“Throughout all the races, at different stages, I was gushing and drowning,” says Kevin Sinfield when remember running seven marathons in seven days on behalf of Rob Burrow, his close friend and former Leeds Rhinos teammate who is caught in the clutches of a motor neuron disease. Sinfield completed his seventh consecutive marathon 10 days ago and, hoping to raise £ 77,777 in honor of Burrow, who was wearing the number 7 jersey, has earned over £ 2.5 million to help his friend’s family and fight against MND.
“It was very emotional,” continues Sinfield, “because it’s really hard to see Rob now, compared to where we were 12 months ago. Rob is 38 years old, has three young children and nobody deserves it because this is the most cruel disease. I know there are some horrible diseases out there, but seeing what MND does to families, seeing the stress it puts on them, is very difficult. It is a horrible, horrible disease.
“Rob’s kids are great. They have big smiles on their faces. [Burrow’s wife] Lindsey is always smiling, she’s been so strong. And every time I see Rob, he has a big smile on his face and that twinkle in his eyes so you absolutely know what he’s thinking. We still laugh at the stupidest jokes and constantly remind ourselves of things in text messages or when I see it. You may have seen after the fifth marathon that I whispered something in his ear, so we both laughed a bit.
“That’s why day six was the hardest by a mile. In part it was due to accumulated fatigue and not sleeping, while parts of my body were sore. But you could feel the thrill it took from us after marathon five, watch it and be amazed by the brilliant mural [of Burrow in the centre of Leeds] and then hug him. There was never a moment where I forgot why we were doing it, but seeing it at the end of day five was the best. “
Sinfield has known Burrow for 26 years, since he was 14 and his friend was 12, and they were at Leeds Academy. Their friendship deepened when they became automatic picks for the first team. When he was 22 years old in 2002, the inspiring Sinfield was captain of the Rhinos while Burrow was still sitting next to him in the locker room. They held those same seats until Sinfield’s retirement from the league in 2015.
Burrow is only 5ft 4in, but he had the courage and stamina to match his outrageous pace and skill set. He retired in 2017, and his last game was another Grand Final when Leeds beat Burrow’s hometown club Castleford. Burrow won eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and two Harry Sunderland Trophies awarded to the man of the match in the Grand Final.
This Saturday will mark a year to the day that Burrow revealed to the world that he had been diagnosed with motor neuron disease. He is now in a wheelchair and, having lost the ability to speak naturally, he communicates through an app on his phone. But the joy Burrow showed when he saw Sinfield run towards him near the end of his fifth marathon has become one of the most moving and uplifting images of this brutal year.
Fifteen months ago, Sinfield began to feel that a hidden problem was buried deep within Burrow. Sinfield had settled into his current role as Leeds rugby manager, while Burrow worked as the club’s reserve team coach. “It’s hard to talk about that,” says Sinfield, “but Rob’s difficulty talking was the first thing I noticed. It was the trigger for me because nothing else physically happened to him. He was still the muscular little gymnast.
“In September 2019 we attended a player of the year awards dinner. Rob got up to present the academy trophy. I’ve listened to that voice for 20 years sitting next to me in the dressing room and I realized that something was not right. A couple of weeks later we had a separate academy presentation night. As a joke, when we walked in, I said something about his speech and he got up and looked exactly the same. I said, ‘Rob, we have to help you. We are going to take you to our [club] Doc.'”
On the day the diagnosis was made, Sinfield knew that “Rob was supposed to come home at five. They arrived around 7:30 and I hadn’t heard anything so I texted him and said, ‘Everything went well?’ That was when the bomb landed. I spent the next two hours trying to collect my thoughts, googling it, trying to figure out what it meant. Knew about Doddie Weir [the Scottish rugby union player who has fought so defiantly against his own MND] and Joost van der Westhuizen [the great South African rugby union player who lost his life to the disease in 2017] which was another wonderful player in the other code. That night I did not sleep because I learned that 50% of people diagnosed with this disease die within two years. There’s no cure “.
