Trombone Marathon

I’m not sure whether to call this a race report or concert review but here goes!

It’s strange what a person can get used to.

Pre-diagnosis, I found a way to normalise an alarming frequency of toilet trips and shrugged off the pain of having a big lump of cancer in my guts that was starting to stop anything else get through.  With music, I’ve gotten used to playing the trombone for hours on end, as well as patiently waiting for my turn in orchestras whilst the strings carve away.  I’ve gotten used to running for dozens of hours at a time, without really stopping – just like a string player, I guess.  Well… as of this week, I seem to have become quite accustomed to having cameras and microphones shoved in my face!

My marathon related media storm started off with the publication of May’s issue of Runner’s World Magazine.  The phone call I received from Joe the editor asking me to be on the cover was one of the most bizarre of my short life.  For all I know they’d usually pay and were in fact getting a good deal out of me, but I didn’t get anywhere close to considering this as I accepted in a kind of bewildered trance as I took this in. You see – I’ve always been a complete non-athlete, who was always picked last for football or anything else that involved aerobic activity.  When I attempted the hurdles at a primary school sports day, everyone, including my own mother, thought I was putting on some kind of comedy act in the ridiculous way I failed to jump over them.  

Fast-forward to the now-familiar ‘hero shot’ of me standing there on the Mall dressed like a runner, in proper running gear, like I’m meant to be there.  Yes I’ve got a trombone in my hands too.  Let’s be honest – simply running the London Marathon, even with terminal cancer, isn’t enough to get the kind of attention I’ve had recently.  With a field of over 50,000 runners, it’s all about USP.  So if you combine terminal cancer, distance running, charity promotion and a trombone, I guess you get a story that no one else can replicate, and three different PR operations have been on my case.

This didn’t stop me being gazumped by fellow bowel cancered runner and musical type, Adele Roberts, who’s got a stoma based world record and a book out.  I was at one point offered a slot on Loraine Kelly, but I guess she has the edge with this stuff and rightly so.  I suppose with daytime tv and the need to ‘keep it light’ then it’s better to have a survivor on than someone in my position. In general, people need a kind of hope that my story sadly can’t provide.

I’m a better fit for, say ITV news, and that’s where I found myself last Thursday at about 6:20pm, reeling off the particulars of my upcoming marathon attempt for about the seventh time in five days.  I don’t have much in the way of behind the scenes revelations as most of the media I’ve done has involved outside broadcasts and phone interviews, but in the case of this particular studio visit, the studio was very… green.  The desk is real, but everything else is a covered in green screen, which meant my green Macmillan Tshirt was out.  So were the copy of Runner’s World Magazine and green trombone.  So much for giving their PRs a coup with some high profile airtime.  I got a good deal of messaging out, but was cut short just as I was about to plug my justgiving page.

But that page has gotten around and I’m astounded by the number of donations received which, at the time of writing stand at over £26,000.  That they reference where they saw me shows that I didn’t need to directly mention the website in order for people to take an interest and look up my name.  Even though my story has received national level coverage, and I’ve scrolled my way through upwards of eight hundred supportive comments that make me out to be some kind of inspirational hero figure, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’m anything special or the ultra comeback/trombone marathon have made me worthy of any particular praise.  I’m simply doing all this because I still can.  I’m lucky my body lets me live the life I’ve currently got (well – now chemo’s on hold for a bit anyway) and get out of the house to get running.

Maybe the media profile is getting to my head – this blog was meant to be about running a marathon!  Well it’s fair to say that – running and music wise – I came into this race woefully unprepared.  I guess a three month block of chemo does that to you and the most I managed pre-race was a super slow 20k round the forest and with the trombone, 10k around a lake.  There’s an old adage that you only realise the benefit of training when you haven’t done enough and in the ten days or so before marathon day (after I’d fought off a nasty post-chemo infection) this running thing felt extraordinarily difficult.  I ran four miles about four times and although each was a little easier than the last, I really didn’t want to go out for any more.  It’s this kind of ‘back to square one’ feeling that really makes it hit home that I’m a shadow of my former self.  At one point, I was running 25k twice a week in run commutes, then two runs of 20 miles or more at the weekend.

Plus I was slower, with 10 minute miles being a bit hard to maintain, when at my peak, 7:40 or so was a breeze.  As marathon day approached, I convinced myself, and a load of reporters, that I’d be one of the final finishers working their way along the Mall, right against the 8 hour cutoff.  My wildest exceptions had me finishing inside six. By race morning, my brother Jon bore the brunt of the pre-race nerves that had held off until that point due to the whirlwind of media that had kind of taken my mind off things.  After one last TV interview 10 minutes before showtime, I arrived at the start line, trombone in hand and speaker in my waist pack.

But the speaker refused to connect.  ‘Sod this’ I thought, as I left it by the side of the road in order to save a little weight.  There will be more ways to connect with Bluetooth audio, but no more trombone marathons!  Well – I reckon this decision significantly enhanced my race for a few reasons.  Without fixed tracks to play along with, I was able to look to my surroundings and seek out inspiration.  Like the national anthems for people with flags on their backs or a quick burst of Jurassic Park when I saw an inflatable dinosaur in the crowd.  People responded when I asked for requests and it wasn’t just Johnny Briggs, although that one came up a few times.  Plus I could choose how long a burst of tune to play out before I needed a breather and I could stop what I was doing to jam with the bands along the course, which I took every opportunity to do.

