Author Michael McEwan reveals why he'll be running to support Tommy's in 2019
In October 2016 Michael McEwan published a book about the London Marathon. Running the Smoke featured 26 chapters, each about an extraordinary runner who had taken on the London Marathon for a variety of inspiring reasons, from raising money for a hospital that had treated a premature baby to dealing with the loss of a loved one.
For several weeks after the book was published, Michael was routinely asked one question above all others: “What, Michael, is your story?”
Here is his reply…
“It was a perfectly legitimate question.
“Running The Smoke was my love-letter to the race; a celebration of its unique appeal as told through the voices and experiences of 26 extraordinary past finishers. Conspicuous by its absence was my own motivation for having taken part.
“Anticipating the question, I had a well-rehearsed reply: while the book was written by me, I didn’t want it to be about me, and most people agreed that was fair enough. But that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that I wasn’t ready to share my reason. Not while still in the midst of the pain and anguish it was causing my family and I.
|Michael at the Virgin Money London Marathon|
“Now, as I prepare to take part in the race for the third time this spring, and with circumstances having changed, I’m ready to share my own ‘chapter’, if you like. So, here goes.
“On Sunday 28 April this year, I will run the Virgin Money London Marathon on behalf of Tommy’s, the UK’s leading baby charity.
“Tommy’s exists for a heartbreakingly simple reason: to save babies’ lives. It does so by funding pioneering medical research into the causes and prevention of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. Its wonderful staff also provides exceptional support to couples and families going through the trauma of each of these.
“I can vouch for that support being exceptional. My wife and I have benefited from it.
"Let me back up for a second or two.
“Juliet and I met in 2006, married in 2011 and, in the summer of 2014, we decided the time was right to start a family.
“Easy, right? Not exactly.
“Between March 2015 and February 2016, we suffered three miscarriages.
“We first found out that we were expecting in January 2015. I was on a golf course in Florida when Jules phoned me with news that she was pregnant with our first child. Up until that point, I had been playing uncharacteristically well. The rest of the round was an absolute disaster. My mind was all over the place. I was giddy with excitement. It’s the first time in my life I’ve enjoyed playing terrible golf.
“The next several weeks were the most exciting of our lives. That is until we were confronted with the devastating news at our 12-week scan that our baby had no heartbeat. There had been nothing to suggest anything was wrong. It’s what they call a ‘missed miscarriage’. It’s rare – approximately one in 100 pregnancies end this way – and it’s crushing. Utterly, sickeningly crushing.
"There are people who say you can’t miss what you never had. They are completely and utterly wrong."
“I can vividly recall looking at the screen in the darkened scan room, waiting eagerly to hear all about our baby. Instead, we heard this: ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news’.
“They estimated that the baby had died approximately three weeks earlier.
“Words can’t describe that moment. Believe me, I’ve searched in vain for them ever since. The grief is instant, overwhelming and excruciating. You grieve for your unborn child, for yourself, for your partner, for your family but, most of all, for all the memories you’d started to prepare: phoning your mum and dad to tell them that they’re grandparents; decorating the nursery; taking the little one home for the first time; even the bleary-eyed nappy changes in the early hours of the morning.
“There are people who say you can’t miss what you never had. They are completely and utterly wrong.
"For several weeks, months even, we were consumed by intense heartache. We cried ourselves to sleep many nights. Many mornings started in a similar way.
“Still, we regrouped, recovered and tried again. Life waits for no one, right?
“We became pregnant twice more, in November 2015 and in February 2016, both of which ended in natural losses at around six weeks. It doesn’t get any easier. Each time stung like the first. The circumstances were different, sure, but the devastation was just as intense.
“After the third successive loss, we were, medically speaking, ‘experiencing recurrent miscarriage’. Another one in 100 likelihood. That entitles you to some tests – to check for things such as chromosomal abnormalities and the like – all of which we took and all of which came back negative. There was no obvious reason why we couldn’t have a successful, continuing pregnancy. We were, as one consultant put it, just experiencing terribly bad luck.
“The thing about Jules and I is that neither of us particularly believes in things such as fate, destiny and dumb luck, so we went online and starting looking. For what? Hope. Any desperate crumb of hope.
“It was through Tommy’s that we found it at a private clinic in Coventry.
“Based at the University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire, the NK Testing Clinic has undertaken detailed research, which has found that some women who have miscarriages have an abnormally high level of uterine Natural Killer cells in the lining of their womb.
“In layman’s terms, these cells act as a front-line defence against ‘alien’ entities in the body. Unfortunately, they aren’t sophisticated enough to distinguish between ‘good’ alien entities and ‘bad’ alien entities, so they attack them all with the same vigour. And when there’s lots of them – well, the bigger the army, the shorter the battle.
“Fortunately, the team in Coventry have discovered a way of limiting the impact of those extra cells in pregnancy, courtesy of a steroid drug called Prednisolone. I should point out that the NHS doesn’t yet recognise the validity of this research but the conversations we engaged in, primarily on social media, gave us the confidence we needed for Jules to be tested.
“Lo and behold, the test came back positive – a higher-than-normal instance of Natural Killer cells. The treatment? Simple: Jules was to start taking Prednisolone when she next fell pregnant.
