‘Throughout all the runs, at different stages, I’d be welling up and choking up,” Kevin Sinfield says when he remembers running seven marathons in seven days on behalf of Rob Burrow, his close friend and former Leeds Rhinos teammate who is trapped in the grip of motor neurone disease. Sinfield completed his seventh successive marathon 10 days ago and, having hoped to raise £77,777 in honour of Burrow, who wore the No 7 shirt, he has made more than £2.5m to help his friend’s family and the fight against MND.
“It was so emotional,” Sinfield continues, “because it’s really difficult to see Rob now, compared to where we were 12 months ago. Rob’s 38, he’s got three young kids and nobody deserves it because this is the cruellest disease. I know there’re some horrific diseases out there but to see what MND does to families, to see the strain it puts on them, is so difficult. It’s a horrible, horrible disease.
“Rob’s kids are great. They’ve got big smiles on their faces. [Burrow’s wife] Lindsey is always smiling, she’s been so strong. And every time I see Rob, he’s got a big smile on his face and that twinkle in his eye so you absolutely know what he’s thinking. We still laugh at the stupidest jokes and we’re constantly reminding each other of things on text or when I see him. You may have seen after the fifth marathon that I whispered something in his ear so we both had a little laugh.
“That’s why day six was the toughest by a mile. Some of it was because of the cumulative fatigue, and not sleeping, while parts of my body were in pain. But you could feel the emotion it took out of us after marathon five, to see him and be surprised by the brilliant mural [of Burrow in the centre of Leeds] and then to have a cuddle with him. There was never a moment where I forgot why we were doing it – but to actually see him at the end of day five absolutely hammered it home.”
Sinfield has known Burrow for 26 years, since he was 14 and his friend was 12, and they were at the Leeds Academy. Their friendship deepened when they became automatic picks for the first team. By the time he was 22, in 2002, the inspirational Sinfield was captain of the Rhinos while Burrow still sat next to him in the dressing room. They kept those same seats until Sinfield’s retirement from league in 2015.
Burrow is only 5ft 4ins but he had the courage and resilience to match his outrageous pace and skillset. He retired in 2017, his last game being yet another Grand Final as 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 it will be a year to the day that Burrow revealed to the world he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He is now in a wheelchair and, having lost the ability to talk naturally, he communicates via an app on his phone. But the joy Burrow showed when he saw Sinfield running 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 sense that a hidden problem was buried deep within Burrow. Sinfield had settled into his current role as Leeds’ director of rugby while Burrow worked as the club’s reserve team coach. “It’s tough to talk about,” Sinfield says, “but the slurring of Rob’s speech was the first thing I noticed. It was the trigger for me because nothing else physically was wrong with him. He was still the little muscly gymnast.
“Back in September 2019 we’re at a player of the year awards dinner. Rob got up to present the academy trophy. I’ve heard that voice for 20 years sat next to me in the dressing room and I could tell something weren’t right. A couple of weeks later we had a separate academy presentation night. Jokingly, as we walked in, I said something about his speech and he got up and he was exactly the same. I said: ‘Rob, we need to help you. Let’s get you to our [club] doc.’”
On the day the diagnosis was made, Sinfield knew “Rob was due home at five. It got to about 7:30 and I’d not heard anything so I dropped him a text and said: ‘Has everything gone all right?’ That’s when the bombshell landed. I spent the next two hours trying to gather my thoughts, Googling it, trying to understand what it meant. I’d known 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] who was another wonderful player in the other code. I didn’t sleep that night because I’d learned that 50% of people diagnosed with this illness die within two years. There isn’t a cure.”
Sinfield had played 18 games of rugby union for Yorkshire Carnegie after his retirement from league in 2015 and Brian Redpath, his coach at that club, suggested he could help Burrow meet Weir. “I said: ‘Brilliant, let’s do it.’ Less than 24 hours later we were in a hotel with Big Doddie – who was so inspirational and with such enthusiasm for the fight. He had a huge impact on Rob and really helped the following day when we had that tough media day where he told the world.
“Doddie fuelled him, and me, and when we drove back from meeting him, Rob and I had plenty of laughs. But we discussed some important stuff as well. I put myself in his shoes and I knew I would try and help him and his family as much as I could. I was thinking: ‘What happens if his speech goes, what happens if he can’t walk, what happens if he can’t shower?’ That week it was his little boy Jackson’s first birthday. But Rob said that Doddie gave him the courage to face the world.”
Sinfield and Leeds arranged a testimonial for Burrow in January, and a gala dinner, but all their plans for further help were brought to a shuddering halt 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 pulled in every favour we could and got him tickets. But then Covid hit. It was really tough in deepest, darkest lockdown. We couldn’t see him and it was just texts and phone calls. He still had his voice, although it was slurry, and Rob would tell you he enjoyed it. He had a lot of quality time with the kids.”
As a way of dealing with the lockdown, while worrying about his friend, Sinfield began to run. In March he ran a personal best of three hours 18 minutes for the marathon while raising £5,000 for Burrow. He completed two more in the summer and, in September, the plan to tackle seven marathons in seven days formed in his mind. “A good mate of mine had attempted the Brathay 10/10 [where 10 marathons are run over 10 days in Cumbria] and he said the best thing you can 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 day two of the three-in-three, 12 miles in, at the bottom of a hill. I had my mate with me on his bike and I said: ‘Will you shoot me?’ But I had another mate running with me and I said: ‘Jump in my slipstream, I’ll get you up this hill.’ I found a burst of energy and got to the top and I was like: ‘I’ve got this.’ That dark hole was 800m long and it might have taken me four minutes as it were wet and windy. But we got it done and I knew: ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Sinfield began his seven-in-seven challenge on 1 December, a cold and dark Tuesday morning, in the car park of his local pub. “There was apprehension. Have we bitten off more than we can chew because I was adamant that all seven marathons had to be under four hours for anybody to take us seriously. If you’d asked me then: ‘Would you be happy to raise £77,777?’ I would have said: ‘Absolutely’ and bitten your hand off because it was about a mate and trying to help his family. But to see where it went is actually the greatest gift of all as we now can help loads of people across the UK.”
Ten days after his momentous achievement, which he stresses was more testing mentally than physically, Sinfield has only “a slight achilles niggle which came during the last stage in the last marathon. Besides that I feel brand-new and ready to go again.”
Sinfield believes that his seven marathons in seven days made “the best week of my life and that’s because this year has been tough for everybody. So to see Rob on the finishing line, having not had a cuddle with him for six months, made it so special. My wife and my kids were also just incredible throughout. I suppose, when you finish playing, there are not many other ways you can make them proud apart from being a good person, a decent bloke. 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 somebody else’s family being challenged like the Burrows are, it brings an understanding of what’s really important.
“This Christmas Rob is certainly going to be challenged, but he now knows that Lindsey and the kids are in a great place from a financial perspective. He don’t have them concerns any more and for us, as a group, that’s really important. When he wakes up Christmas morning he can have a big smile, watch the kids open their presents and just have a brilliant time.”
One of the most touching moments came when Burrow said simply: “We all need a friend like Kevin.”
Sinfield’s face creases with emotion. “He’s said it a million times – he would have done the same for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the company of a lot of special teams who have that bond and a twinkle in the eye when they see each other. Our whole group at Leeds has that. We know if that Batman call gets made then we all come out and we help our mate all we can. Rob knows this. 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.”