Sunday 23 April 2023

Marathon Efforts

When Pheidippides finished running what is now regarded as the first marathon in 490 BC he dropped dead from exhaustion. Just imagine, though, what he would have thought about the prospect of running the 26 miles every day for 106 consecutive days, or even 401 days.

To celebrate today’s London Marathon, and the feast day of our patron saint, St. George, here are the feats achieved by two British lgbt+ runners from my region.

The first of these was the 401 Challenge to run 401 marathons in 401 days set by Ben Smith.

Ben was born into a Royal Air Force family, which meant being stationed in a succession of RAF bases around the world. When Ben was 10 his parents decided to place him in a boarding school in England. Ben went from one school to another over the next few short years, including one near Retford, a town I know well not far from Nottingham.

Sadly, Ben’s school experiences were not all good ones. Having come from a close loving family he felt isolated and withdrew into himself. He began to realise he had sexual feelings towards other boys. Becoming more introvert and being bullied, and confused by his sexuality, Ben attempted suicide twice. After school he fell into depression even though his family had now returned to England and were close by.

In 2012 Ben took up running. He was instantly hooked and began training for long distance racing. In 2014 he entered his first marathon. From this experience he developed his 401 Challenge to raise awareness and funds for vulnerable youngsters who were being bullied for whatever reason. The charities he chose to fundraise for were Stonewall, the biggest lgbt+ charity in the UK, and Kidscape, a charity specialising in providing help to tackle child bullying.

The first of the 401 marathons was on 1st September 2015 in Plymouth. Sadly, the page which listed all of his run on the 401 Challenge website is no longer available. However, searching the internet I have found what I think is a list of the marathons Ben ran in my home county of Nottinghamshire. Here they are:

27 December 2015 – Newark

28 December 2015 – Nottingham

29 December 2015 – Nottingham

5 May 2016 – Retford

13 August 2016 – Clumber Park, near Worksop.

Everything was going to plan. Then, during his Aberdeen run in June 2016 Ben suffered an umbilical hernia and had to take ten days rest to recuperate. Sadly, this meant that he could no longer aim for 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days. An alternative plan was devised to ensure that by the end of his challenge he had run the full equivalent to 401 marathons in 401 days. For his subsequent marathons Ben ran an extra 2 and a half miles to make up the distance.

The climax of the 401 challenge came on 5 October 2016 in Bristol. There to cheer him over the finish line of his 401st marathon were hundreds of spectators, supporters, family, friends, and his partner Kyle, not to mention a lot of media. He had raised £250,000 for his charities.

Ben may not have made it into the records books because of his injury, but he won the admiration of the public. In October 2016 he won Fundraiser of the Year at the Pride of Britain Awards. In December he won the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony. This last award is named after a very popular sports presenter who died of cancer at the age of 43 and in awarded to athletes who have made an “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity”.

Even if Ben didn’t enter the Guinness Book of World Records, another runner from my region did. Her name in Kate Jayden (b.1987). Kate lives with her wife in Hartington, a village in rural Derbyshire about 35 miles from Nottingham. She was already an experienced marathon runner and triathlete with over 230 finishes.

Overcoming difficult experiences or health issues is often a spur for the athletically-minded person. Kate’s youth was bedevilled with anorexia and bulimia. It was to raise funds for a charity which helps sufferers of eating disorders that was the start of Kate’s marathon running.

The challenge to run 106 marathons on 106 consecutive days began as a joke with a friend, but Kate thought “why not?” The chosen charities for which the challenge would raise funds were the Refugee Council, the Trussell Trust and the Hygiene Bank. The two latter charities provide food banks and hygiene products respectively to people on a low income.

Kate’s challenge began on 31st December 2021. Unlike Ben Smith, Kate also had a full-time job while taking on her challenge. Not all of her marathons were run outdoors. Some of them were on a treadmill.

Kate often ran in the early morning before leaving for work, sometimes running in the cold and dark of a British winter. This may have brought back an unhappy memory of competing in a 24-hour run in 2014. During the night-time stage when she was several miles ahead of the rest of the runners Kate was grabbed from behind by a stranger and sexual assaulted. Kate fought off the assailant, and ran back several miles to find the next runner to raise the alarm. The race was suspended while the police carried out their initial investigation, then the race resumed, and Kate won.

On day 46 of the 106 challenge (15th February 2022) Kate experienced pain in her knee which slowed her down on subsequent runs. Only after the last marathon was it discovered that Kate had a fractured knee.

Kate’s challenge didn’t have as much of a high-profile as Ben Smith’s, but she had a solid fan base and interest picked up as she neared the final marathons. The 106th marathon was completed on 15th April 2022. Kate was now a Guinness World Record holder and had raised £25,000 for her charities.

Because Kate completed some marathons on a treadmill she shares the record with a Scottish couple, Fay Cunningham and her partner Emma Petrie, who ran 106 road marathons on 106 consecutive days. They began their challenge on 19th February 2022 and submitted their record attempt of running 100 marathons on 100 consecutive days. Having discovered that Kate Jayden was already attempting 106 marathons they added 6 more to their schedule to equal the record attempt. Fay and Emma now hold the record for the most consecutive road marathons, and Kate holds the record for the most consecutive road/treadmill marathons (as of todays’ date).

