When I started out on this idea of celebrating everyday people’s lives I of course had a list of names in mind. I’ve been very careful to pick up new people along the way or otherwise it runs the risk of becoming the stories of Nicki’s pals! However, this week’s Big Personality has been on the list since day one and with his 2014 extraordinary challenge reaching its finale this weekend it seemed only right to bring you the much anticipated tale of Mr Steven Bonthrone.
This year Steve has run and cycled 1000 miles to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Research. He has, as you will discover, inspired, motivated and challenged a whole host of people along the way and with his last race this Sunday at the Loch Ness Marathon he will cross the finish line knowing that the incredible personal achievement he has claimed is nothing compared to the feel-good factor he has spread while making this journey.
And as if that wasn’t a good enough reason for winning a hot spot on the Big Personality Blog, this is a man who for almost 10 years fed the people of Perth pizzas so good you were never prepared to share… And then just as we were all about to burst a button he set up as a personal trainer. Mmmm - talk about your long-term plan.
Steve may be Perth’s Running Man today but at school he was far from sporty. He was second last in every race beating only the child with a broken foot / no trainers / who refused to run. And he’d never, ever have considered running long distance.
Picture 26 year old Steve somewhere circa August ’97. He’s lying on his couch with a slipped disc problem, signed off work for four weeks and bemoaning the fact that this was an old man’s issue. With little else to do, he lay reading magazines and had his attention grabbed by an advert for The London Marathon. Now, Steve had always watched this great race and held a secret notion that he’d run it one day. Back in these far flung days of the nineties there was no ‘Sign Up Online’ option so Steve headed for Campus Sports to pick up a copy of the race magazine, filled out the form, sent it off and gave it little more thought.
Back to work and selling pizzas from his job as Marcello’s Pizza Chef (side note: everyone over 30 will remember this most glorious of takeaways. You wanted a pizza at lunch time, you got it. 1am after the dancing, there it was. The best pizzas in town!) he hadn’t even started to train when, in December, a letter arrived with a pack to say he was in! He had a place in the April 1998 London Marathon.
“I phoned my mum to tell her I was going to be in the London Marathon and she said ‘You’re off your head!’. I never had a clue about training or what I should be doing so I just started running. My exercise at that point wasn’t so much a regime as the odd visit to the gym or a game of 5-aside with my mates. When this came through for me I changed my approach and suddenly had something to focus on.”
Steve remembers it as a happy time – training for his first big run and working in Marcellos.
“I loved my job. I’d lost my job as a signalman on the railway and I was looking around for something new when I saw Italian Corner advertising for waiters. I started but I was terrible. After a month Marcello moved me to the kitchen and then round to the takeaway! Turns out I was better at making pizzas than serving them.”
We chat a bit about his feeding us all up on delicious pizzas; I’d never realised that Steve is genuinely proud about his time as a Pizza chef. It wasn’t a stopgap before Personal Training it was almost a decade of his life that he worked hard at and cared about.
“We were listed in successive editions of the alternative tourist guide, ‘Scotland The Best’, The Sunday Times featured us in a feature on Italian food places in Scotland – the only takeaway outside Glasgow and Edinburgh to be mentioned. It was happy times – Davide and I had a blast.”
Back to this marathon! He hooked up with one of his Marcello’s regulars, Paul Innes who had recently ran the New York Marathon and was also running in London at the time. They were joined by his old school pal Gary Cummings and we set about training on Sunday mornings in an attempt to get us all marathon-ready. He started going to a circuits class at Rodney with Clare Simpson and, when he felt brave, enough Andrea’s aerobics!
He completed London in 4 hours 38 minutes – he now runs the same distance over an hour less – with shin splints for the final 15 miles. He was pouring water down his legs at the drink stops and by the time he stood standing at Buckingham Palace he was squelching in his trainers and feeling desperately sorry for himself.
“And then I saw a guy who had ‘hit the wall’, could barely stand up and two other runners took time out of their race to him over the finish line. That summed up the spirit of marathon running for me and I was hooked. I crossed that line thinking ‘If I can do it anyone can’.”
Steve signed up for the 1999 marathon and started to train properly. He was already thinking about beating his time and with fresh incentive to do well he joined Hanover’s Gym and started to exercise regularly and with effort. Within the year he came down to under four hours and made the decision that would change the course of his life.
“I asked one of the guys at the gym about training courses for instructors and he handed me a video from a training company. I sat transfixed and by the time it finished, I had phoned them and booked on their next course - starting 6 weeks later! It was all a bit quick but I knew that I had found what I wanted to do. I quit Marcello’s on the 31st December 1999 and on the 5th January in a new millennium I started at a residential training course for Personal Trainers in Wiltshire.”
Steve was in debt to the tune of £3K and without any wages coming in while he trained he really was putting all his money where his mouth was!
“I didn’t really think about the money though. Suddenly I had something I was good at and I enjoyed. I was rubbish at school and left as soon as I could. My mum and dad had always encouraged my brother and I to do what made us happy and finally, at the age of 29, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
He got back to Perth and within a few weeks had secured his first gym job at Ivy Court on George Street. He was teaching classes like Body Pump, Body Combat and Spinning and he tells me the atmosphere at the time was amazing.
