Thick smoke spiralled into the cold night sky as oxygen fed the flames on two 20ft burning paths in front of me. I was about to walk on fire.
The temperature was over 1,200F. Bear in mind that aluminium melts at 1,100F. My heart was racing as my eyes darted over the glowing embers. There was a tribal atmosphere – a drum was beating behind me and a noisy crowd swelled in front. I felt as if I were a sacrificial offering in an Indiana Jones film.
We had gathered in Northampton because we all had a connection with motor neurone disease (MND), a devastating, incurable condition that kills five people a day in the UK. There is no known cause or cure for this rapidly progressive and ultimately fatal disease.
In July 2007, it claimed the life of a great man whom I was lucky enough to call a
friend. Jarrod Cunningham, a professional rugby player, was diagnosed with MND in 2002 when he was just 32 years old.
I first met Jarrod in 2000, through his wife Carrie Gustafson, who I’ve been friends with for ten years, since I was at Nottingham University. They had met at a party in Putney when he was playing rugby for London Irish having been signed from a New Zealand club.
There is no diagnostic test for MND, so for a gut-wrenching few weeks Jarrod, Carrie and their families were in the dark as to why his reaction time and co-ordination were diminishing – skills which, as a sportsman, he had taken for granted.
They investigated everything. Could he be experiencing the first signs of Parkinson’s? Could it be cancer? Or even HIV? They couldn’t identify what was wrong, just that something was, and it felt serious.
Then, almost by a process of elimination, Jarrod was diagnosed with MND. The job of our motor neurones is to carry impulses from our brains to our muscles, resulting in muscle contraction. If the muscles don’t get the message to contract (which is what happens with MND) they waste away. This degeneration of the motor neurones leads to weakness, causing increasing loss of mobility in limbs and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
The prognosis for MND is pitiful: more than half of those diagnosed with the condition die within 14 months. Jarrod and Carrie married in January 2003 and for Jarrod to have survived five years after diagnosis was a testimony to his stubborn nature and unwaveringly positive attitude.
His initial months of living with the condition were dark and tormented. He locked himself away from the world for weeks. Then he went through various stages – denial, depression, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance.
After about six months, and throughout the years that followed, Jarrod metamorphosed into a new man, one who championed the merits of self-belief and the power of the mind to achieve all you set out to do.
Not such an unusual mantra as you might think for someone who has played sport at the highest level. But if you couple that with his mindset of perspicacity, compassion and calm, he saw a very different person in the mirror to the man he had been before his illness.
Unsurprisingly, he liked what he saw. In the winter of 2005 he told me: ‘Now I pick up if a person has insecurities, almost like a sixth sense. I feel gifted. I listen and feel people’s emotions more. It is bizarre, but cool.’
The mental change in Jarrod was as noticeable as the physical one, although the ravaging effects of the disease meant that every week his muscles irreversibly weakened. It was as if the condition hung like a suit of chainmail over his body, restricting even the simplest of movements, and yet his mind and spirit were, for the first time, truly free.
He said: ‘The transformation in me as a person – spiritually, mentally, emotionally – has been amazing. I am a great listener now. I see MND as a teacher, not a curse.’
Jarrod spent his last few years combining his new-found self awareness with his still steadfast competitiveness and, with the help of his rugby colleagues, working closely with aspiring rugby players back in his native New Zealand.
Jarrod revelled in his new role as a mentor. He said: ‘I try to give them confidence and belief in themselves and I am always calm, especially when they are not. I teach discipline and a strong work ethic and I ask questions so they learn from their own answers. Perhaps most importantly, I listen.’
Racked with anger in the early days following his diagnosis, Jarrod later became convinced his path was preordained – fighting the progressive symptoms and learning about himself and others as he did so became his focus.
‘Being diagnosed with MND has pushed me mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It has opened my mind and heart. It’s my destiny,’ he said. An astonishing attitude, and one that he held on to until his death.
I feel so privileged to have known Jarrod. There is not a day that passes when I don’t remember the importance of a positive attitude. It’s not always easy to apply it – particularly when I feel tired or my confidence is low – but it’s always there, at the back of my mind, thanks to him.
Jarrod had a daily ritual: each morning he would email his mates with a quote. I have saved every one on my computer – more than 800. The email subject would read ‘ Motivational Quote of the Day.’ It was a wonderful way to kick-start the day.
Even on dark, wet, winter mornings when the last thing I felt like doing was getting out of bed to go to work, I would turn on my laptop and waiting for me would be a quote that fired me up. I felt humbled and it made me automatically fall back in love with life.
Here is one that really resonated: ‘Rest not! Life is sweeping by; go and dare before you die. Something mighty and sublime, leave behind to conquer time,’ by Goethe.
Even in his final days, Jarrod would use his weak, clawed fingers, ravaged by the condition, to painstakingly drag the mouse across the screen of his computer, trawling the internet for inspiring quotes to revitalise our weary souls. He was positive to the last.
Poignantly, his final quote must have been briefly lost in cyber space because it didn’t pop up in my inbox until after I had received the tragic news of his death. It read: ‘Enthusiasm is the mainspring of the soul. Keep it wound up and you will never be without power to get what you actually need‘ – Napoleon Hill.