Yes this was a marathon.  Yes I went through plenty of peaks and troughs and gratefully grabbed a load of jelly babies from people by the side of the road.  There were times, like with all long runs where I found myself questioning my life choices.  But I can definitively call this the most enjoyable run of my short life.  Because it was also my biggest ever gig and the crowd loved it.  All it took was a quick honk to get a cheer, let alone a burst of ‘flight of the bumblebee’.  The high point of the day was undoubtedly the ELR water station when I fulfilled my promise of serenading Caroline Frith and having the entire running club join in with a chorus of Sweet Caroline.  To say Caroline deserved her own special moment that day is an understatement – find her story by searching ‘breast cancer runner’.

So far, so joyous!  But at one point, I was thrown into self doubt.  It’s amazing how one casual comment can have a huge effect on you.  I remember a volunteer at a ‘Rat Race’ ultra race commenting that being vegan must be why I looked so exhausted.  That floored me at an emotional low point and it wasn’t because I was the last finisher that I haven’t entered one of their races since.  Words matter when you’re suffering mid-race.  And when you’re at about mile 20 of a marathon with the end too far away to be considered ‘in sight’ an announcer jokingly asks ‘who’s picking up their pace to get away from the trombone?’ Well that really wasn’t at all helpful.  I kept going because I kept getting big cheers from the crowd but I was pretty worried about the other runners and maybe there were still some positive reactions from those around me – as much as is possible when everything hurts and you just want the ordeal to be over.

It’s possible that as the last mile ticked by and I approached the Mall, I was the only one who wasn’t so happy to see the end in sight.  Just as it was sinking in that I was going to finish, I started to reallyproperly take in the atmosphere of the greatest running party in the world.  Supporters lining both sides of the street standing there for hours on end, just oozing positivity from the fast of elite runners to the likes of me doing something silly for charity.  I started walking more than I needed to because I just didn’t want that moment to end.  The final countdown turned into Superman into another sweet Caroline as I passed the 26 mile marker and completed the however many yards it is because some George or Edward was sitting a bit further away from the original London Marathon finish.  A strange wave of panic hit me.  What was I going to play as I crossed the finish line?  What ended the experience was fittingly improvisatory with a triumphant fanfare that was captured on the tv feed as all sorts of people, including my local MP, have sent me.

As a medal appeared round my neck, I struggled to find any coherent words to say to the official filmmakers who’d visited me at home the previous Friday,  but they found enough to string together for a video that has really done the rounds and produced an outpouring of humblingly positive messages that left me in no doubt that those running with me were appreciative of the presence of a running trombonist to the point I even appear to have helped them get through rough patches and even over the line.  Those kind words mean so much and have gone a long way towards making me forget about what that announcer thought of me.

After eventually gathering enough post-race wits to put some warm clothes on, I found my assembled family and friends for a big hug, which gave me enough warmth to stumble through one more interview and photo call before heading off for a huge post-race meal.

The next day, I took advantage of the free food offers that come with a marathon medal and enjoyed three lavish meals, including a fancy steak with a large group of ‘West Side Runnas’, who saw me eating alone and invited me over to join them.  The running community is amazing and brings people together and I was glad to be able to make this point in a radio interview later that evening.  I also grabbed a pizza with PB superstar Karan before we headed to a shop to get our medals engraved.

I wouldn’t normally bother to get a race medal engraved but this marathon was special. It was a unique achievement that is highly unlikely to be matched.  I didn’t just get it done and faster than expected.  This marathon represented the joy of running and music making combined to make a noise for charity and put a smile on people’s faces.

Let’s be uncomfortably honest for a second  – I won’t get another day out quite like this.  I’ll always cherish the experience and if can bring myself to believe that people enjoyed my contribution to this year’s London Marathon, maybe others will too.  It doesn’t have to be through running or music, but that’s how I  wholeheartedly expressed myself on Sunday.  More than any day since I was made aware of my certain fate, I felt like I was doing something with my life, that cancer had failed to limit me.  I won’t have many opportunities to feel this, but then, in that moment, I forgot I was dying and felt truly alive.

Take that caner. I won.


  1. Absolutely amazing read Nat
    You are a hero to me in both running and life
    Was great tracking you Sunday and seeing all the wonderful comments on various different social media posts.

    • Thank you!
      The comments have been overwhelming!

  2. You are brilliant Nat! So inspiring

  3. I’m just getting caught up with your latest shenanigans as expressed on this blog. What an unforgettable character you are! I’m sorry that my partner, Nicholas, and I are no longer in London to witness any of your musical/running adventures. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Xoxo 😘

  4. Nathaniel, I wish I had the words to fully express how much you have touched my heart. I am in awe of you and so admire your courage, determination, and passion for life and running. I’m a runner myself and it is the very foundation of my being, I honestly don’t know where I’d be without it! I’m so glad running has been there for you to support on the journey that you have been forced to take. And I’m also glad that you had the experience that you did at this year’s London Marathon. I was tracking you and just wow!! Absolutely amazing! Well done! Connecting with your story has really helped me recently to get my running mojo back after a bit of a dip, and also to find my lust for life. Thank you for all that you have shared.
    My dad is a bowel cancer survivor and my uncle sadly died from bowel cancer a few years ago. I do fear the disease will come my way at some point, and if it does I hope I can face it with some of the spirit that you have.
    Sending loving kindness to you and hoping you can continue to live a life of joy, as best you can (I’m stealing that as my new motto, if that’s ok?! 😁).

  5. Edit: I think your actual quote was live a life of joy, as much as you can. Sorry for misquoting you!! Either way, a good motto to live by 😊

  6. We were amazed that you managed to finish! Well done Super Nat! I think it is great that you have raised so much money for a great cause. It is important to rest now. Love from the Oldies!


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