Interview: Ivan Hollingsworth

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Whitley Bay-based dad Ivan is cycling 260 miles and running the equivalent of two marathons with no sleep on 28 October; he proved to us that he’s not mad and told us just why he wants to raise £500,000 for the Children’s Heart Unit in the name of his son

You must be very busy now with the big Half a Country, Half a Million fundraising challenge just over two weeks away.

Oh, I am. I have a day job as well, so it’s mad having to drop interviews into your diary on top of work and training, but fundraising events only work if you put them out there through the media. So it’s a good thing – I’d be worried if people didn’t want to speak to me. 

What is your son Seb’s story?

Seb was born 11 January 2009, and within a few hours the staff at North Tyneside hospital detected that something wasn’t right with his heart. He was born at 10pm, and by lunchtime the next day he was being blue-lighted to the Freeman Hospital. He was only 15 hours old when he had the ultra-sound scan and the doctors identified a major heart defect. My wife Nadine and I were told that he would have to have major surgery when he was a year old. They also said that if he didn’t have the surgery, he wouldn’t reach his second birthday – so it was very black and white. 

Seb ended up having surgery a lot earlier than anticipated, didn’t he?

Children can have what doctors call ‘blue spells’, which is when deoxygenated blue blood pumps round the body so that the child goes limp and blue, and Seb had two or three fairly serious ones. This prompted the hospital to put him to the top of the surgical waiting list. He ended up having emergency open-heart surgery when he was just 16 weeks old. You can measure these situations by how much attention the medical staff give you, because if they pay you a lot, it means your child is really not very well. When the number of doctors around Seb’s bed started to drop, we realised he was getting better. 

How did your fundraising for the Children’s Heart Unit Foundation initially start?

I hadn’t heard of CHUF until our experience. My wife and I hadn’t been prolific fundraisers before that – I’ve raised money for the odd charity here and there. People always raise money because someone’s passed away, so it’s great to be able to do it because Seb’s here – he’s alive. I just felt indebted to the heart unit, and wanted to give something back. Seb will need more surgery and I have zero control over his health, so all I can do is raise money to improve the hospital’s equipment or environment for Seb and other children.

What does Seb make of his dad’s fundraising challenges and how does he get involved?

He’s so funny – he thinks his daddy’s an absolute superhero and he idolises me. But that’s never how we’ve brought him up. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve never made him wear a badge saying ‘I’m sick and I can’t do stuff’. So we kind of just get on with life. I watch Ninja Warrior with Seb a lot because my best mate Ben Shephard is one of the hosts, and the other day we were driving on our way to taekwondo, and I asked Seb what he thinks about his dad getting up early in the morning to train. He replied, ‘I think it’s really good because it’ll make you strong enough to win Ninja Warrior’, which is a brilliant response. He’s not poorly on a day to day basis so he’s very positive about everything. 

Your Half a Country, Half a Million challenge is the biggest yet at 312 miles – do you have any big worries or are you feeling fairly confident at this stage?

I’m bricking it. It’s genuinely the hardest thing I’ll ever do. It’s going to take longer than 24 hours so I’ll have sleep deprivation which is always difficult, and 260 miles on a bike is an awful long way to cycle. I’m stronger, fitter and more prepared for this than anything else before in my life, but I’ve just got to hope that my mental and emotional strength pull through – you can’t prepare for that. I will finish it, but I don’t know how much pain I’m going to go through or how long it’ll take. 

You’ve got structured stops planned every 50 miles – how will you be spending these breaks? 

I’ve got an amazing friend called Nick Gilks who has supported me since 2012 and does sports massage, so he’ll be there the entire 300-plus miles trying to mend me at the stops. I’ll also be doing interviews because this fundraiser won’t work if it only reaches my own network, so I really want it to go wider. It relies on the power of social media – I don’t want to be a superhero, I just need to be really honest with people, whether that’s about my emotional drive, or the level of physical pain I’m in at any given point. I don’t know how much people will engage with it because I’m not John Bishop or Eddie Izzard, so I’m just hoping for the best. 

Why is this going to be your final challenge? 

Sometimes you just know when to call something, even if it’s for really positive reasons. I’ve told Seb’s story for eight years, I’ve done seven Coast to Coasts, I’ve skied down a mountain in a mankini, I’ve run 100 miles in 24 hours. There are two key reasons why I’m stopping now – the first is my body, and how much I’ve put it through, and the second is my family. These challenges have been a huge commitment for me, and it’s also a sacrifice for Seb, Nadine and our 17 month-old daughter Imogen. Me getting up at 5am every morning is not conducive to being a half-decent husband and dad. I’m a bit of a nightmare to live with really – I spend my evenings on the phone or with my dodgy achilles in a bucket of ice. And if we raise half a million pounds now, what a great way to end. 

Most people aren’t as physically fit as you are – what other things can people in a similar situation to your family do to give back to CHUF?

A lot of people struggle with that because they think that they have to do something big – but everything helps, whether it’s entering a local 5K race or doing a cake sale. And charities like CHUF are really crying out for volunteers. We’ve got a CHUF shop just outside ward 23 at the the Freeman Hospital, but we need volunteers. If you can give up a few hours on a Sunday, that’s a fantastic way to support CHUF which genuinely brings money into the charity.

Ivan’s final fundraiser for CHUF, Half a Country, Half a Million, takes place on 28 October, and will see him travelling from London to Newcastle. Visit www.chuf.org.uk/ivans-challenge to make a donation.

Published in: October 2017

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