I’ll never forget that day. I was living and working in New York, and hadn’t been there long. It was boiling hot and I had been to the beach with friends. My phone was temperamental but later that day a text flashed on the screen from a friend back in London, saying how sorry they were to hear the news. No one had been able to get hold of me to tell me direct.
I dropped to my knees. My chest felt crushed and I started to cry uncontrollably. I felt angry, as if this horrific, insidious illness had won and snuffed out a bright light in so many people’s lives. I thought of Carrie and Jarrod’s family in New Zealand and his countless friends all over the world who would now be grieving.
After a few days of quiet reflection and talking to Carrie, I realised MND hadn’t won –Jarrod had.
He had changed the lives and perceptions of so many through his handling of the illness.
His constant reminders of the power of positive thought in the face of adversity had helped so many to learn to not take things for granted. He was an enabler. Our perceptions had evolved without having to face death the way he had. For that I am always grateful. And he achieved all of this in just five years.
As I approached the firewalk, I spotted my family in the crowd. My mum Joy, dad John, brother Sam, sister-in-law Kathryn, and dog George.
My dad shouted: ‘Think of Jarrod,’ and as he did a surge of emotion rushed through me. My heart swelled and tears pooled in my eyes. I had an instant flashback of sitting in Jarrod’s garden in New Zealand.
I had been filming in Melbourne, so thought it was a perfect opportunity to take the short flight to New Zealand to visit Jarrod and Carrie, who were living in Hawkes Bay. It had been a glorious day but I knew he didn’t have long to go, so sadness underpinned my visit. Jarrod sat on the veranda of his home, the door frame propping up the weight of his head because his neck could no longer support it.
We could not talk as he no longer had the power of speech but it was good to just sit with him. I skipped through songs on his iPod until he was happy with what he was listening to. His two cats basked in the sun and brought a smile to Jarrod’s gaunt face. He found real pleasure in life’s simplest things.
One of the most tragic aspects of the condition is that MND leaves people unable to walk, talk or feed themselves, yet their intellect and senses remain unaffected. Jarrod had a sharp mind and witty banter, and yet couldn’t articulate his thoughts and feelings.
I snapped back into the moment. The penny dropped – walking over fire was nothing, it was simply mind over matter. Sufferers of this debilitating condition can’t walk at all. I strode out over the coals with a beaming smile, full of gratitude that I was able to do this.
The heat from the burning embers was intense. My eyes darted over them, and my heart began racing as I imagined my feet on the searing coals. I knew I could only walk fast – not run – as running means you push your feet deeper into the embers and that would surely burn. I took a deep breath and off I went.
Have you ever been barefoot on a scorching hot beach? It felt exactly like that – although with a heightened sense of jeopardy, given the perceived consequences.
Something inside tells you to keep on going and that’s exactly what I did. Halfway through I knew I could not do anything other than keep going – it felt like an age but it was actually over in a matter of seconds.
About 60 others did the firewalk with me, and every one of them had a reason to be there – a story to tell about the effect MND had on their lives. Many had lived and breathed it in a way that I can never claim to have.
I didn’t witness the horror of it every day because I didn’t live with Jarrod and he moved back to New Zealand before things became unbearable. He wanted to have his family and childhood friends around him, and to breathe the fresh air.
The firewalk was organised by the MND Association, specifically by Elaine Gallagher, Mel Barry and Taryn Third, three musketeers doing a wonderful job to raise funds and awareness for this little-known or understood condition. They had engaged the expertise of Blaze Firewalking, a specialist company that organises firewalks across the country.
We attended a two-hour training session on the benefits of having a positive frame of mind. We discussed all the things that Jarrod so regularly espoused. I felt about 10ft tall after the session – as if I could conquer anything. I agreed with the lady next to me, Ann-Marie, that a session like that once a month would do wonders for self-confidence.
So, as one big team we took on the challenge and, without exception, everyone walked over the burning coals, conquering varying levels of fear as they did so. It was so empowering and energising I felt like hugging every last one of them.
Which reminded me of another of Jarrod’s inspiring messages: ‘Happiness is like a hug – it is better shared.’
Firewalking: Don’t try this at home …
I can definitely recommend the firewalking experience – it’s as much about conquering your fear as doing something very physically demanding.
There’s a lot of hard work and preparation before you step on the burning coals. It’s
definitely not something to attempt at home.
So how does it work? Karen Sterling, the managing director of Blaze Firewalking, says it’s down to quantum physics and that wood is a poor conductor of heat.
The contact time for each foot is less than one second. This, in combination with the slow conduction of heat from the embers, results in very little heat being transferred to the foot.
The ‘Leidenfrost’ effect may also play a part. The skin has a sheer layer of moisture on it. So when a cold, wet object such as your foot touches a dry, hot object, the water vaporises, creating a barrier between the cold and the hot.
Given that you are walking quickly, your feet do not have time to heat up.
Of course, if you run, your feet become embedded in the coals and there is a risk of burning, as there is if you stand still. The ideal is to move quickly and evenly across the coals.