THE running shoes are out, the donations are coming in, and we’re all preparing to get emotional again – it can only be another Kevin Sinfield challenge for motor neurone disease (MND).
The Leeds Rhinos and England great said that would be it after completing his third challenge in as many years at the end of 2022, when he so memorably finished a seventh ultra-marathon in seven days at Old Trafford during the World Cup Final.
Before that, he completed seven marathons in seven days in 2020, and ran 101 miles from Leicester to Leeds in 24 hours the following year. In total, he’s raised over £8 million to date.
But you can’t keep a good man down, as the saying goes. Sinfield and his mate Rob Burrow, who have inspired so many with their friendship since Burrow’s diagnosis with MND in 2019, are great men indeed.
Sinfield’s fourth challenge will see him run a marathon, plus one ‘extra mile’, each day for a week, in seven different cities.
He will begin this Friday (December 1), starting alongside Burrow at Headingley, where the pair enjoyed such exceptional playing careers together for Leeds Rhinos, on the third anniversary of the start of his first challenge.
After running to York on day one, Sinfield and his team will complete journeys around Cardiff, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Dublin and Brighton before finishing in London next Thursday (December 7) with a journey from Twickenham – where he currently works as the England rugby union national team’s defence coach – to the Mall.
“My wife thinks I’m crackers but I’m not,” he says of taking on his latest challenge for five MND charities.
“We’re really looking forward to going again. It’s been an incredible three years representing such a beautiful community.
“The support across all our time has been wonderful. The love and support for Rob and the MND community has shone right across the UK. I’m really happy to go again.”
He’s had to keep plans of his latest challenge under wraps for some time, having decided to go again at the beginning of the year.
“It was decided around February and March time. I had a good idea after the last one (that I would run again),” he says.
“The plan was to do three. But why would we stop? We haven’t got a cure. We feel we can make a better impact on the lives of people who have MND. We feel we can help some more, so why would we stop?
“There will come a point when I can’t run any more, which is fine. But I’ll find another way of banging the drum.”
There are certainly no signs of him slowing down yet, and speaking to Sinfield, it is easy to understand why he is determined to keep on making a difference.
“As I reflect on where we’ve been, I’ve realised we cannot measure how we make people feel,” he says.
“We understand the awareness is crucial, we understand the funds will make a difference to try and find a cure for this disease, but along the way, how have we made people feel?
“Have we inspired people to get off their sofa and try and do their bit? Have we inspired people to be better friends? I hope we’ve been able to do all of those things.
“As a team we’ve certainly got a great deal of fulfilment. It’s shown me exactly why I’m here on this Earth, and that’s to try and help.
“I don’t think there’s any greater gift than providing hope for a community that needs our love, needs our support and needs our respect.
“The people I’ve met with MND are the best people in the world. They’re absolute champions.
“Rob has handled it so courageously, as has the whole Burrow family. He’s an incredible guy.
“If he’s going to fight and show me what living looks like, I’m going to be shoulder to shoulder with him, doing whatever I can.”
While Sinfield is running a shorter distance than last year, he still says that this will be his toughest challenge yet, on account of his lack of preparation.
He has been busy since the summer, with a long England rugby union training camp preceding their World Cup campaign in France, where they finished in third place.
Naturally, he’s been running almost constantly throughout, but only in the past few weeks has he been able to go on longer runs again in readiness for the marathons ahead.
Sinfield admits: “From a preparation point of view, we’re a bit underdone. There are probably a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t go again, but there is one big reason why we should, and that’s Rob and representing this beautiful community.”
Another new dimension for this challenge will be the travel, as Sinfield ventures between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
He adds: “The logistics will be massive. In my own mind, it’s trying to get my body into such shape that I can run for four hours a day and then spend the next 20 hours putting Humpty Dumpty back together again to make the start line.
“Within that 20 hours there’s going to be some travel and disruption. It means nutrition might not be perfect, and recovery won’t be perfect, but we understand that life for people with MND and their families isn’t perfect. For us to have a bit of upheaval moving around is a very small price for us to pay.”
Sinfield will see a great many sights along the way. After finishing day one at York Minster, he will end day two (Saturday, December 2) at the Arms Park stadium, at half-time of the United Rugby Championship game between Cardiff and Scarlets.
The next day (Sunday, December 3) will start at Birmingham’s Alexandra Stadium before calling in at St Andrews, Villa Park and Edgbaston en route to a city-centre finish.
But there will be a particular poignancy to the following legs, in Edinburgh and Dublin.
Across the Irish Sea, he will be joined on the route on Tuesday (December 5) by legendary RTÉ broadcaster Charlie Bird, who raised over €3m for charity with his Climb for Charlie following his own MND diagnosis.
The trip to Ireland was also inspired by former Warrington player Paul Darbyshire, who died from MND in 2011 while a coach at Munster rugby union club.
Sinfield says: “When we saw the numbers of people with MND in Ireland, we felt it was important we represented those people too. It’s not far away from us, it’s only across the water. It’s an important place for us to go.
“We hope people in Dublin will get behind me and Charlie. It will be a privilege to run there. I’m sure some of our guys will be welcoming a pint of Guinness at the end as well!”
The previous day, Monday (November 4), takes in the Scottish capital and a finish at Murrayfield stadium, where Sinfield began last year’s challenge in the presence of Doddie Weir.
The former Scottish rugby union international was a great friend of Burrow following his diagnosis, but died from the disease only two weeks after seeing off Sinfield and his team on their route to Manchester.
“I think about Doddie a lot. He’s been a hugely inspirational guy to everybody,” says Sinfield of the ‘gentle giant’.
“I’ll never forget the first time he met Rob and the brotherhood that was created that day, between a guy who was six foot ten and a guy who was five foot five. The picture still makes me smile today.
“What started that day was an unbelievable friendship, for Doddie and me too. We miss him, but his legacy lives on, with what he’s achieved for the MND community. He moved the dial more than anybody ever has.
“Hopefully we can represent him in Edinburgh in the right sort of way. (Doddie’s wife) Kathy and the boys can hopefully feel proud of what Doddie’s done and the legacy he’s left.”
Weir’s death brought home the fact that people with MND have little time left to live, which makes the lack of progress in research all the more frustrating.
The government last year pledged £50m towards MND research over a five-year period, and Sinfield has called for greater urgency.
“In the modern world, everyone wants everything done yesterday, but we understand how important this is because lives are at stake,” he says.
“We also know the statistics. From diagnosis, 50 percent die within the first two years. A third die within the first twelve months. People with MND don’t have time on their side.
“As you saw with Covid, if you throw enough money at something, you can get a cure. Part of my role is to make sure we give fantastic minds the right money to try and find that cure and find the drugs that help.”
Until that happens, Sinfield won’t stop running.
Kevin Sinfield and his team will be running for five charities. The main beneficiaries will be the MND Association and Leeds Hospitals Charity’s appeal to build the Rob Burrow Centre for MND in Leeds. There will also be donations to My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, the Irish MND Association and the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, plus the 4ED campaign to support former rugby union player Ed Slater.
Donations can be made at donate.giveasyoulive.com/fundraising/kevin-sinfield