A Million miles
“Despite giving it my all, I was a million miles from completing Andes to Amazon,” Doctor Andrew Murray writes on his blog. He is not used to failure. “Dark cloud domed Mt Cotopaxi, whilst wind clouds flew past above the volcano,” he writes with disappointment.
Holyrood catches up with the Edinburgh GP and sports doctor hours before he embarks on his latest adventure, a gruelling race along a ridge of volcanoes in Ecuador. It is a challenge he will abandon before it has properly begun, after bad weather and a stomach bug will prompt his local guide to tell him climbing Mt Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, will be impossible.
When Holyrood speaks to Murray, however, he is still preparing to leave. Seconded to the Scottish Government as their physical activity champion for six months, Murray continues to work with them at the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup this year. He’s better known as an extreme runner, though, having competed in some high profile ‘ultra marathons’ around the world.
As well as general practice, Murray also works on the European golf tour, the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport and the FASIC sports medicine centre at Edinburgh University. Physical activity, it would seem, comes naturally to him. It came from growing up in Kenya, he says. “Your average kid in Kenya takes an average of four and half hours of exercise per day. In Scotland, our kids manage just under an hour, on average, while our adults manage about 25 minutes. But when you’re in a place where everyone else is running around, kicking footballs, playing around in trees, then you’re bound to do it yourself.”
Murray’s father, Scott, also a doctor, practised in the Kenyan town of Chogoria, but moved back to Scotland when Andrew was still young. Both Murrays continue to have an interest in the area, supporting the African Palliative Care Association. Murray senior is now Professor at the Primary Palliative Care Research Group at Edinburgh University.
Andrew didn’t stop being active upon his return to Britain. At least, not at first. After a childhood playing football, tennis and squash, it dropped off when he went to university, “a bit of study, spent a bit of time in the pub”, a situation he describes as “the usual” for students. By his mid-twenties, it took humiliation on the football pitch to get him running again. “I wasn’t actually that fit at the time. I lost my man, and the guy went through and scored, and just thinking that was perhaps the kick up the backside I needed to get fitter and do a bit of running,” he says.
At first he wasn’t thinking about the health benefits of exercise. “It was more just about getting the happy hormones going and feeling good about it.”
Running turned into an extreme sport for Murray after a visit to Nepal trekking with friends. “One of them had left valuables further up on the trail, a couple of villages up. Because it was getting dark, I ran back up to get them, and there was a whole load of other folk training for the Everest marathon, and they asked, ‘are you training for the Everest marathon?’”
This introduction to the highest marathon in the world was the start of a journey he is still on today. His first marathon, the Everest race, was hilly and high, with “a lot of beautiful things to see and a lot of people getting pretty breathless”. It was a physical challenge, but inspired the young Murray. “It combined getting to see some absolutely awesome stuff, meeting some folk who had done some crazy things and had some pretty amazing adventures, and I kind of wanted a bit of that. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to go and do some pretty good stuff. Running around at the north pole, Antarctica, running from John O’ Groats to the Sahara desert, and various other things,” he says.
Training as a sports medicine doctor made him realise the importance of physical exercise for health. “I felt a bit guilty as a GP that perhaps I hadn’t been giving the best advice to my patients consistently around exercise, so once I discovered that I was really keen to say, ‘hands up’ I didn’t know that.”
After running 4,290km from John O’Groats to the Sahara desert in 2011, the media started to take an interest in Murray, and so did Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer at the time, Sir Harry Burns. In his lectures and work, Sir Harry has used the way African tribesmen can chase down antelope as an example of how the human body needs exercise to balance hormone levels for health, so a young man who learned to run in Africa would have been an obvious person to get on board.
“We’ve always been active in Scotland, for 14 thousand years. We used to get it, I suppose, from being chased by animals, or to try to catch our prey. We got it through our work, but nowadays so many of us are desk-based and computer-based, we need to seek out ways to be active. That’s the challenge: the world is less conducive to regular exercise. For example, in Kenya there were very few school buses so all the kids run to school. Now, we’re not suggesting having to do that in Scotland, but essentially what’s required to get more people more active is a real prioritisation at a national level, at local authority level and at community level. It’s also about recognising there are proven investments that work to get more people regularly exercising across all sectors. So, it’s about doing stuff in relation to education. It’s about doing things in health so we can be part of what GPs and also secondary care can do. It’s about making it part of urban design and transport policy, so getting adequate funds to support active travel and making it a bit easier, then it’s also about providing sport for all, so those that are able-bodied, those not able bodied, young, old, male, female, no matter who you are, there’s probably going to be reasonable benefits to keeping active. Physical activity is for absolutely everybody.”
Murray points to work by Sir Harry Burns which suggests getting people more active in Scotland would save the Government £660m in health costs. Preventative methods can work when focusing on the root causes better than spending on cures, he argues. “Look how far we’ve come in relation to smoking, look how far we’ve come in relation to drink driving and seatbelts. These are things that are normal now. People wear seatbelts. Very few folk drink drive compared to past years. If we were to do this with physical activity, or healthy eating, can we actually do the things that will help our population be more healthy, and live more active lives?”
The call for action “is doable”, he says, because of the Government’s national implementation plan and cross-party support but it needs to become “the next big show in town we can take really seriously and get going on.” In the GP contract, for example, “physical activity is worth five points whereas smoking is worth I think 70 or 90. Look at other things – whenever you go into hospital, you’re asked if you smoke, but you’re not often asked about exercise level.”
Scotland has a “unique opportunity” in 2014, he argues, and not just for the athletes competing in the Commonwealth Games. “I trust through my work with the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport we’ll have loads of folk being extremely successful and standing on the podium. But the athletes also get an additional 7.2 years of life through the regular exercise it takes for them to be champions. Everyone in Scotland can get that. It’s a real opportunity for the whole of Scotland to be a winner, by getting everyone active, and leaving a real active legacy.”
Murray welcomes the priority given to physical activity by all parties at Holyrood, local authorities and community groups. “The fact it’s a single outcome agreement is really useful for community planners and also local authorities. What is also great is there’s not only a consensus something needs to be done, there’s things such as the national implementation plan, and things such as seven investments that work for physical activity, which is an international consensus document.”
The argument, Murray says, is “bomb-proof” because it makes sense on both a clinical and financial basis, but is he as confident about his 100-mile race along Ecuador’s ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’?
“Well, we’ll give it a shot. For something to be challenging, you need it to be reasonably difficult, and for the bar to be tricky but not insurmountable. Though right enough, it will definitely put me right on my backside but I’ll give it a shot. It’s going up Mount Cotopaxi, which is an amazing snow-capped volcano, and then it’s shooting down past all these active volcanoes. It’s an amazing part of the world. Then ending up in the Amazon jungle, and hopefully finishing in time to watch England play Italy, also in the Amazon jungle, from the comfort of a local bar.”
At 5,897m, the starting point is the highest active volcano in the world. “It should be good craic, for sure.”
As we now know, however, Murray doesn’t make it. Running out of time, and suffering from a stomach bug, he is forced to abandon his challenge. Updating his followers via his website, he writes: “I will leave Ecuador frustrated but wiser. Although I had run days on ‘Scotland 2 Sahara’ with a stomach bug, running 50km is very different to 100 miles at altitude with a stomach bug. Although I feel terrible and ill tonight, hopefully tomorrow is a new day.”