Darlington grandad, Keith Wilson, tells PETER BARRON how the power of running, cycling, climbing, laughing – and singing – is helping him to manage being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease

WHEN he was told he had Parkinson’s disease, Keith Wilson thought his running days were over.

A keen amateur athlete, he’d always bought extra pairs of running shoes well in advance, but he gave them all away – still in their boxes – after receiving the devastating diagnosis.

“I just thought that was it and that I was facing life as a couch potato,” he recalls.

But Keith couldn’t have been more wrong. Two years on, the 71-year-old is using running – as well as cycling, rock climbing, and singing in a choir – as part of his strategy to hold back the disease.

Last week, he completed his mission to walk and run the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Starting on New Year’s Day, he dedicated himself to running 50 miles a week, and finished with a celebratory walk along Hadrian’s Wall.

Along the way, he’s raised £650 for Parkinson’s UK, and now hopes to top that up to £1,000 by tackling the Lake District Ultra Challenge on June 11 and 12, when he’ll aim to cover 100 kilometres over the two days.

“There’s no doubt that it’s helping me to live with Parkinson’s,” says Keith, who lives at Middleton-One-Row, near Darlington. “It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity, but being active has helped me to live with the disease.”

Keith was born in Murton, east Durham, where his dad worked on the coalface at the local pit.

His own career was in education, lecturing in history and management at Darlington College, and ending up as Director of Higher Education, before going on to work part-time for Teesside and Sunderland Universities during semi-retirement.

Keeping fit has always been part of his life. First it was climbing, then squash, and he took up running 35 years ago, becoming a keen member of the North York Moors Athletics Club, and taking part in fell runs that included climbs up Roseberry Topping and to Captain Cook’s Monument.

He’s also a keen Parkrunner, mainly in Darlington’s South Park, with a personal best for the 5k clocked at an admirable 22 minutes 40.

When the Parkinson’s diagnosis came in March 2020, it was initially something of a relief because he feared he might have had a brain tumour. His legs had started turning to jelly, he’d noticed his foot dragging on the floor, his voice had become a slur, and a tremor had developed in his hand.

“I knew something was badly wrong and, although it could have been worse, it still hit me hard once it sunk in,” he admits.

Keith hit a low point on his 70th birthday when his old climbing friends arranged a Zoom call, and he didn’t want to take it. “That just wasn’t me and I realised I was very down,” he acknowledges.

The turning point came when he agreed to five weeks of intensive speech therapy, having initially rejected it. “Parkinson’s destroys the link between the brain and the muscles, and I started to learn techniques to get them back in line,” he explains.

“It gave me confidence, I stopped looking so frail, and I thought if I can do it with my speech, maybe I can do it with my legs. It was a question of applying the same principles – mind over matter.”

When he was 68 – the year before his diagnosis – he’d bought a t-shirt with the slogan ‘All men are born equal but only the best are still running in their 70s.” He’d hung it in his wardrobe, in readiness for his 70th birthday, and it proved to be the inspiration to resume his active lifestyle.

“I spotted it one day, and I said to myself ‘it’s time to get out there again’. I wasn’t ready to be a couch potato,” he smiles.

People with Parkinson’s have low levels of dopamine – a ‘neurotransmitter’ that communicates messages between nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body.

Keith has seen how being active can generate dopamine and adrenaline, to help him hold back the effects of Parkinson’s.

“Exercise is recommended for all Parkinson’s patients, and I would certainly endorse that having seen the change in the way I feel since going back to being active,” he says.

“The adrenaline you get from going downhill on a bike, or climbing a rockface, makes you feel more normal.

“As for running, it comes from having targets. Every runner in the Parkrun is a target to aim at and, if I don’t have that to focus on, I lose everything. Now, if my legs turn to jelly, I tell myself it’s a false message and crack on.”

Dopamine and adrenaline also come from laughing and singing, so Keith has joined the Darlington SING Community Choir. He’s turned into a musical runner – singing to himself as he completes his three laps of South Park on Saturday mornings.

Through singing, he met Darlington artist William E. Rees and they enjoy long walks together, discussing art along the way, and keeping Keith’s mind active as well as his body.

Now fully retired with wife, Jill Brannan, he’s making the most of life with his two stepdaughters and deriving lots of happiness from nine-months-old granddaughter, Phoebe.

With the Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge behind him, he’s focusing on the Lake District Ultra Challenge, determined to raise as much as he can for the charity that has supported him so well.

“Parkinson’s UK helped me to come to terms with my diagnosis, and gave me strategies to learn to live with it, so I want to give something back,” he says. “I’m also happy to talk to anyone with Parkinson’s – to give them a lift and explain that it’s not the end of the road.”

Keith knows there are plenty of challenges ahead – but it’s great to see he’s got Parkinson’s Disease on the run.