News story

Soldier defies medics to run marathon in Helmand

For many, completing this Sunday's London Marathon will be achievement enough in itself, but spare a thought for a soldier, once told that he would never run again, who will, this Sunday, attempt to run a marathon in Afghanistan, in full body armour.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

As thousands of people take to the streets of London, Major Al Jarvis is planning to run 26.2 miles (42km) around a camp in Helmand province where he is serving a six-month tour. Despite temperatures above 30 degrees, Al will run the course wearing his full body armour which weighs 13kg.

Quite a feat for anyone but especially for Major Jarvis as it comes just three years after he broke his back in a parachute accident. He also fractured his left hip and right ankle.

The 37-year-old was taking part in a training exercise in America but landed awkwardly, almost severing his spinal chord. He spent a week not being able to move at all but then doctors decided to operate to try and repair the damage.

Surgeons spent hours removing two shattered discs and inserting two metal rods and ten screws into Major Jarvis’ back. He was then flown back to the UK to continue his recovery but the outlook was far from hopeful.

He says it was a dark time:

They hoped that the surgery would strengthen my back enough to allow me to walk but I should be prepared to leave the Army because I would never be able to return to the fitness levels I had before the accident.

A keen sportsman, Major Jarvis joined the Army in 1997 and has served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Before his accident, he had completed nine marathons - including one in Lashkar Gah during a previous tour in Helmand.

With the support of his wife Alyssa, Major Jarvis went through months of intensive physiotherapy and treatment - defying doctors with his determination and resolve. He admits there were times it would have been easier to give up:

It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do - physically and mentally. But thinking I would never being able to play football with my children was enough to give me the energy I needed to do that little bit more.

Eventually, and against everyone’s expectations, Major Jarvis was assessed to be fit enough to return to his job as an engineer, based in Minley, Surrey. Last year, just under two years since his accident, he was told he would be deploying to Afghanistan.

Major Jarvis said that’s when he came up with the idea:

When I found out I was being posted back to theatre and would be in Lashkar Gah for the London Marathon, I set myself the goal of being fit enough to try and complete the distance. I did it once before but this time it would have much more significance and be a personal achievement for me.

In order to complete the marathon, Major Jarvis will have to run around the main operating base in Lashkar Gah, which is home to the headquarters of Task Force Helmand, at least twenty-six times which he admits will be tough:

The first few times should be ok,” he said, “but after that, as the temperature starts to rise and the pain starts to get stronger, I’m hoping a few of the guys will come and cheer me on and give me a bit of support.

Major Jarvis, who lives in Farnborough with his wife and two sons, Ben, who is eight, and Guy, who is five, is hoping to raise money for Combat Stress - a charity that helps veterans suffering from mental health problems.

Unlike many of the runners in London - who will be treated to a warm bath, slap up meal and glass of champagne - after his marathon on Sunday, Major Jarvis will go straight back to his job working in the Military Stabilisation Support Group in the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

I am so grateful to the medics who’ve helped me to get to a position where this is even possible that just completing the distance will be reward enough for me. I might be walking a bit slower for a few days after but it’s all for a worthy cause.

Major Jarvis returns to the UK in September and hopes to run next year’s London Marathon in London.

Published 15 April 2011