Ronnie Staton Stroke survivor, ultra runner – runner interview
In this remarkably honest interview, Ronnie Staton shares his love of running and family, together with an eye-opening account of what it’s like to suffer from a stroke at a relatively young age.
I honestly don’t feel any words from me can do the words of Ronnie justice. So apart from these very brief points, I’ll leave it to him in response to my questions.
1. If you love ultra running and trail running you’ll love this interview.
2. Thank you to ‘GB Sticks‘ for putting me in touch with Ronnie. You said my blog was an ideal place for such an interview and Ronnie’s words bear that out.
3. Most importantly, please help Ronnie raise Stroke awareness by sharing this post.
Ronnie, for those that don’t know you. could you just tell us a little about yourself please?
I am blessed with a loving partner Jodie and together we live in Lincoln with our three wonderful children Astrid (3) and Indy (1) Elliot (step son) (9). I give grace everyday for life. Having recently come so close to losing it, I still have the opportunity to watch my children grow, to fulfill my ambitions and importantly of course my children still have their father. I also give daily thanks for the fact that I can still run!
I’ll be as brief as possible here. If anyone is interested in some of my running achievements they are on my website in the ‘about’ section. It’s so damn difficult to not compare ourselves to others, we seem hardwired as humans to do it, but it is rarely a positive thing for us. I’m not someone who runs many events, I much prefer the process of training (I just love training!) and I also love solo adventure. I then tend to run the occasional long distance event as a goal/celebration/treat/adventure and on occasion I do also love to compete against myself and others.
From a sporting background even amidst the distraction of pie and beer whilst gaining a BSc Coaching, Sport & Exercise degree at Manchester Met University I played football pretty much daily, not to any particularly high standard I might add. This preceded my early to mid 20’s which felt like a dog fight through most of my own adolescent errors, so I figured I may as well fight properly as an amateur boxer, which in turn taught me much about life (and pain)!
Moving into my late 20’s I switched to ultra running after becoming fed up of getting beat up by faster, fitter and younger men.
For over a decade I predominantly worked as a personal trainer before deciding to focus on running coaching. I currently coach ultra runners based all around the UK. Despite logistical challenges I’ve managed to meet physically almost all the runners I coach to fully assess their bodies and run style, a vital part of my service to support the online coaching.
I’m the race director at HOBO Pace which has four events per year, which is enough for me. So I’ve pretty much been self employed my entire adult life, rendering me pretty unemployable in a ‘proper job’ by this stage I’d say.
Thankfully I also get asked to talk (as a motivational speaker) which is a real honour and I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak to a room full of people. It also allows me entrance to venues I’d normally feel too much of a peasant to enter! I’m not a sickly sweet positive motivational speaker, I tell the truth about my life experience as a runner/coach and the study of the science of mindset as I see it. I discuss the patterns of behaviour I’ve witnessed to be the most constructive to a fulfilled life, which by the way can actually be a different thing to what we generally deem as successful! A scary thought, but since I’ve now been working with people’s goals since at uni, that is now close to twenty years of working with ambitions!
You took over the Dukeries from Roger Spence. What was it that made you apply for this?
I ran the Dukeries 30 as a runner and if you had told me the following year I’d be the race director I would have found it difficult to believe, as I had no real desire at that point to be a race director. But Roger no longer wanted to organise the race yet at the same time didn’t want it to fold. Word found its way to me and within minutes of finding out I’d composed an email to Roger. I didn’t think or talk to anyone about it I just acted like any impulsive fool would.
I choose to write an email outlining all the reasons why Roger should choose me as the next race director, rather than register my interest. Although that could be deemed as arrogant, from my perspective it wasn’t written out of arrogance at all, but rather I felt instinctively and passionately I should go for it, I just knew I had to get that race!
My Nan who was a friend I’ll never come close to replacing had recently died and I was skint sharing a house with my sister Lorrel and it was fair to say I was feeling a little dejected with life. Roger wanted what I thought was a reasonable fee for the takeover and my Nan had left me that same exact amount of money in her passing. I believe in instinct and I follow omens! My Nan would have loved that I initially began HOBO Pace up with her gift, I know I do.
That’s absolutely wonderful! What a legacy for your Nan and now you.
Where did the idea for the Robin Hood 100 come from?
