Kevin Sinfield OBE talks to Sky Sports about his toughest challenge yet as he prepares for seven ultramarathons in seven days to raise awareness and funds for those affected by motor neuron disease.
“I’m not Superman at all. In my own mind, I’m going on a flight, for a mate, with some friends,” Sinfield says.
“I would have done it for the least amount of money because the bigger message in this is that I’m doing it for a partner, and I want Rob (Burrow) to know I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with him during this.
“I can’t see what he’s going through, but I can show him I’ll fight and wreck. I can show him I’ll still make him laugh and make him laugh. That’s what friends do , right? They watch out for each other.”
Sinfield and Rob Burrow first met as juniors, meeting when Sinfield was just 14 years old and Burrow two years younger.
The pair sat side by side in the dressing room every day for 15 years of professional rugby, forming the heart of one of the rugby league’s best teams.
Sinfield’s career with Leeds Rhinos ran from 1997 to 2015, in his 521st and final appearance for the club, he completed the treble and had won seven major finals.
Burrow ended his own career after winning eight Super League titles, retired from professional rugby at the end of the 2017 season and was subsequently diagnosed with MND in December 2019.
The depth of the relationship between Sinfield and Burrow is evident in the emotions that are on Sinfield’s face every time he talks about his great friend and former teammate.
For years they walked for each other through walls on a rugby pitch and that level of dedication hasn’t changed since he retired, as Sinfield continues to show with the challenges he takes on.
“The great thing about rugby, in both codes, is that you get teammates and you rely on each other every second you’re on that pitch together,” Sinfield said.
“Just because you stop putting your foot across that white line doesn’t mean it has to end. It certainly won’t end for me with Rob or for that team we played in. It was a very special team. Not you “Don’t forget those friendships.”
An ultramarathon describes any distance above 26.2 miles. On November 13, Sinfield will begin a period of seven consecutive days at a speed of 40 miles per day.
He starts at Murrayfield Stadium with Doddie Weir, who was diagnosed with MND in 2016, and makes his way across the country to finish on the pitch at Old Trafford at halftime in the men’s Rugby League World Cup final.
The format of the challenge and the magnitude of it was something Sinfield created, as he explained.
“This was always in the back of my mind and as soon as we hit the 101 miles last year, I immediately knew this was what I wanted to go after,” he said.
“What it has enabled us to do is bring three sports and three champions together with Doddie, Rob and Stephen Darby and reach key locations and venues for them and their careers. In Murrayfield can start with Doddie, see Rob at Headingley and Stephen at Valley Parade will be so emotional, but also so inspiring, for all of us involved.”
It will be by far the toughest. I can see that from the training over the past three or four months in terms of where I had to go and what I had to do to prepare.
Sinfield has run many marathons since finishing his rugby career, taking on two exceptionally difficult challenges: seven marathons in seven days and 101 miles in 24 hours. He has gained insight into what his body needs over certain distances, but has taken his training to a new level, ahead of the Ultra 7 in 7.
“Essentially I’ve been trying to block for days and run on tired legs because I have to get used to that. I have to make sure my muscles always feel exhausted,” he said.
“It means I have to run marathons on days in a row and I’ve been in the 60km (37 miles, plus) a number of times.
“I’ve been hitting 30km (18.6 miles) day after day, day after day and half marathons at all sorts of crazy hours because you fit it in around work. It’s the bits that nobody sees, but the bits that are absolutely vital. Importance. Do I feel ready to go now? I couldn’t have done more without getting injured.”
Just one example of how Sinfield has pushed his mind and body was a three-day streak in early September, and they weren’t the only grueling string of days either.
“I ran 66km (41 miles), the next day I got up at 4am to drive to Leicester, coached all day, drove home and left at 3:45pm and ran 61km (37 miles). I was up the next morning, running 62km. That’s where you have to go and it was very, very challenging and difficult.”
Sinfield will have two friends by his side for the distance, which has also meant a brutal training regime for them. Three others will also cover the distance by bicycle.
“They will do their best, just like me. If they can do every step brilliantly or whatever they get done, the fact that they are with us is so important to me,” he said. “A smile, a friendly face around us, that banter and camaraderie. We are back in a team, on tour and we are back to share memories and stories.
“We enjoy going through tough times together, but the best friendships are often made by going through tough times.
“In addition, I will try to hold my record, which is through the 7 in 7 (marathons) and the 101 miles that I didn’t get, so I’d like to continue that!”
Sinfield would like this challenge to be looked at properly, in his words it is not a “science experiment” or anything like Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2 marathon quest. Yes, the team will have support along the way, including physios, doctors and sports scientists, but as Sinfield noted, they are friends who also want to do their part to support Rob, Doddie, Stephen, Ed Slater and the entire MND community.
“I want people to understand that if you really want to try to make a difference, you can. You have to use your head and your heart. It just shows the power of friendship,” he said.
“We can all do our little bit; nobody has to run seven ultramarathons in seven days, but your little bit can be anything. If we’re all willing to do that, you’ll make it a much better place for everyone to live.” and On.”
This is important to raise money and awareness, but the heartbeat of it is to show Rob how much our friendship means. The fact that right now he can’t choose what he has, but I want him to understand that his friends will be there and will stay. That is the bigger message in all of this.
When Sinfield told Burrow about this latest challenge, he said his friend just laughed. Burrow’s parents told Sinfield after the last 101 mile challenge that he had done enough already, Sinfield told us ‘Obviously I hadn’t done that’.
“I’m really glad I’m here and that we can test ourselves to try again and help. If we don’t raise a penny after this interview, I’m fine with it. It won’t change the way I work it, no matter how hard I run or how much I worked for it.
“I won’t stop doing what I can. Just do your little bit, whatever it is. It makes a difference and I’ll keep doing my little bit.”
Now that training has come to an end and Sinfield is in tapering off – a period runners will know well – he is open about the fact that there is concern circulating, as well as a desire to get moving and get started.
“With something like this there is always doubt, of course there is doubt. Am I strong enough? Am I strong enough? Have I bitten off more than I can chew? But what I would say is that when you take on a challenge like this, it’s normal, right? You should feel that way,” he added.
“If it was easy and I thought I could just break it, it’s not a challenge. It has to test me, test every ounce of me and I know it’s going to hurt.
“I know I’m going to have to go to a dark place, but it had to test and challenge, and it had to be harder than the other two. I’m willing to do everything I can to complete [it] and I’ll throw absolutely anything on it.”
For Sinfield and the team, the drive and desire to show Burrow, Weir, Darby, Slater and the entire MND community that they stand behind them burns stronger than ever. Five charities will be supported from the financial total raised, with an initial fundraising target of £777,777.
“To be back on a team with a load of friends who get a similar glow from being able to offer hope was incredible,” Sinfield said.
“I don’t really want to think too far ahead and what that night” [at Old Trafford] could look like because there are so many things that can go wrong. There is a lot of risk. I am aware that if I divert my attention by taking one step before another, you are only one step away from a serious injury.
“What I can do is make sure that our team arrives in one piece and that our team properly represent Rob, Stephen, Doddie, Ed and that MND community and the three codes we represent so that we continue to offer hope. and funds for a disease that is vastly underfunded.
“I hope that whether it’s five, ten or twenty years from now, we’ve played a very small part in finding a cure.”