How I forgave my 16-year-old self

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 27 March 2017

Richard Warwick's one-time experiment with petrol sniffing at the age of 16 triggered a brain bleed which left him partially paralysed.

Lying in a hospital bed, he was told he'd never run again.

36 years later, he completed the gruelling 30-kilometre Coast to Coast mountain run.

How Warwick got to that point is also the story of how he came to terms with his disability.

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Photo: Richard Warwick

He tells Kathryn Ryan how it was all about forgiving his 16-year-old self.

In November 1979, Warwick was heading towards School Cert. Then he overheard a friend in music class talking about sniffing petrol.

"As a 15, 16-year-old thinking about that, the thinking goes as far as 'Sounds like fun, what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, quite a bit."

Unknown to anyone, Warwick had the pre-existing condition arteriovenous malformation - effectively a vein on the inside of his head that was going to burst at some point, he says.

After he sniffed the petrol, he went upstairs to his bedroom. Then the vein burst.

"That was essentially like an explosion in my head and I collapsed to the ground until found by my mum."

Warwick says he can remember lying on the floor, but his next conscious memory is the back of a head - it was the pilot flying him from Nelson to Wellington for emergency surgery.

It wasn't really until the day he returned to Nelson that he realised he was now in a new world, he says.

"I was in a wheelchair, I had a shaved head with a horse-shoe shaped scar on the side of it … That's when it hit me - I was different, I would stand out. The whole idea of just being a teenager just getting on with life had completely changed. And while I had feeling in my body and was starting to get some movement, I was now disabled."

He'd had plans to join the NZ Defence Force, but now couldn’t lift a shovel. Could he get a girlfriend? Warwick says he suddenly had no idea what his life would look like.

At the time, Warwick believed that what had happened – in it not being strictly an accident - was something he had done to himself.

The result was guilt and shame.

"The whole self-loathing thing came on because it wasn't just that I had this physical disability - the whole direction of my life suddenly changed … I was living this way - in my head - by my own hand."

He says the shame was probably intensified by his family's partial telling of what had happened.

"The story became 'Richard had a brain bleed'. The front of the story got buried."

Yet Warwick did return to school before joining his dad's auctioneering business. He married at 21 and had five children.

He says for many years he was very careful to avoid situations, places and people that might draw attention to his disability.

"From an early stage if I was going out for a meal, I’d order fish. I'm quite keen on fish, but the reason I’d order it is because I could cut it one-handed with a fork. I didn’t need to ask for assistance to do it."

In 2004, he went to watch the Coast to Coast with a friend. Then another friend suggested he take on the mountain run.

Shortly after he became aware of the group Achilles, which supports disabled athletes competing in mainstream running events.

He was asked to be a founding member of Achilles Wellington.

Then Peter Loft from Achilles suggested he run the New York Marathon.

"I can't run" he told Loft. "He said to me, why can't you run?"

“In my mind it was one of those movie moments where everything tumbled back, all the years went away and I was 16 years old again in Wellington Hospital, being told the message 'You'll never run again'.”

Loft persisted. "Can you move? Can you keep moving? Come and do the New York Marathon."

At the moment he crossing the line at New York City, his 16-year-old self was forgiven.

"I was finally and fully able to embrace who I am and finally be comfortable in my own skin."

In 2015, when Warwick first competed in the Coast to Coast run, he says he was fitter than he'd ever been in his life.

But after he and his friend didn't meet the time cut-offs, they were airlifted off the course by helicopter.

"I climbed in and saw the last half of the race looking out the window, thinking 'If I ever that opportunity again that would have to be a whole lot different."

Once he got home he began to think of just how it could work the next time - by training with a coach and competing alongside two guides instead of one.

He also had to somehow get in even better shape.

"We were possibly facing a 15 hour completion for the Coast to Coast and there'd be no stone unturned.

"I found myself saying 'I'm a bit off today, I’m a bit headachy, I might put my feet up. The mind plays really strong tricks on you. And when I pulled on my thermals and got my goretex jacket on and got my beanie and got out there, there was nothing wrong with me.

"If I didn't make it, it was either because I was going to fall or be injured, but there was no way it would be because I didn't work hard enough."

His finish time was 12 hours and 25 minutes.

Warwick says he's now banished the excuse 'I can't'.

"In many ways the coast, the mountain, is too far, it's too hard and too high. But I found myself over the finish line looking back and realising 'It's not all that high and it's not all that hard and it's not all that far'.

"What are the dreams that sit inside of me that have been parked because I think 'I don't think I can do that?' I can't now look in the mirror now and say that I can't - I can. I may have to find another way, I may have to adapt the way that I do that, but if I can get through the Coast to Coast mountain run, I don't actually think there's too much I can't do."