Friday's Focus: An Interview With Gerry Dance
8 min read

Friday's Focus: An Interview With Gerry Dance

Today I am talking to Gerry Dance who does remarkable things, despite his Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). You can follow Gerry on Twitter, Facebook and RealBuzz. You can also support him by sponsoring him in his fundraising efforts. Lets jump right into it.

Thank you Gerry for taking time to answer a few questions.

My pleasure and I hope anyone reading this will get a picture of AS and spread the word about all the great work NASS does for those of us who have this very painful condition, help to raise awareness and so speed up diagnosis time.

For those those that don’t know you (yet), why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? And what do you do in your spare time?

Well, I’ll be 53 this year, I’m one of 4 brothers (I’m the third and the only one with AS). I’ve been married to Mandy for 20 years and we have two daughters aged 18 & 19. Both will be leaving home this September to go to Uni so it will be mighty quiet! I don’t have a great deal of spare time but I walk our Border Collie daily, run around for the girls and tinker with my Classic bike (a 1965 Triumph Tiger 90).  Mandy & I run our own gardening business which we set up in 1999. This was the year I left British Airways because of my AS.  I worked for BA, firstly as a Boeing 747 ground engineer and then was selected for Cabin Crew (that’s how Mandy & I met, in Barbados!). Before that I was in the Royal Air Force. I joined up from school, at 18 and was selected and trained on Tornadoes as an airframes mechanic . This is where I discovered running. I was overweight and asthmatic and needed to get fit. I tried running up the hill at the back of camp in RAF Halton and it nearly killed me! I wasn’t going to let that hill win so I kept on trying. Before long I was hooked. The weight fell off, the breathing became easier and I got fitter and faster. One thing about The Forces, if they spot a possible sportsman they back you all the way. I soon began to represent the RAF in the UK and Germany, where I was based, running all distances up to marathon distance. It wasn’t long before I was up with the elite runners, on the front line. I loved it, I found it easy, I flew round. Any aches and joint pains I had over this time was always put down to running. It wasn’t until I was working as Crew and I had a really bad  flare up on a working trip to Australia, in 1990, that the BA doctor in Sydney suggested I might have AS. I’d never heard of it and couldn’t even spell it! He was right though and after suffering 10 years of back and hip pain, I finally knew what was causing it.

Your ‘famous’ for doing charity runs for NASS in a bright orange Morph suit. The orange part is obviously in support of NASS, but why the Morph suit? Where did the idea come from?

Blame that one on my wife! My days of PB’s and real racing were over but I knew the running kept me fit (blooming painful most of the time) but it’s been my saviour. We were looking for something bright orange to represent NASS and Mandy found the suit. It has a black skeleton on the front; this represented the enemy…our bones! At first I couldn’t see a thing out of the mask but Mandy put some tiny holes in the eye area and mouth so at least I could get an idea where I was going and drink water, which is equally important! It’s hot in there but the whole thing is like running in one big compression sock! The crowds loved it, I loved it, and it was a totally new running experience. I even ran the Amsterdam Marathon in it, last October, where it was a huge hit, being orange!

You’ve done the London marathon twice already, and competing again for the third time on the 13th of April. In fact, this will be your 17th marathon in total? Do you have any goals for this years London marathon? And what’s your personal best time?

Well, the last two marathons wearing the suit, I ran 4.13 and 4.11. I’d like to get round in under 4.15 if I can. My main aim is to raise awareness for NASS. I do worry that people might get the wrong impression of an AS sufferer when they see me running.  I must stress, I am unusual but I still suffer every day, every night. I live on drugs, I can’t do without them but I was an athlete before the AS struck. That is the difference.  I do it because I can, for those who would love to be out there running or just walking. I have a great consultant down in Bath, Dr Raj Sengupta and he is fully supportive of my running. He probably thinks I’m a bit of a nutter but he doesn’t say, ‘don’t run, it’s bad for the bones’. Exercise in any form is the only way to stop the AS from taking over our body. Oh yes, my PB was back in 1982 in the very first Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham, 2 hours and 48 minutes. No coaching, no formal training, a Mess diet, and a burning desire to run as fast as I could.

The London marathon is not the only run you are completing this year in aid of NASS. You are attempting 7 events in total! In fact, you have already completed one marathon this year. How did it go?