Well, I’d developed a taste for race directing and made many mistakes early on which I learned from fast. One of my passions is the 100 miler, so it was a natural progression for me to want to organise one to give others the opportunity to achieve the distance. I had first timers in mind so I wanted it marked and well supported, I also wanted runners to chase a PB on the course. I already had the Dukeries in Sherwood Forest but the venue wouldn’t let me hire through the night so I began to think a 100 miler using the forest wouldn’t happen. Then in the small hours of the morning unable to sleep I crept downstairs with my laptop to map out runs I fancied personally exploring for fun on memory maps. As mentioned I love solo adventure and don’t run many events so although this may sound strange, it was pretty normal behavior for me!
It was then that it struck me by complete chance as I zoomed out on the maps. I could see a route I’d made down the Chesterfield Canal towards Worksop but simultaneously I could also see the Dukeries route and in between the two seemed only a gap of a few miles. My blinkered mind had never connected the two runs until visually seeing them in that way, as in my head they were separate areas. Immediately I planned the link up and then that same week went to try it out on foot to check it was safe. The link up from the canal to the forest worked better than I could have imagined! This then made it possible to run from the hall in South Wheatley who allowed me use of the venue through the night, run along the canal and then join up to the forest – run two 30 mile laps then return. A slight jig of the route here and there and I made it pretty much exactly 100 miles (100.4M). It’s the most productive sleepless night I think I’ve ever had!
Tell us more about “HOBO Pace”. Where does the name come from? What does it mean?
The word hobo is a very curious one apparently first used in America in the late 19th Century. Its not fully understood how it originated. Some historians believe it is derived from a term meaning “farmhand” which was the word hoe-boy. The author Bill Bryson (I really must read more of his books) points out in ‘Made in America’ that among others it could either come from the railroad greeting, “Ho, beau!” or my favorite of them all a syllabic abbreviation of “homeward bound”!
Upon choosing the name in my mind a hobo was a migrant worker, not to be confused with being homeless. Some hobo’s were indeed homeless but the real difference was hobo’s traveled and worked, the homeless or those referred to as a bum or a tramp (not my words) – stayed in one place and didn’t work.
Although it was a tough and dangerous life for a hobo many were forced into that way of life during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. This next bit of info is really where my mind linked it to a running company name – bear with me! With little prospects of work at home, many had to travel, if they could ideally for free by jumping on freight trains to take their chances in another part of the country. The problem was railroad security staff (known as ‘bulls’) would kick the hobo’s off the train for trespassing – which meant they would have to travel on foot – bindle on shoulder and all! Hence the HOBO Pace logo and the slogan ‘Forever On The Roam’.
The history of the Amercian Hobo and the modern UK ultra runner may to some have no connection. But in my mind, although the ultra runner may not be impoverished at home nor be travelling for work, he/she does travel/explore for some form of prosperity and nourishment. Just as I see it is for the good of the soul rather than for monetary gain. I’ve met many ultra runners driven by a sense of lack or a desire for a better life and in an attempt to achieve this – they run! The hobo was ‘forever on the roam’ out of necessity for the prosperity of the material nature for survival. I think today we have a very different kind of necessity to roam, but nonetheless I still feel it’s needed. I know I for one will never cease to roam the land in wonder to soar my spirits to lofty heights, to refresh and renew daily until my dying day.
As RD at HOBO Pace, what has ultra running taught you?
Being a race director comes with challenges I was naive to beforehand and I’m actually glad I didn’t know about such difficulties as I may have doubted my ability to succeed. Once I’d jumped in it was sink or swim and in that situation in my favour the human race has proven itself to be very good at finding a way through!
Specifically, as a race director ultra running has taught me generosity and altruism. There are a community of people that come forward to support others looking to achieve from a complete selfless nature. Ok, sure, some volunteers are hugely incentivised by free entry in return for their volunteering time but even those individuals bring an enthusiasm and willingness that is above the expected which is encouraging to see, I’m always humbled by it.
It’s also taught me just how much it means to some people and their loved ones to run something like 100 miles. But saying that, I’ve seen runners cry at the end of our 10 mile event so this stands not just in ultra running, but all running! But I do truly feel there is something special in the 100 miler, especially that first one where no one is sure if it’s possible for them, including the runner themselves.
