Nicky Forster: walking for mental health

(Matilda wrote this as part of our work experience scheme)

Between 30 June and 14 July this year, ex-professional football player Nicky Forster ran and walked the North Coast 500 (NC500) – a renowned 516-mile coastal route around northern Scotland and the equivalent of an ultramarathon every day – to raise money for charity Mental Health UK. 

Nicky Forster on the NC500
(Picture: Callum Mackay)

For most people, this kind of commitment would not be taken on lightly, but Nicky said his decision came easily, after a casual conversation with a friend:  

“He told me he was planning on cycling the NC500 route in the summer, so I said I’d run it with him. I didn’t really think about the logistics, other than if I ran about 35 miles a day it would take me 15 days to complete.”

But a few weeks before the two were due to set off, his friend had to pull out, meaning Nicky was faced with a decision. Should he give up on the event and lose the sponsorship money he’d already amassed, or complete the run solo, carrying all his equipment that would have gone in his friend’s van?

After giving it some thought, Nicky was determined to go ahead:

“I could have postponed or cancelled it, but as a goal-setting coach I wanted to practice what I preach and show people that you can adapt to setbacks.”

The challenge was tough, both emotionally and physically. Not only was he pushing his body to the limits, but the isolation in the Scottish Highlands became almost unbearable at times, as he travelled for miles through the countryside without seeing evidence of civilisation. One way he was able to combat this was by listening to music, with a playlist that included songs he had asked his friends and family to suggest before he left.

Nicky Forster

There were many moments when Nicky says he felt like giving up, but there was one day in particular when he’d almost had enough. In the end, an abrupt end to a phone call to his son convinced him to keep going:

“It had been raining all day – it was miserable,” he said. “I still had 17 miles to go until I could rest, I was feeling down and really missing home. Looking at the time, I realised my son would have just left school, so I decided to call him. But just hearing his voice choked me up and it was hard to speak.

My son was silent for a minute and then said ‘Gotta go dad, I’m with my mates’ and put the phone down! That was a wake-up call for me: my son was getting on with his life, and assumed I would be doing the same. So I did – I just got on with it, and resolved to finish the course.”

Despite the physical and psychological demands on him, Nicky actually enjoyed the simplicity of his routine, focusing on simply getting from one destination to another and letting go of the usual everyday worries. Additionally, he felt more connected to the world around him after being immersed in the stunning scenery, and the kindness of strangers along the way made him realise the value of human connections. 

Nicky en route of the NC500

Nicky has raised £12,000 for Mental Health UK so far, and hopes his time in Scotland will help to open up dialogue about mental health, particularly for men, who are more likely to hide their emotions and not share their struggles with others.

He has also been in contact with the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA), because “while footballers have a very privileged life in some respects, they are not exempt from suffering from mental health issues.”

Currently, footballers have little training on how to deal with the pressure that comes with the position, or the abuse they may receive on social media: Nicky would like to see experts in clubs offering support to players.

How would Nicky describe his trip, now he is back home in Oxted? 

“Brutally amazing! I’ve learnt alot about myself, and the money raised will go towards making a difference. And that’s ultimately what I want: to be able to look back at my life and know I’ve done something meaningful.”

You can add to Nicky’s total amount at Just Giving.

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