With more and more ultra and extreme sport challenges being created it should be a matter of pride that there are many lgbt+ runners who are representing our community and receiving recognition for their achievements.

Monday 10 April 2023

The First Queer Evangelist?

At this Easter time, or Passiontide, as non-English-speaking nations call it, millions of people are thinking about the teachings of Christ – some good thoughts, and some bad thoughts. There are more Christian denominations with more interpretations of scriptures than there are gender identities or political ideologies, so there are bound to be differences of opinion and doctrine which offend.

With more than 2,000 years of history behind it, Christianity has much that has been forgotten or deliberately ignored. So, it may surprise you to learn that one of the first black, gender-variant evangelists appears in the Bible. He is venerated by many established Christian denominations to this day.

Whether you think the New Testament of the Bible is history or fiction at this point is irrelevant. Even as an apocryphal tale the story, in theological terms, was an attempt by the early Christians, still worshipping in small, or secret, isolated groups, to show that people of any race, nationality or identity could be accepted as a convert, and go on to be an evangelist.

The tale in question centres on an Ethiopian eunuch, as he is generally called. The Bible doesn’t give his name. In the early centuries people liked to give names to anonymous characters in the Bible. The Three Wise Men of the Nativity are a well-known example. They were given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar several centuries later. The Ethiopian eunuch has been given different names in different denominations – Qinaqis, Actius, Djan Darada. In western Christianity his most common name is Simeon Bachos, probably first used in 180 AD by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the person who was probably also responsible for coming up with the names of the New Testament book in which the Ethiopian features, the “Acts of the Apostles”.

Here’s the story. The evangelist St. Philip the Deacon had a vision of an angel who told him to travel down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Before he set off he spotted an Ethiopian eunuch, a treasurer to the Candace (a rank similar to Queen Mother) of Ethiopia, who was reading aloud part of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The eunuch seemed confused by what he was reading, so St. Philip went over to help him. They discussed the passage while they rode along to Gaza. Then the Ethiopian stopped their chariot next to some water, a river perhaps, and asked Philip if there was any reason to stop him from being baptised there and then. Philip said there wasn’t if he truly believed in Christ’s teachings, to which the Ethiopian said he did. So Philip he baptised him in the water. Upon doing so St. Philip suddenly vanished into thin air, transported by the “Holy Spirit” according to the Bible, back to Jerusalem. The Ethiopian, who didn’t seem to very concerned about the sudden disappearance, continued on his way home.

Later traditions say that he evangelised the Ethiopians. There’s no written evidence of this, but it is a fact that some of the oldest surviving Christian Churches, largely unaltered in terms of doctrine and practices, are based in Ethiopia.

“The Baptism of the Eunuch” by Rembrandt, c.1626, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands.

The term “eunuch”, as applied in the Bible, is used for several different other terms that appear in the original Hebrew texts. One such definition is the word “saris” (using the Roman alphabet instead of the Hebrew). This was applied to any man who hadn’t shown any heterosexual sexual maturity or drive by the time he was 20 years old. There was no indication that these men had any difference, or absence, of sexual organs like we recognise today with the term “eunuch”, though some may have been forcibly castrated because of their lack of sex drive. In this respect a saris was like the ancient Greek agamoi. Like the agamoi, the saris was seen as a deviant and banned from places of worship.

On the other hand, a eunuch was often held in high regard. I’ve written before how some eunuchs were priests and holy people. Even the Three Kings mentioned above have often been referred to in recent decades as eunuchs or gender-variant.

The most commonly accepted origin of the Greek word “eunuch” is from a phrase which means “guardian of the bed”. This usually referred to the private royal bedchamber, the innermost living quarters of the king or emperor and his family. These “guardians” were the most trusted of servants. There was an equivalent in the UK Royal Family until the mid-20th century, the Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber which was held by senior courtiers, not eunuchs. Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe were appointed Gentlemen and Knights of the Chamber by King Richard II in 1381.

Over the years, the original highly trusted eunuch “guardians” came to be appointed to higher offices of state, such as treasurer or chamberlain (the man who organised the chambers of the court). It is these positions, eunuchs who held high office, which was the usual translation of the Hebrew saris in the Latin Bible. In the “Acts of the Apostles” the Ethiopian eunuch is explicitly referred to as the treasurer to the Candace of Ethiopia. He was a high ranking courtier.

I was going to go into a deep explanation about other aspects of this story, such as why the Ethiopian questioned his suitability to be baptised, because it feels too much like I’m back in my days as a Methodist lay preacher and I don’t want this to turn into a sermon. So, I’ll just leave it at that. If you want to know more, there are many sites online that cover it.

What I will say is that the Ethiopian eunuch, Simeon Bachos or whichever name he is given, is used in the Bible to signify that anyone with gender variance and of whatever race was welcomed in early Christianity.