In essence, I think ultra running for most is about much more than running. It’s about challenge, overcoming adversity and self-actualisation. It’s a passion and there is invested emotion to raise one’s potential and achieve. But at its best in my view it’s people simply celebrating life, enjoying the trails and the ability to run and I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of something so positive.
Goodness! That’s got me thinking again of your Nan’s wonderful legacy.
What is it that you so like about trail running and ultra running?
I don’t like trail or ultra running… I love it.
Fundamentally I love it for the exercise in nature, to be outdoors and a part of all living things in a natural environment. I find little joy in running beside a busy road, although like most I have to tolerate a little of it now and then. I love it for the way it makes me feel. The relaxation, peace and renewed creative energy it gives me. I also love a goal and the element of challenge it brings to motivate me and as already mentioned I love the training process to engage with the daily grind. It reminds me that today is what matters, that you can’t rest on yesterday, you have to go again today, not wait for tomorrow.
Best of all in the clueless early days, I can’t tell you how many times I chaffed my testicles red raw from wearing inappropriate shorts, as I wanted the pockets to carry a couple of Hobnob biscuits to sustain my efforts running along the River Trent for hours! I had no knowledge of all the running attire made for such things! I no longer wear those shorts and my balls have healed but I do remember the sense of adventure I first experienced whilst getting into long distance running and it has never left me. I was clueless but full of the same passion that fills me now. I do still enjoy the occasional Hobnob too! Yes, I love ultra running for this sense of adventure and freedom.
Tell us about your stroke. What happened? How?
Training was going really well. I was aiming for a sub 3 hours marathon having missed it a few times previously with a PB of 3:05. So it’s been a goal of mine to achieve this soon. I had just come to the end of an 8 week base phase and I was showing pace improvement for the first time in three years since suffering from Glandular Fever, so I was very optimistic.
On the first session of week 9 on Christmas Eve morning I went to the gym to perform the 400m repeats to improve my speed progress further, I then had a stroke during the warm up.
I was running very steady during the warm up which felt hard going but I pushed through trying to coax my body to be ready for the main session like I have thousands of times before. After about 5 mins of running I simply felt generally unwell, a little dizzy and a headache had developed in the top right side. Believe it or not I actually heard my inner voice say, ‘don’t push through this workout you’ll have a stroke’ then I told myself to stop being a drama queen! Anyhow, although really disappointed I decided I was not going to be able to execute the session and began to slow the machine to a walk. However, I then felt myself grabbing on with my right hand and falling about unable to stop the treadmill nor keep up with it. I was very confused as to what was happening. Now I know I was clearly in the grip of the stroke.
It sounds like you were very lucky this happened while in a gym with people who knew enough to insist things weren’t right. What was your first thought when it was happening?
Luckily other gym uses rushed over and grabbed me to keep me upright and hit stop. It was then I realised that I couldn’t walk. My left side was numb and not functioning and I was struggling to speak. A guy passing a few minutes earlier asked me if I was ok which still freaks me out. I had no idea I looked so obviously in need on the treadmill before the stroke took full hold, I seriously thought I was relatively ok and no-one would have noticed, so my struggle must have been more evident than I could have recognised. Luckily they ignored me and took me out of the gym to sit me down as I was asking for them to take me to the mats so I could stretch to get something from my gym time!
What happened on the treadmill is still difficult for me to articulate in terms of what I thought was happening. Basically after initially feeling ill, I guess I didn’t know what was happening. I mean how often does half of your body go from healthy to paralysed in about 60 seconds of running! I just couldn’t make sense of something so alien. Plus, you are thinking with the very organ that is dying. This is why a stroke is so deadly, your brain talks shit right when you need it to talk sense.
The gym staff arrived. In essence, I was struggling to even sit up at this point as my left side was slumped and I felt incredibly tired and kept asking to lay down. I felt like I had been knocked unconscious but I’d not banged my head. They grabbed me a mat so I could lay down and put a foil blanket on me. My speech was slurred and the left side of my face had dropped. I wasn’t really aware of any of this, I just thought I was generally ill. I wanted to drive home but again thankfully they wouldn’t let me go! So they called Jodie to collect me and again against my will phoned an ambulance. I really didn’t feel I was ill enough to need one! They explained to me that I was showing stroke like symptoms, but it wasn’t making sense to me at the time, I was a bit like, ‘Yeah, I’m having a stroke, but what’s all the fuss about?!”