“Until then, we were instructed to stay patient. Easier said than done. By this point, it was June 2016 – over a year since our first loss. No time at all in the grand scheme of things but the big picture is hard to see when you’ve got your nose pressed against the frame.
|Michael's book, Running The Smoke, was published in 2016|
“We went out of our way to keep ourselves busy as we waited for life – quite literally – to happen. We went on holidays, did up the house, I had Running The Smoke published. Anything to fill the persistent void.
“You just do whatever you can. You find yourself ‘liking’ even the most distant acquaintances’ scan photos and pregnancy announcements on Facebook because, even though you don’t believe in karma, you’re not prepared to take any chances. So, you over-compensate, hoping that nobody will notice and that the universe will reward you.
“Your behaviour becomes obsessive-compulsive. Not in a ‘Look how quirky and interesting I am’ kind of way but in a very real and very exhausting way. We both, unbeknownst to one another, resorted to things like knocking on the door frame three times before going into the kitchen, lining up food ‘labels to the front’ in the fridge. It wasn’t an attention-seeking affectation but rather a full-blown affliction designed to invite good fortune.
“Before long, I began to get paranoid. What if this is as far as we’ll ever get? What if we can’t get pregnant again? It started off as an occasional and deeply unhelpful thought but soon became a recurring, constant fear that it gnawed away at me, rotting my confidence and decaying my mental health.
“I managed to convince myself that some people – including some close friends and family – were going out of their way to avoid us, lest miscarriage be contagious like the flu.
“In my particularly desperate moments – and feeling that we weren’t getting adequate support from health care professionals – I even started to wonder if this was Government-ordered population control at work. Don’t give miscarrying couples any help – the country’s already over capacity, I could imagine them saying.
“Trust me, in the absence of a plausible, proven explanation for what you’re going through, it is amazing what you can persuade yourself to be true.
“I’m ashamed to admit I felt a little emasculated by the experiences. I felt that, as a man, I’d failed because I hadn’t been there when my children needed me most. They needed me to save them and I couldn’t. Nobody could have, of course, but that was no consolation.
“I found myself becoming more withdrawn and introverted. My behaviour became increasingly erratic. Up one minute, down the next. I know that Jules felt the same about herself. And yet our commitment to each other never wavered. Not for a second. Individually, we were broken but, as a couple, we were strong and resilient. Perhaps stronger than ever.
“Finally, we got our silver lining.
“In February 2017, Jules fell pregnant again. It was terrifying. That’s something few people appreciate. After you’ve been through a miscarriage, pregnancy is not the exclusively joyous experience it once was. It’s wonderful, of course, but tinged with perpetual worry.
|Michael with wife Jules and baby Sadie|
“We held our breaths for the first 12 weeks. I dreaded going to sleep at night for fear of waking to the news I feared the most. We also invested in three private scans – at seven, nine and 11 weeks – for reassurance that everything was progressing normally. We were 10 weeks along when I ran the London Marathon in 2017.
“Our 12-week scan went perfectly but the relief it provided was soon replaced by rising dread again as the 20-week scan approached. It’s a strange thing to be scared – genuinely scared – of something most people don’t think twice about. Again, though, it went well. We had another scan at 32 weeks and numerous appointments with our midwife. Everything was fine but we never truly relaxed. Not until 2.52pm on 25 November 2017, when we welcomed our beautiful little daughter into the world. Sadie Jane McEwan. All 9lbs 11oz of her.
“She is, quite simply, a dream come true. Honestly. She is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Even that feels like an understatement.
“She recently turned one and my heart bursts with pride every time I see her. She’s an incredible little person and getting to watch her grow and develop day on day is the greatest privilege of my life.
“As I write, she’s sleeping contentedly, which has given me some pause for thought to better reflect on the last few years.
“For a while, I was bitter and angry about what we went through. Now, though, I think of myself as only one thing… Lucky. So incredibly lucky.
“I’ve got an amazing wife, a wonderful family and a beautiful little girl. Some people never get any of those things. I’ve got all three. I’m unbelievably fortunate.
“Equally, I’ll never forget how we got here. The twists, the turns, the ups, the downs, the heartache. I’ll never forget it, nor do I want to. To do so would be tantamount to pretending that those three other little lives never happened and that’s not something I’m prepared to do.
“I can say with absolute honesty that there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those three little ones. They’ll never know it but they’ve given me so much. Strength. Compassion. Drive. Resolve. Perspective. They are my determination to be the best dad and husband I can possibly be.
|Michael runs the Virgin Money London Marathon|
“That, I guess, is the positive I try to take from what is an otherwise hopelessly tragic sequence of events. I’m giving my absolute all to the little one I have because of the three little ones I’ll never hold. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have had as much to give had it not been for them. That’s their legacy (for lack of a better word) and I love them unconditionally for it.
“As I write, I’m almost five weeks into my training plan for this year’s London Marathon and I’m finding it tough. It’s a plan that is both physically and emotionally demanding. I’m running five days out of seven every week and the miles are clocking up. I’m cranky, I’m achy and I’m more than a little resentful of the icy weather Mother Nature insists on throwing down.
“More than anything else, though, I’m determined. The opportunity to take on the world’s greatest race on behalf of a charity that has transformed my family’s life for the better is just about the greatest honour I can think of right now.
“It’s my opportunity to celebrate the three little ones who, as I wrote on the dedication page of Running The Smoke, will sadly never get to run a marathon but who are with us every step of the way, every step we take, every single day.
“I want to do it. I can do it. And I will do it.”
To support Tommy’s and donate to Michael’s 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon challenge, visit his Virgin Money Giving page