"No matter how long it takes I am going to do it because it's just one step": Claire Lomas on paralysis and walking the London Marathon
Claire’s life turned upside down when she became paralysed from the chest down in a horse-riding accident. Determined to make the best of the situation, since she has focused her efforts on fundraising to help the search for a cure to paralysis whilst finding ways to stay active and push herself to the limit. Claire became headline news in 2012 when she became the first person to walk the London Marathon in a robotic suit.
Can you tell us how you trained for walking the marathon in the suit?
Well, the training is harder than the actual race as you don’t have the people around you helping to spur you on. It’s getting through those training days which are probably tougher than the actual thing. When you go out, for the first bit, you can be really tired. I found that sometimes I thought – I’m not on good form today, and then you go out and your body surprises you.
No matter how tired you're feeling, get out train - your body may surprise you!
You started to train in the suit quite late didn’t you?
I had just 12 weeks to learn to use the suit, so I didn’t have long. However, before that I kept myself fit. I was going on a treadmill with people assisting my steps so that I was used to being upright, and it was so frustrating – anyone who thinks that their training is not going well should take a look at a video clip of me then! I was going on the television to be interviewed, and was sat there saying ‘I’m going to be doing the London Marathon in 8 weeks’ and I couldn’t even get across the room! It did get better, and then I got outside and every little bump was an obstacle so it was pretty tough!
What did training in the suit actually entail?
You certainly don’t just get into it and walk! Particularly as mine is a high injury, I’m paralysed from the chest down, which is quite different from the waist down, as I don’t have any core strength so I was very wobbly! It also means that I cannot feel anything from the chest down – meaning it’s not just about the walking – even standing is tough as I have no feeling of the ground beneath me, so even learning to stand and balance was a task. When I learnt to walk in it, I was the first person in the UK to use the suit so I was very much the guinea pig. Even my trainers had never helped anyone to walk in the suit, so it really felt like we were all in it together.
Were there any points where you wanted to give up?
With the training, sometimes I would think ‘am I chasing a dream that’s not really possible?’. But then I believe that ‘every step gets you a step closer the finish line’. That’s actually why training is so hard, as the steps are not getting you to the finish line. I had some really frustrating sessions where I couldn’t move in the suit at all – and it’s hard even when you know how to use it -but trying to learn it is even harder! It’s all about tilting your pelvis and the timing is quite challenging. I had some really difficult sessions, but then I thought, no matter how long it takes I am going to do it because it’s just one step – and if I string together loads of sets of tens steps, I’ll get there in the end.
You'll get there in the end - Claire took 17 days to walk the marathon
And how has the accident affected your life?
In that first year, they were really dark days. I split up with my boyfriend ten months after, and I couldn’t have felt lower really – I thought that I would be on my own forever and that the things most people want in life I wouldn’t have. I didn’t lie in bed thinking ‘will I walk the London Marathon?' It was more like ‘will I ever meet anyone and have a family’? To think that I would meet Dan my husband a year after the accident and have two little girls – it’s amazing – and it’s what’s really important really.
You now help to motivate others via your speaking – what can people take away from your speeches?
Set yourself challenges and goals and believe in yourself! When I had my accident it was very easy to dwell on everything I had lost, and it really felt like it was everything. But I took opportunities where I saw them. In the early days, it was small things – like, I got a job in an office, and it wasn’t my dream – I had been a chiropractor before, but it got me out of the house and gave me a reason to get up. Everyone thinks that things like the London Marathon or The Great North run were my biggest challenges, but actually, it was just getting out of bed when there’s no reason that was a real challenge. And taking these small opportunities are what led to me having my greatest days. The best five days of my life have all come after my accident, and from taking opportunities, making my own luck and believing in myself.
I got my MBE just this year, another day, I would not have had if it wasn’t for my accident!
On another note, I take the suit to events where I’m speaking sometimes – it’s really quite impactful – I come on in the robot suit and then climb out of it!
I guess my overall message is that, whatever the challenge, one step is one step closer!
Claire surprises audiences by taking the suit on stage
And lastly, what’s next for you?
This year I’ll be running around after my kids, more fundraising, and hopefully another big walk in the suit at the end of the year. I’m also hoping to get my motorbike license – I don’t actually know too much about bikes – but I certainly know what colour I want! Am looking forward to getting into leathers!