Were you frightened?
I was taken to Lincoln A&E where I quickly had a scan which showed a blood clot in my neck in the carotid artery. The entire right side of my brain was starved of blood and dying. I was immediately given an injection into my bloodstream which hopefully works to break down the blockage but the consultant judged the clot too big for it to work. So I was taken in an ambulance to Nottingham Queens Medical where specialists operate. I had another scan to show the most recent picture, the clot still there, I was rushed directly into the operating theatre. I felt very poorly by this point and was becoming increasingly frightened. Under local anaesthetic they went into my groin with a tube and fed it all the way up to my brain and literally poked out and removed the clot!
Being conscious through this operation was both interesting and excruciatingly painful as I could feel the tube in my brain behind my eye. The consultant urged me at certain times not to move my head, don’t swallow, don’t open your eyes, don’t talk or acknowledge me, and I still don’t know if it was his sense of humour or an actual command, but he told me not to breathe – then oh, and it’s going to hurt a lot! Then he worked on the clot. Take your worst visit to the dentist, times it by ten and remember you’ll die if he fucks up. Sure, it’s fair to say I was shitting my pants by this stage and it took all my focus not to panic and move my head away from the pain. I told myself if I wanted to live – remain still and suck it up!
I can’t say I was enjoying it, but I was absolutely fucking intrigued! I went in paralysed on my left side and now and then the Doctor asked me to move my left arm and leg and my range was improving much to both our delight. This was an NHS high point, of which I’ll be forever grateful. I also got to meet Dr Izzath who performed the operation months later, I wanted to kiss him, never before have I felt the word thank you to be so weak it almost felt insulting.
I told Dr Izzath I think I would have died without the operation. He replied that it was very possible. I had a 53% chance of death without the operation. Without it, even if I had lived there was an almost certain chance of being severely wheelchair paralysed, potentially with very limited ability to communicate and function. If I had the stroke another day or at night rather than day shift hours, it’s almost certain I would not be writing this. I am one of the lucky ones.
Christ! That’s quite an incredible story of survival and the skill of NHS staff.
So how and when did you get back into running?
I had the stroke Christmas Eve morning. I walked out of the hospital and broke into a run on Boxing Day. Clearly, I wasn’t allowed to do this. But having suffered brain damage I had one question on my mind – can I run? When there weren’t any doctors around I ran steady down the corridor for 20 yards before walking again to catch my breath, then ventured outside. I needed to see if I could run. I was elated. I could!
It would be about 12 weeks post stroke until I tried again as I waited for permission. Two weeks after such permission, so 14 weeks post stroke, I ran the Retford Half Marathon steady in under 2 hours which felt amazing.
It’s way too complex to open into it here but later my brain damage flared and my left side went weak on me. I feel like that’s hit and miss now. At the time of writing this I’m back running 50 miles per week steady. I have a hole in my heart (PFO) which almost certainly caused the stroke but has been there since birth! I’m on a waiting list to have the hole closed but until them it’s a risk for me to overexert, so I’m only running slow. I was told that 2 days after flogging myself on a 20:33 5k.
So initially within 48hrs without permission lol!!!
How has your perspective on life and running changed?
You don’t just shrug off a stroke. I’m blessed and grateful with my recovery but it’s changed me. Some days I’m not sure who I am anymore, I feel that different. Not in a confused manner as such but from a perspective of I can feel so completely different to how I used to in certain situations. Something that used to worry me doesn’t or vice versa.
What I can say is the huge and positive shift is that I can feel just how special, valuable and fragile life is. I could have a second stroke that kills me at any given point is how I feel, whether it be true or not. Death feels close. But that’s no bad thing to have your mortality stamped on you. I feel more centred now, more anchored to life and a feeling of being alive and wanting to live.
I feel an urgency to create, potentially write because although I’m not a writer I can’t sing, dance, sculpt, paint, play an instrument – you get the point! But I also feel a stronger desire to be free and follow my instinct even more so – and that was always strong within me. I actually value achievement less and instead place an emphasis on the journey, experience and adventure more now. I feel life is not meant to be so bloody serious all the time, go play!