Sinfield had played 18 rugby matches for Yorkshire Carnegie after his retirement from the league in 2015 and Brian Redpath, his coach at that club, suggested he could help Burrow get to know Weir. “I said, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ Less than 24 hours later we were in a hotel with Big Doddie, who was so inspiring and enthusiastic about the fight. It had a huge impact on Rob and it really helped the next day when we had that difficult day in the media where he told the world about it.
“Doddie fed him and me, and when we came back from meeting him, Rob and I laughed a lot. But we also discuss some important things. I put myself in his shoes and knew that I would try to help him and his family as much as I could. I was thinking, ‘What if your speech goes, what if you can’t walk, what if you can’t shower?’ That week was her little son Jackson’s first birthday. But Rob said Doddie gave him the courage to take on the world. “
Sinfield and Leeds hosted a testimony for Burrow in January and a gala dinner, but all of their plans for additional aid were halted by the pandemic. “We managed to get him and Lindsey to the Super Bowl for a couple of days. It was always his dream to go, so we did all the favors we could and got him tickets. But then Covid hit. It was really difficult in the deepest and darkest confinement. We couldn’t see it and it was just text messages and phone calls. He still had his voice, although it was mushy, and Rob would tell you he enjoyed it. He spent a lot of quality time with the kids. “
As a way to deal with the confinement, while worrying about his friend, Sinfield started running. In March he ran his personal best of three hours and 18 minutes for the marathon while raising £ 5,000 for Burrow. He completed two more in the summer, and in September a plan to tackle seven marathons in seven days was formed in his mind. “A good friend of mine had tried the Brathay 10/10 [where 10 marathons are run over 10 days in Cumbria] and he said the best thing to do is try a 3/3. He planted the seed and I set out to run three marathons in three days.
“I remember getting to a pretty dark place on the second day of three in three, 12 miles in, at the foot of a hill. I had my partner with me on his bike and I said, ‘Will you shoot me?’ But I had another partner running with me and I said, ‘Jump in my wake, I’ll take you up this hill.’ I found a burst of energy and I came to the top and said, ‘I have this. That dark hole was 800m long and would have taken me four minutes as it was wet and windy. But we did it and I knew, ‘I’m going to do this.’
Sinfield began his seven-seven challenge on December 1, a cold, dark Tuesday morning, in the parking lot of his local pub. “There was apprehension. Have we bitten off more than we can chew because I insisted that the seven marathons had to last less than four hours for someone to take us seriously? If you had asked me then: ‘Would you be happy to raise £ 77,777?’ He would have said: ‘Absolutely’ and would have bitten his hand off because it was about a partner and trying to help his family. But seeing where it actually went is the greatest gift of all as we can now help so many people across the UK. “
Ten days after his momentous achievement, which he emphasizes was more of a mental test than a physical one, Sinfield only has “a slight Achilles problem that occurred during the last leg of the last marathon. On top of that, I feel like new and ready to start over. “
Sinfield believes that his seven marathons in seven days made “the best week of my life and that is because this year has been difficult for everyone. So seeing Rob at the finish line, without having had a hug with him for six months, made him so special. My wife and kids were amazing throughout too. I guess when you’re done playing there aren’t many other ways you can make them proud other than being a good person, a decent guy. But something like this is different. We couldn’t have had a better team and I just want to thank everyone who made it possible. At times like this, especially when you see someone else’s family being challenged like the Burrows are, it brings an understanding of what is really important.
“This Christmas, certainly, Rob will be challenged, but now he knows that Lindsey and the children are in a great place from a financial perspective. He no longer has any worries and for us as a group that’s really important. When you wake up on Christmas morning, you can have a big smile, watch the kids open their presents, and have a good time. “
One of the most moving moments was when Burrow said simply, “We all need a friend like Kevin.”
Sinfield’s face creases with excitement. “He’s said it a million times, he would have done the same for me. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the company of many special teams who have that bond and a twinkle in their eyes when they see each other. Our whole group in Leeds has that. We know that if that Batman call is made, we will all go out and help our partner as much as we can. Rob knows it. If it had been any of the other players in this position, instead of him, Rob would have been at the front of the queue trying to help. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.