communications director Phil Daly, who has given a strong sense of direction in terms of publicising his fundraising efforts.
“This guy needs a rap as he has been brilliant pulling all this together and driving it as well as everything he did last year,” Sinfield explained.
“Without Phil’s involvement in this, we wouldn’t be where we are today. There is so much he has done behind the scenes. He has overseen everything and his role has been critical.
“And you all know he’s a good mate of Rob’s as well, so he loves doing it.
“The initial target was £100,000 and £100,000 in sponsorship.
“I’m delighted to say we did get the £100,000 in sponsorship, which is really special.
“These guys on the vest have all put significant amounts in and then there’s a few more who want to be silent who have given unbelievable amounts.
“I won’t disclose who, but I can tell you a little story.
“I rocked up at the training ground at Leicester one day and had a letter. And within the letter was a cheque for £20,000 from this kind gentleman. He left some contact details and I tried calling him several times and couldn’t get hold of him.
“I finally got hold of him last week and had a conversation with him. Just as I was putting the phone down, he said ‘hold on a minute, I’ve got another cheque for you. I’ll send it to you in the post.’
“That came through on Monday and it was just short of £13,000, so one guy has given almost 33 grand, which is absolutely incredible.
“He is linked closely to Leicester Tigers and his former business partner died of MND. So you just don’t realise who’s out there and who’s been challenged and affected by the disease. Some of the letters and the cards that we have all received have been mind-blowing and inspirational.
“There are around 5,000 people in the UK with MND at any one time.
“I got another letter last week from a 79-year-old, who, for her 80th birthday, wanted to donate all her money from her birthday to this run. She wanted to know who to make the cheque out to.
“I’m getting letters regularly and I’m just blown away by it. That’s the effect it’s had.
“The support at Leicester has been brilliant. Interestingly, before I stepped across and agreed to go there, one of the conversations was about how they’d love to support me and they knew it meant a lot to me if I decided to do anything else.
“I said I would but, at that point, I didn’t know what it would be. But they have stuck to their word.
“And there are fans down there who are stopping me and handing me tenners and twenties and it’s really kind.”
So what will the money that is raised help achieve in future?
“Rob and his family played a big part in deciding how the money was spent last year,” said Sinfield.
“We are keen to get a good split on the money, so a lot will go to research into trying to find a cure but also for that softer side with the support and care. Rob has three young kids and how they cope with it, how his mum and dad cope with it, we’ve seen that first-hand.
“I don’t know how the money will be split this time and how it will be divided now that government money is coming in. We have a target now of £200,000 and if we reach that, we will be delighted. Even if we don’t get a penny more, we’re delighted.”
But has Sinfield thought of the possibility that he may not manage to complete his latest challenge?
“Yes, just as it crossed my mind at the start of October that I might not finish the London Marathon,” he responded.
“It crossed my mind last year that I might not do seven in seven. It crossed my mind when I was sitting in dressing room after dressing room waiting for big games, including Grand Finals, that I might not be good enough, I might not get there.
“I think self-doubt is part of life and part of being in sport. It’s part of facing challenges. I think my experiences in rugby as a player have given me the best preparation for this mentally.
“But absolutely, we all have self-doubt. A lot of people don’t want to admit to it, but we all have it and we all understand. But what I would say is that I’m determined to get it done and if I have to crawl, I will crawl to the finish line.
“I’ve got these guys alongside me who know me as well as anybody and know what buttons to press and again that’s the beauty of being in a team.”
There in spirit
How likely is it that Rob Burrow himself will be at the finishing line?
“I think the prospect of seeing him at any time is really important. Whether he is going to be well enough to be there on Tuesday, we’ll have to wait and see. If he is, I’ll be absolutely made up, but if he’s not, I’ll understand. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of text messages en route where he’s laughing and taking the micky out of us.
“But I absolutely know he will be with us every step of the way. There are a couple of the band of brothers who will set foot on the route with us and I’m delighted by that as Rob means a lot to them and they mean a lot to Rob.
“For them to get the opportunity to come out and show that and for me to be able to run with them and chat about old times and reminisce a little bit will be really, really good.
“Jonesy (Jamie Jones-Buchanan) will be there, and I’m very hopeful that JP (Jamie Peacock) will be as well. He is struggling with his knee at the minute but you know what a warrior he is.
“We’re hopeful Danny Mags will be there, which is brilliant, and possibly Gaz Ellis, which is wonderful, as Gaz and Rob were close when they played at Leeds together
“There are a couple of others who may not be fit to run but may ride. Barrie Mac will be on the bike.”
The benefit of teams
And how important is this challenge for Kevin Sinfield himself?
“It’s not just for me, it’s for us, the team, for all of us. We had a special group. We don’t see a lot of each other any more, unfortunately, but I mentioned last year that if someone is in a bit of bother, a bit of strife, the group will come to help and that’s the strength of those players.
“Perhaps not all teams have that feeling, but ours did and we are very fortunate that we have it.
“Does this extend Rob’s life? Well, it must be great for him to know that so many people want to help him.
“So I hope so. It’s important for all of us who are involved that we show him how much we care. And if that means he continues to fight in the way he has and continues to be as brave and courageous as he has been, then we will keep going.
“There’s nothing better than going to see him and being greeted by that big smile. He’ll crack jokes, he’s still got his sense of humour and his spirit.
“Fifty per cent of sufferers from MND die in the first two years. But now we’re coming up to Christmas, which is a special time, which I think we should all celebrate. I’m sure Rob will have a wonderful Christmas with his kids and long may that continue.”
The route and projected timings of Kevin Sinfield’s ‘Extra Mile’ challenge can be found at https://www.therhinos.co.uk/2021/11/09/full-kevin-sinfield-the-extra-mile-route-announced/
To follow Kevin’s progress from Monday onwards, follow Leeds Rhinos’ Twitter feed (@leedsrhinos)
On Tuesday 23rd November, everyone is invited to the home of Leeds Rhinos at Headingley rugby stadium to welcome Kevin and his fundraising team back home. Spectators are encouraged to arrive from 7am with BBC Breakfast coming live from the stadium throughout the morning before Kevin arrives on the pitch just after 8am. Seating will be available in the rugby North Stand. The event is free of charge but you will be able to make a donation on the day to The Extra Mile fund to collectors around the stadium.
Supporters can back Kevin Sinfield’s appeal now at https://donate.giveasyoulive.com/fundraising/kevin-sinfields-the-extra-mile-challenge