I feel closer to my children and hope I’m around long enough to help instill the right values to help them grow, I feel that’s all they truly need. For now I will enjoy and love them in our special moments.
As for my running – well that’s pretty simple. I get the hole in my heart closed and return to long distance running. Or I don’t close the hole and return to long distance running! My mind seriously doubted it which pushed me to the depths, but my heart and gut instinct never did doubt that I come back. I will also enjoy more solo adventures, fastpacking, the stuff I love. My dreams feel alive and there is no reason to suggest I can cause another stroke from running. Clearly my biggest risk is having a stroke alone in a very remote area. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Remarkable Ronnie. Life lessons for us all 🙂
Tell us more about the “Mindset of a Champion” framework and how this informs your coaching.
I certainly can’t claim the term to be mine and the term ‘Mindset of a Champion’ seems to be a more commonly used today that perhaps it ever has been. Yet, the framework I will claim! In working with individual goals for so long patterns have clearly emerged to represent what does and does not lead to success. To simply things here we must fully assume the ‘goal’ is right for the individual and will cultivate fulfillment in its pursuit and achievement. In my observations it’s very common that the motivation behind a goal is actually happiness, which is never going to work. You need to want the goal for its own sake, then happiness follows as a by-product. There is a subtle difference which makes a huge difference.
It’s a pretty deep and complex model I worked on some years ago and I don’t feel it appropriate within this blog to fully open out into the Real, Raw and Relentless elements. But in short we must pick a goal that we can fully dedicate to in order to keep consistent in its pursuit, then persevere when we hit inevitable challenges. Lose anyone of those three key behaviours I’ve witnessed over the years and the triangle becomes incomplete and opens up to let the goal escape, or certainly diminish in its quality.
Ultimately in my coaching I am looking for all three behaviours to be present in my runners and if we haven’t got them, it’s likely the goal is not correct. The journey towards the goal and the vision of achieving it needs to hold the power to inspire.
I like the visual element of that triangular framework. Will explore this more.
What do you learn from the people you coach?
I know a fair few people that over the years have regretted bringing work into their area of play. A disgruntled ski instructor, a frustrated climbing instructor and so on. Which makes a lot of sense to me as they are teaching when really all they want to do is go do the activity unrestrained. Clearly, those that enjoy teaching would have a different outlook, but when a purist takes to such a vocation I’ve seen them struggle.
For me coaching has enhanced my experience of running, perhaps partly because it does not impede on my freedom to run. I’m not restricted by the role but conversely propelled and motivated by it. I get to hear and share views with many runners in a private and intimate way. Most interestingly and yet most difficult to summarise is learning to understand why people set themselves and pursue huge challenges as 95% of runners I coach are ultra runners.
There are many things I learn from my runners but I do feel most profoundly it is the need to stay hungry! There is an overwhelming drive so many of them possess. I see their consistency. I’m given the fortunate objective view through a window into their world and from that I can see their hard work and the most important factor – daily commitment.
Nobody achieves big things without a lot of sacrifice and hard work. Most would agree on this point, but I witness it everyday. I’m engulfed by the habits of winners. It’s my daily bread. For me to be their coach I must live with an integrity to training and running otherwise I’m letting them down. I live by example and I hope that message comes through. In society we are often hoodwinked into seeing someone’s excellence as a finished article as though they woke up one day that way. I see the journey more than the success. I also see that rarely does training and life go all your way, it’s how you respond that is key. Yes, I know that is a cliche, but it is true and up there with the most important things I’ve learned from my runners.
That in itself is very insightful.
Okay, last question for you Ronnie… Any key advice for runners far & wide? Could be someone embarking on a Couch to 5k or their first ultra.
My initial piece of advice is to find a coach / trainer / physio / chiropractor / osteopath / massage therapist trained in gait analysis and have your run style looked at and improved. It is a myth you just run how you run. I see runners improve the rhythm of their running all the time leading to an improved stride and performance, also reducing injury.
Secondly, I would urge runners to think about what they want from their running and what events (if any) really excite them. I still feel the best reason to run is for the act of running itself in nature, but it sure is great to have a goal that motivates you too. As a coach I believe it’s possible to strike a perfect balance between training, the joy of running and hitting big goals.