3rd April 2017
At age 63, Steve Watts ran one of the world’s toughest marathons to raise money for charity. As if that’s not impressive enough, he was the first man to complete the race with a pacemaker.
Steve vividly remembers an early project in school in 1963 when he was ten, learning about Hillary and Tenzing conquering Everest.
He even remembers telling his brother, “One day me and you are going to follow in the footsteps of Hillary and Tenzing.” Then he paused, smiled and said, “More about that later.” Steve then took us on his life’s journey from that first school project culminating in his recent trip to the Himalayas with his brother Peter, sister-in-law Carla and son Matthew.
Steve Watts is a runner, a fundraiser and a storyteller. He talked about, his time in the army and his job as a courier and salesman, but it was his running that had caught our attention. He said, “I remember reading about a chap called Joss Naylor who was a sheep farmer and fell runner, and amongst other amazing records, ran 72 lakeland peaks within 24 hours.” Steve was fully animated talking about Joss. He wrote to him and asked to meet him at his farm, saying he had a painting of Joss he wished him to sign. Naylor agreed and Steve went to Wast Water to meet him. It was the first time he’d been to the Lakes and standing at the bottom of the brooding grey Wast Water looking up to Joss’ farm, he instantly fell in love with the place. Joss came off the fell, took one look at Steve who had just finished a cigarette and said, “Thee lad, needs to stop thee smoking, lose some waaait and get on thee fells.” From that point on Steve packed in the fags, cut down on the booze and started fell running. Three years into his running he attempted the Bob Graham Round with a friend but pulled out with severe cramps after 12 hours. The run gave Steve a taste of the immense challenge of top fell running. He was hooked. He attempted it the following year and made it….42 peaks and 72 miles within 24 hours. He picked up his Bob Graham certificate from Joss Naylor, which thrilled Steve and brought a wry smile from the sheep farmer. An article about his experiences appeared in a local newspaper and shortly after that he was contacted by Alan Jones, a work colleague. He asked Steve if he could help raise money for one of his neighbour’s children who was receiving treatment at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and needed their own ventilator machine. So Steve decided to complete a 58-mile run with his dog. They did the distance in just over eight hours raising more than three thousand pounds.
A number of months later Steve’s son Matthew was rushed to Booth Hall Children’s Hospital. While there Steve spoke to the consultant who remembered him from his previous fundraising feat, she asked if he’d be interested in helping them raise money for the scanner appeal. He agreed to help and was given a two-year secondment from his current employers to help raise the target of £1 million to pay for the first children’s CT scanner. He threw himself into the role and organised a number of large scale events. One such event called ‘Children running for Children’ saw over 7,000 children take part in a family fun run that was witnessed by thousands of people. The event raised over £130,000. In just 18 cram-packed months they managed to hit that amazing target. After reaching the total, the research and development team at Booth Hall asked Steve to stay on as the fundraising and events manager. While in the role, he set up Krypton Factor Assault Course events, ran the London Marathon and climbed Kilimanjaro as well as many other achievements.
Steve spent a number of intense years as fundraising manager for the research and development team at the children’s hospital, but decided to step back for a while concentrating on family life and, as he said, “get a normal job”. One day though, in his late 50s he fell ill and subsequently had to have a pacemaker fitted. Lying on the medical table he said, “All I could think about was my brother who’d died of a heart attack only four years earlier.” He thought he would never run again, but with excellent medical support he slowly made the road to recovery. Steve said, “The pacemaker gave me another chance, a new lease of life. This is where Everest comes into the story. It was my 60th birthday and my younger brother Peter gave me a birthday card with a few numbers inside.” It turned out that these numbers were the coordinates for Everest’s base camp. The birthday present was for both of them to go to the base camp and then summit Kala Patthar in the land of the giants.
After seven wonderful days of hiking they approached Periche, a village before base camp to see a helicopter deliver two body bags and an injured person. As soon as they were dropped off, the helicopter headed back up the mountain. “We knew something terrible had happened. An avalanche buried 16 Sherpas on Everest that day making it the mountain’s worst tragedy.” However, the sherpas in charge of Steve’s group, decided to take them to base camp and then to the summit of Kala Patthar. “The journey up was tough, my brother nearly didn’t make the summit, but those few days gave us a whole new respect for the people that earn their living up there in the land of the giants.”
What happened at Everest really affected Steve. After returning home he said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the families that would be hugely affected by the loss of a loved one and the consequent lack of income.” This was when the fundraising bug re-emerged. “I promised to return and do the Everest marathon, raising as much as I could for the Himalayan Trust UK and the British Heart Foundation.” So Steve and his son Matthew set about raising money and organising fundraising opportunities under the name, ‘Heartbeat for Everest’. At 63 he would become one of the oldest people to complete the marathon as well as the only person to complete it with a pacemaker. Over the next year Steve spoke at lots of schools and in local papers talking about his experiences at Everest and his forthcoming record breaking run, and his aim to raise thousands of pounds for the two charities.
Eventually, Steve and his family went out to the Himalayas to focus on the task at hand and purely by chance he got chatting to a lady in his group, who apparently worked for the company that made his pacemaker, Medtronic. She spoke to her firm on her return and Steve was invited to fly out after the trip to Minneapolis to speak at Medtronic’s 40th anniversary and to also meet the team who made his pacemaker. Steve flew out with his wife to Minneapolis and said, “To actually meet the people who have given me a new lease of life was amazing, I felt truly blessed.”
Also on the trip whilst coming back from base camp with his family, Steve’s son Matthew noticed something which disturbed them all greatly. “Returning from base camp we were taking some pictures of Everest when Matt noticed a body lying in a gully below.” Steve ran down to discover a porter hunched over in the foetal position, suffering from hypothermia. They managed to get him out of the gully and back to the village further down the valley. Steve said, “When the porter came back to his senses, his first thoughts were to get back up the mountain and grab the load he was carrying. Without that he wouldn’t get paid and couldn’t feed his family.” He was in no state to go anywhere so Steve talked to a number of marathon runners in the camp, they managed to get some money together to pay for the porter’s medical bills and enough to see him safe so he didn’t have to get back up the mountain to fetch his load or work for a month.
So after meeting someone from Medtronic and helping to get a porter to safety, Steve was finally ready to face the toughest marathon in the world. He was focused on finishing and started at a comfortable pace arriving at the half way point 40th out of 170 runners. He said, “I was three and a half hours in when I fell and bust my toe. The front of my trainer had ripped off and my big toe was in a bad way.” He couldn’t run anymore and had to limp at times but he wasn’t one for stopping and completed the race in just under ten hours. Asked why he would even think about running a marathon at his age with a pacemaker he said, “Life isn’t a rehearsal. I’m truly blessed with the support of my son Matthew, daughter-in-law Helen and wife Christina. You’ve got to grasp every opportunity, and when you can, get out on these hills.”
These three events… having a pacemaker fitted, witnessing the tragic events at base camp and helping save a porter’s life seemed to have re-ignited a desire to help and to share his story. Steve said, “There is a potential to do things with Medtronic but really my focus at the moment is ‘Lakeland Walks and Talks,’ which is something I have set up and I truly love doing it.” He wants to spread his enthusiasm for the hills and inspire young people in particular by taking them out on the fells and sampling the majesty of it all. “Whether those young people are in schools, whether it’s an individual, or groups or families… if I can inspire people to get out in the great outdoors and experience life then I’ll be a happy man.”