In 2011 Sky Sports presenter Dave Clark was told he had Parkinson’s. Now undertakng a major fundraising challenge, the Leeds broadcaster on why he’s refusing to hide away.
The date is fixed. On September 11 I will embark on my greatest ever physical and emotional challenge. On that day I will begin walking the 200 mile coast to coast route from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.
It’s a walk which has always held a special place in my heart. As a child on holiday I witnessed the euphoria of people reaching the beach in Robin Hood’s Bay after their walk from Cumbria – splashing about in the sea, opening champagne. It always looked so appealing, I’m not quite sure I really understood the marathon walking element – but I do now.
I’ve been training hard over the last few months, taking every opportunity to get out and build up my fitness and stamina despite travelling around the UK and abroad as Sky Sports darts presenter. The shortest stretch I’ll be walking is seven and a half miles, and the longest is 23.
You might be reading this and thinking, “seven and a half miles isn’t much”, but, trust me, when just putting one foot in front of the other really hurts, every mile will feel like a hundred.
You see I have Parkinson’s. I was diagnosed with this degenerative neurological condition that is caused by the lack of dopamine in the brain just over five years ago. I was 44 years old. Looking back, there were certainly warning signs. In the years before diagnosis my right hand felt stiffer, and when it shook uncontrollably it made it hard to hold a microphone.
There were other symptoms too. Occasionally I found it difficult to grip, sometimes I limped and at times my concentration was poor, but to say that being told by a neurologist that I had Parkinson’s was a profound shock is an understatement.
You see I already had personal experience of how devastating a diagnosis it can be - my father Alan had also faced it. Dad, who was always a larger than life character, a big hearty Yorkshire man who loved his rugby, tried to keep it hidden. What started as a twitch in his right hand led over the years to severe depression as his symptoms got worse. Eventually he took his own life.
My attitude to living with Parkinson’s is very different from my dad’s. I want to be open about it and I want to dispel the myths and misunderstandings. A common one is that Parkinson’s only affects older people. That’s what I thought, but – now I know better. There are 127,000 people with Parkinson’s in the UK, and one person is diagnosed every hour.
Five years after my diagnosis, and despite medication, it’s getting harder to do everyday things that I used to take for granted. For example, my writing has got smaller, which I’ve discovered can be a common symptom of Parkinson’s, and it reminds me of a spider crawling across the page.
As a former keen sportsman, the loss of flexibility, pain and tiredness are hard to deal with. The stiffness in my facial muscles can make it hard to smile, so I can come across as looking stern. There are other ‘invisible’ changes which can be harder still.
I was lucky enough recently to spend a weekend on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, a place my wife and I spent our honeymoon many years ago. This time round we had our two strapping boys in tow.
Once again we walked The Path Of The Gods, a beautiful hilltop trek, overlooking the breathtaking coastline. A spectacular sun was setting, there were vineyards and lemon groves as far as the eye could see. A gentle breeze came in from the ocean; I should have been feeling as high as a kite. I was happy, yes, but my dopamine deficient brain wouldn’t allow me to feel the full brain rush of the moment.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter - a chemical messenger that helps in the transmission of signals in the brain and other areas. It’s what is released when you fall in love, drink and play video games. It’s addictive, numbs things for a while and makes you feel great. It even has the added bonus of helping your arms and legs to work smoothly. I am probably down to my last 10 percent.
I celebrated my 50th birthday in August so I’m still a relatively young man, but some days I feel like a pretty old one. However, I stay optimistic about the future. I’ve set myself the coast to coast challenge in aid of Parkinson’s UK to show what can be achieved through determination and positive thinking, and to encourage other people with Parkinson’s, and everyone else, to take on physical challenges. I am also passionate about finding a cure for Parkinson’s, and raising vital funds to support and accelerate innovative research into new and better treatments.
Current Parkinson’s drugs don’t stop, slow down or reverse the condition – they only mask it for a time. Despite huge scientific advances, there have been no major breakthroughs in Parkinson’s treatments in the last decade. I want to play my part in supporting the work of Parkinson’s UK to help fund the essential research needed to transform the lives of people living with the condition, in years rather than decades.
My friend and colleague Martin Turner will be joining me from the start. Martin is the executive producer of Formula One on Sky Sports. He also has Parkinson’s. Together, with the help of some other sporting colleagues including sports journalist Gabriele Marcotti, Matt Porter, CEO of the Professional Darts Corporation and the odd darts player or two, we will take on this challenge, one step at a time.
I have just smashed my own £30,000 fundraising target and my hugely supportive employer Sky Sports has pledged to double every pound that Martin Turner and I raise up to £50,000, so we’re now aiming for a grand total of £100,000.
This week I fantasised about inventing dopamine jump leads. The Bluetooth connection (because everything operates on Bluetooth these days) would link my kids’ brains with mine. As they enjoy the dopamine rush of playing Pokémon GO or FIFA 16, my brain gets topped up with their excess brain juice. Just like charging an iPhone, my grey matter would be fizzing for the rest of the day. After a five minute top up, my motor skills would be restored and I’d be able to lace up my walking boots and feel the full rush of the beautiful views on my coast-to-coast walk.
You never know - the money raised from my walk may just finance a scientist somewhere to invent their own version of dopamine jump leads. Mind you, not even the sharpest scientific brains in the land could get the Bluetooth working first time.
You can follow Dave Clark’s progress at www.parkinsons.org.uk/ClarkysC2C and via Twitter @daveclarktv on social or using #clarkysC2C. Anyone is welcome to join the walkers for on any part of the route and they hope to cross the finishing line at Robin Hood’s Bay on September 23. Donations can be made at www.justgiving.com/ClarkysC2C.