That’s right, I ran The Steyning Stinger Trail Marathon on 2nd March. This was my first attempt at trail running and it was tough! The softer ground is better for my joints but the combination of uneven ground and my fused hip often finds me flat on my face! This race was on the South Downs, freezing cold and just after all that terrible wind and rain. The track was really muddy and slick and we all came back plastered! I did it in 4 hrs 58 mins! Oh, and no I didn’t wear the Morph suit!

So what’s next? What are the other events your competing in this year? And what’s an Ultra race?

After the London Marathon I’m stepping up the mileage because I am attempting to run The Two Castles and an Abbey Trail Ultra Marathon (50 miles) in Northern Cyprus. An Ultra is anything further than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. I say attempting to run because this really is a tough challenge. It is considered one of the most challenging and picturesque mountain trail marathons in the world. I may not make the cut off. It has to be completed in 15 and half hours. It will be hot, mountainous and like nothing I have ever experienced before. We have to follow red dots on the rocks and anyone who knows me will wonder how on earth I am going to follow dots! I get lost going to our local shops! Mandy is coming, of course and has done all the organising, flights, hotel, equipment and clothing, food, medication etc. All I’ve got to do is run it!

And there’s the Snowdonia marathon in October too! You’re not running that one alone are you?

No I’m not. My ‘virtual friends’ on the will be joining me. We met through running, or going to run the London Marathon. They are such an inspiration to me. All my running career I’ve run alone until last year, when I found the site. They are so encouraging, some of them say I’m an inspiration to them! I can’t get my head round that! They ran for NASS, donated, bought orange clothes, silly wigs, really got behind the event (in September 8th 2013). The idea was dreamed up by a lovely Irish runner called Oggie, so we named it ‘The Great Oggie Run‘! You can see many of them in the article in the latest NASS news (back page). Oh yes and we all have aka’s, I’m known as Berlin Bolt! I’ve run 7 Berlins and one early race, I was on the front line and literally bolted off too fast, inexperienced and young!

You are also taking part in the Walk Your AS Off 2014 campaign for the Orange Apples team. Are you wearing your pedometer on the marathons? Is there somewhere to clip it onto that Morph suit of yours?

Ah ha! Gillian Eames, our team leader, has already asked me where I’m going to clip my pedometer!  I’ve had a few suggestions! Yes, I’ll be wearing it in London. I’ve been clocking up the steps for the Orange Apples since we started counting and I think it’s a brilliant idea. There’s still time for anyone to join in, we count every step up to 3rd May, which is World AS Day!

You obviously clock up some serious miles. How does it affect your AS? Do you have any tips for others? How do you manage to put your body through this large amount of stress?

I do enjoy running, even though I suffer a lot of pain. I sometimes think twice about going out, especially when it’s wet, cold and dark. I know once I’m out there, I usually feel better for doing it. I always suffer at night. I don’t sleep more than a couple of hours at a time and I can’t miss my meds. Fatigue is a huge problem for me and I long for a complete night’s sleep! I regularly have to double my dose of painkillers and NSAIDs, which is not good for the stomach but I can’t manage without them, I’ve tried many times and paid the consequences. I have sometimes paid entry fees for a race, trained and prepared but then, on the day, I’ve gone no further than a mile and I’ve had to stop. Sometimes I’ve not even made it to the start line as my hips or other joints are too bad to walk, let alone run. I often get this in training too, where I don’t even make it off the drive at home! But that’s the nature of AS, in my case, very unpredictable.

Any form of exercise is good for AS sufferers. NASS have some great booklets and DVDs with a proper range of movements designed especially for AS. There are some great NASS groups around the country, meeting every week for exercise, some have hydrotherapy and are a place to meet and talk to those who know what you are going through. As for running, it’s not possible for everyone but if you can or you want to try, start slowly. Don’t go too far too soon, set yourself a target, like run to a lamppost. Walk to the next. Take it step by step.

I wish you the best of luck with all your events this year, and I hope people are generous in supporting you. Any plans for next year? Do you plan on pushing yourself even more? A marathon in the arctic perhaps? Or are you taking a well deserved rest?

Thanks for that! I’d really like to make all this worthwhile and raise loads of money for NASS if I can.  So, if I get through the Ultra in Cyprus I’ve got the Bath Trail Marathon in July, then the Snowdonia Marathon with a bunch of my RealBuzz buddies. Finally, if I’m still standing, I’m aiming to do the Brecon Beacons Ultra (46 miles) in November.  I really hope to put NASS into the spotlight, which would be terrific.  As for next year…….Arctic marathon? Now there’s a thought….!

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