Leeds Rhinos legend Keith Senior is joining Mike Tomlinson on a 3,000-mile charity bike ride from London to Rio de Janeiro. John Ledger talks to the former rugby league player.
The careers of athletes are fleeting, the shop window of opportunity for those who ply their trade in the high profile world of professional sport all too brief.
Any job which requires a person to be in absolutely peak physical condition comes with an inescapable caveat of enforced retirement at an age that would be unthinkable in most other careers.
For many sportsmen and women, the transition from life in the cut and thrust of the sporting arena to a less active, and more prosaic lifestyle can be a difficult process. Some miss the camaraderie that comes from being involved in team sport; some mourn the loss of profile; many struggle to find a new sense of direction; others just miss the not inconsiderable financial rewards. And then there are those like Keith Senior, athletes who need to find a foil for their competitive edge and a channel for the seemingly endless reserves of energy that fuelled glittering careers.
The phrase ‘fine physical specimen’ could have been coined with Keith in mind: during his time as a rugby league player with Sheffield Eagles and Leeds Rhinos, the 6ft 3in Huddersfield-born centre never looked anything less than lean, conditioned and hungry for tries.
In his 18 seasons at the highest level, Keith represented Yorkshire, England and Great Britain on 43 occasions and made over 500 club appearances, scoring 231 tries in the process.
It is perhaps no coincidence that his high fitness level was accompanied by good fortune with injuries in a contact sport which exerts a heavy toll on players, who face the constant threat of bodily harm from the repeated collisions and unceasing ebb and flow of action.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament, allied to an ill-fated move to the doomed Crusaders club, finally prompted Keith to call time on his playing career in 2011 at 35, a ripe old age for a modern rugby league player.
His love of horse riding and country pursuits provided a welcome distraction in the important first few months of life after rugby, but over time it became clear that a more robust outlet was required for a man who by his own admission struggles to sit still.
He entered the Great North Run in 2013 and so began a new chapter in his life that will reach a significant milestone this summer with a 3,000-mile charity cycle ride from the Olympic Stadium in London to Rio de Janeiro.
The Ride to Rio will see him join Mike Tomlinson, the widower of the remarkable Yorkshire fundraiser Jane Tomlinson, TV presenter Charlie Webster and fellow rugby league retiree Paul Highton in the saddle for the six-week slog to South America.
The fund-raising trip is in aid of the Jane Tomlinson Appeal and Rugby League Cares, a charity which is becoming increasingly active in providing support to players whose health and circumstances have been affected by life in the sport, be it through injury or retirement.
“I’ve done quite a few charity challenges in the last few years but this is by far the biggest,” says Keith, who now works as an assistant coach at Sheffield Eagles, the club he played for in the first-ever Super League fixture against Paris St Germain 20 years ago this week.
“I had a great career and the sport owes me nothing so this is my way of putting something back. In a selfish way it’s also a fantastic way to test myself, which is something I quickly found I needed to do once I’d retired.
“I started out with a 10km run three years ago and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. People tell me I must be mad but I love it.”
Keith ran his first marathon in Manchester in April 2014, quickly followed by the London, Northampton and Huddersfield marathons over the next three weeks. In June that year he cycled the 1,100 miles from Perpignan in the south of France to Leeds in eight days, and last year completed a series of marathons and half-marathons, including the gruelling Marathon des Sables in aid of the armed forces charity, Walking With The Wounded.
An ambassador for the Laura Crane Youth Cancer Trust and the Sheffield Eagles Include Foundation, Keith met Mike Tomlinson while running the Yorkshire Marathon, which is organised by Run For All, a sister organisation to the Jane Tomlinson Appeal.
Their mutual respect led to them teaming up for the Ride To Rio, which sets off from London on June 27 and arrives at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics on August 4.
Before then, Keith is running the Sheffield half-marathon on April 10 as an hors-d’oeuvre to the London marathon on April 24, his 40th birthday. “I haven’t done any cycling at all this year, it’s not time to get the bike out just yet,” he says.
“Believe it or not I’m not a big fan of the challenges themselves, it’s the training and preparation for them that does it for me. The saddle soreness and the blisters I can do without. As a player your next game is your big goal: for me, now I’ve retired, the marathons and bike rides give me targets to aim for.
“It’s very humbling to see what some people put their bodies through on the challenges I’ve done so far. I am in a privileged position of being able-bodied and able to create awareness of some very good causes, as well as raising vital funds.
“Rugby League Cares wasn’t around when I retired, and I went through some really bad times. The support they give people like me is incredible. When you come to the end of your career you think you’re superhuman and if you don’t prepare properly for life after sport you can find yourself in some sticky situations.
“As rugby players we’re big, tough lads who don’t like talking to people about our problems. It’s great to let people know that Rugby League Cares is there to help them in all sorts of ways.”
The Ride To Rio team will cycle from the Olympic Stadium to catch a ferry to le havre before riding 1,231 miles to Lisbon, where they board a flight to Recife for the final stage of the challenge, a 1,600 mile adventure along Brazil’s spectacular coastal roads to Rio. The quartet will be joined by friends and supporters along the way.
The trip marks the tenth anniversary of Jane Tomlinson’s final, and most demanding challenge, when she defied the pain of advanced metastatic breast cancer to ride from San Francisco to New York. Before she died in 2007, Jane Tomlinson raised £1.8m for good causes and the appeal named in her memory has since raised a further £6m for children’s and cancer charities across Yorkshire and the UK.
“Jane was an inspiration to us all, a truly remarkable lady who achieved more in her lifetime than any of us could ever have dreamed of,” says Keith. “What she put herself through in the last years of her life was just amazing and it’s an honour for me to have this opportunity to build on her legacy.”
To donate to the Jane Tomlinson Appeal Ride to Rio visit www.justgiving.com/RidetoRio or text JRTR70 £5 to 70070 to give £5.
For more information on Rugby League Cares visit www.rugbyleaguecares.org.