You might have thought the London Marathon finished more than a week ago, with Prince Harry handing out the winners’ medals outside Buckingham Palace.
Well, for one competitor, it still isn’t over. In fact, Claire Lomas, a 32-year-old event rider paralysed in a riding accident five years ago, is just over halfway through the race, and she’s not due to finish until a week today.
Where the Kenyan winners of the marathon — Wilson Kipsang and Mary Keitany — took just over two hours to complete the 26 miles and 385 yards course, Claire is due to take around 40 hours, spread over 17 days, moving at little more than half a mile an hour.
Claire Lomas, a 32-year-old from Melton in Leicestershire is attempting to complete the London Marathon in a special 'bionic suit'
Walking the eighth mile of the marathon with her, along Creek Road, near Greenwich, I could — almost — appreciate how overwhelming her ordeal is, even with the help of the revolutionary new bionic suit that helps to power her along.
The weather has turned rotten. Thick pulses of horizontal rain thud into Claire’s green waterproofs, and are driven into her face by a bitter westerly wind.
For her, the streets of London aren’t the fairly flat, well-paved surface I’m navigating; they are a series of irritating, exhausting obstacles, not helped by a varnished slick of rainwater.
High-profile support: Claire Lomas with tennis star Tim Henman and his wife Lucy Henman during her charity walk
We have to pause to climb over the root of a plane tree that buckles the pavement and raises it by several inches. The plastic insulation cover over a power line is enough to stop Claire dead in her tracks.
And yet a smile rarely leaves her lips as she negotiates each laborious step. Ever since she began the race on April 22 with 38,000 competitors, she has been lifted by extreme goodwill — from celebrities, such as Tim Henman, Clare Balding and Sir Matthew Pinsent, who have walked with her, and from her family.
The day I tag along, her aunt Sue Lomas is walking with us. The rest of her close-knit farming family from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, have been joining her in shifts — including her husband Dan, a research scientist she met a year after the accident, and her 14-month-old daughter, Maisie, who wears a ‘Please Support Mummy’ T-shirt.
The London Marathon is going to take Clare around 40 hours, spread over 17 days
Everywhere she walks, people cheer her on, tossing money into a donations bucket as she passes.
Four builders applaud from the scaffolding of a tower block; mothers with pushchairs rush up and empty their wallets into the bucket.
As I walk with her, she has already raised £31,000 towards her £50,000 target. And by last night it had topped £48,000 on her Just Giving fundraising page.
‘It’s been amazing since the start,’ says Claire. ‘The crowd went mad when I made my first step — it’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. For the first three-quarters of a mile, they were shouting and encouraging me. People were chucking money out of windows.’
But, after the first hour, the vast crowds of runners and well-wishers had thinned out. By the time Claire and her supporters reached the first mile marker, the marathon organisers were packing up.
Claire Lomas with her number one fan, her 14-month-old daughter Maisie, who was wearing a t-shirt which said 'Please support Mummy'
To begin with, the roads were closed to traffic and — being flatter than the pavement — they were that much easier to walk along. Once they reopened, she had to deal with the lethal cracks, kerbs and flagstone edges of London’s streets.
‘The rough bits of ground make it quite hard,’ she says, with cheery understatement. ‘And the pain in my arms can get pretty bad.’
It is her arms and the shoulders that take most of the strain. Claire has a T4 spinal injury — which means she is paralysed from the chest down. So she depends on her upper body and her extraordinary power suit, which was developed in Israel.
Claire is the first person in Britain to wear the suit. She has been using it for only three months but already she can walk around in it unaided at home, though she still needs someone to support her on London’s dodgy pavements.
Clare was paralysed five years ago when she was thrown from her horse and hit a tree, fracturing her ribs, neck and back
The contraption stretches down either side of her chest to her calves. When she leans forward, pressure pads in the £43,000 suit send messages to battery-powered motors: an upper motor moves her hips, and a lower one bends her knees. A black fob strapped to her wrist acts like a remote control, ordering the suit to sit, stand, walk or negotiate stairs.
Still, for all the levels of mobility brought by technology, progress is slow. When Claire’s aunt, ahead of us, fails to see us approaching, Claire leans back in the 35kg suit to tell it to stop, but the pressure pad fails to register the command, and Claire lurches forward with an unintended step, nearly colliding with her aunt.
‘Oh, I almost kicked you in the bum there,’ says Claire, as her smile broadens and her dimples deepen.
Her courage seems particularly admirable when you consider that, as far as her physical sensations are concerned, she is floating in thin air, propelled along by a machine she cannot feel.
Every evening, in her Holborn hotel, she has to have intense physiotherapy and check her legs for injuries that she hasn’t felt. She often needs painkillers.
‘I was very sore yesterday,’ she says, in a matter-of-fact tone, free of self-pity.
The incredible £43,000 suit sends messages to battery-powered hips, and a lower motor bends her knees
Claire came up with the idea of doing the marathon a year ago, and has been training since January, with the help of a standing frame and an adapted exercise bike. She has also been skiing on a sit-ski, a seat precariously attached to a single ski.
‘I did my first black run on my last holiday, and only fell over three times,’ she says.
As well as following her sporting pursuits, and bringing up her daughter, Claire has a jewellery design company, trains people in event and cross-country riding, and is planning to write a book.
Still, for all her cheeriness and determination to continue a physical existence, adapting to paralysis has been a daunting task.
She did get on a horse again after her accident, but the vast change in the nature of riding when paralysed meant she didn’t stick to it. ‘It took a long time to deal with the accident,’ she says. ‘About half the time now, I forget I’m paralysed but, still, you never get used to it, and you never accept it.
‘You need dedication with horses and they give you dreams, hopes and challenges. I suddenly didn’t have any challenges, and I couldn’t just do nothing. I had to find new things — that’s why I’m doing this.’
A spinal injury is devastating, but particularly for someone used to an active life. Claire had ridden since she could walk — her mother is a keen horsewoman, too.
By the time of her accident, Claire was one of the top riders in the country. She had already competed at the elite Burghley Horse Trials and was all set to appear at the prestigious Badminton when she entered the Osberton Horse Trials in Nottinghamshire in May 2007.
Clare has been joined along the way so far by Tim Henman (pictured), Clare Balding and Sir Matthew Pinsent
‘Everything was going well until I had a misunderstanding with a tree,’ she laughs. As she rode through a forest clearing, her horse just clipped it. ‘It wasn’t the horse’s fault,’ she hastens to add.
Thrown off, Claire hit the tree and fractured her ribs, neck and back. Her lung was punctured, she had to have a tracheotomy to help her breathe, and she was in intensive care for ten days. Then she contracted pneumonia, but it was the back injury that was the most damaging of all.
‘I knew immediately what I’d done,’ she said, ‘I’d always get up after a fall. But I couldn’t move.’
From the beginning, Claire was determined to do all she could do to improve her mobility. She left Sheffield Hospital after eight weeks — the shortest time anyone with her type of injury had spent in the hospital.
‘Some people think you can’t improve, but you certainly won’t if you sit in a chair and do nothing — your legs would waste away, too,’ she says.
For a brief moment, I appreciate how lucky I am as I retrace our steps to pick up my bicycle. It took Claire an hour to walk less than a mile; the return journey takes me ten minutes.
Running a marathon in two hours is impressive enough. For some people, walking one in over two weeks is even more staggering.
■ To sponsor Claire Lomas for Spinal Research, visit justgiving.com/Claire-Lomas
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-21...l#ixzz1tbKdJMPa