“It was like a party. It was pretty shambolic at times, no towels, no hot water... But no-one every complained because it was like this big, happy family. Well, to begin with!”
The end came bitterly, but with a little bit of inside knowledge Steve had known liquidators were about to start knocking at the door and had applied to work at the newly opened LivingWell Club. He was made redundant and had a new job all in the same day.
Steve was quickly appointed to Senior Instructor and the club were pulling in company awards left, right and centre. They developed programmes to help bolster retention and began to offer Personal Training. During this time Steve was coaching the instructors to help deliver a better service for members.
“It was a great idea but unsustainable. There were 3000 members and we were trying to offer a personalised service to everyone. The company then wanted us to sell heart rate monitors and supplements to members and it worked quite well as we were working as a team towards a common goal. They then changed it to having individual targets rather than a team target and I hated it. For me, it felt like we were moving away from giving the members the best possible service to selling to them. When the opportunity came for Personal Trainers to pay rent and go self-employed I jumped at it.”
It was January 2006 when Steve started his own Personal Training business and in the 8 years since then he has gone from strength-to-strength, building an enviable reputation as one of Perthshire’s go-to people. It started with one client a day and built to include packages for ‘drop a dress size’ (which is incidentally how we first met!), power walking clubs and fundraisers.
“I was the only person doing it when I started out and before long I was working crazy hours. I was taking out groups to power walk around the inch and this developed into running clubs and helping people train for everything from a 10K to a marathon.
I had a good business but fitness is like every other industry and I could see developments being made and new ideas and techniques coming to the fore. I regularly go on training courses and conventions and meet other PTs who were set up in their own studios and doing some great work. Bannatynes began allowing the gym instructors to offer Personal Training and with a couple of the others who were self-employed and paying rent, we now had more competition but with an ever-decreasing target market so I made the decision to open my own studio.”
Steve, as you can imagine, had a solid idea about what he wanted and following a chat with Anne Smith at King James VI Centre, he sealed the deal.
“She was great. No issues, no problems just a resounding ‘Yes. Come and set up with us.’ I had a quick chat with Frank McGarrie to create a frame for the TRX suspension trainer I had been using, showed him photos of my mate’s studio in Glasgow and that was me. A month’s notice to Bannatynes and I was suddenly the proud owner of my own Training Studio. It was that quick.”
Steve makes it all sound so easy, no problems and when I started prodding to find out if it really was that simple he tells me that he lost about 60% of his customers in the first month. It just didn’t suit them. However, where they didn’t cross over from a big gym environment, others did and a new type of customer emerged. He is now busier than ever – I saw someone post on Facebook earlier this year that they wanted to start running and wondered if anyone knew of a trainer. By the time I was posting “Steve Bonthrone” about 20 people had beaten me to it. What was interesting was that there were no other PT names on that list.
I feel that I must chime in here about my friend; quite simply, he is one of the most positive people you will ever meet. He is that guy who is always reading a book about the power of the mind, or the power of positivity. He takes a hold of life and just goes for it. Self-improvement is high on his list and he embraces the opportunity to help others do the same. There is no ulterior motive with Steve – I think that sometimes his happy, upbeat nature and willingness to get involved and help others makes the more cynical amongst us suspicious but I will say categorically that what you see is what you get. He is 100% genuine.
When he told us about his 1000 mile challenge this year we weren’t even that shocked. I mean it was huge, even by Steve’s standards but no-one doubted for a second that he’d do it.
He first posted about his challenge last December. He committed to running over 850 miles in an attempt to raise £6,000 for Macmillan. Just to fill in a wee gap in the story, after the first two London Marathons back in the nineties Steve has run countless races, run London seven times, a wedding proposal story, ran the Paris Marathon and a couple of 5K stints on his honeymoon in Florida in 2010. Therefore, when he decided to raise funds for Macmillan he knew it was going to have to capture the imagination of everyone whose pocket he intended to empty - this had to be a goal we’d consider worthy of a sponsor!
He set up Making A Positive Difference to Macmillan by running the Paris Marathon, the Loch Ness Marathon and pledged to run the 850 miles distance between the two locations, his wife Allison also threw in three marathons worth of effort and together they set a target of £6000. Since then they have smashed this, added cycling to the mix and upped Steve’s target miles to 1000 and Allison’s challenge to include the Scone Palace Cycletta.
“It’s not just about the money Nicki, although that it is a huge part of it. Macmillan is an amazing charity and I wanted to highlight the brilliant work they do. When I lost my dad last July I needed to find a way to make something positive happen out of it.”
Steve’s dad was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in April last year and very quickly deteriorated. His Dad was an amazing character and Steve’s admiration, love and respect shines through in every conversation we’ve ever had about him.
Since Steve set himself this challenge the most incredible things have happened and he will philosophically state that none of them would have been possible without the circle of events that includes his Dad’s fight with cancer. At the top of this list of momentous achievements must be running all four races – 5K, 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon - at this year’s Edinburgh Marathon Festival in order to clock up a few miles for his challenge.
“When I ran in Edinburgh in May it wasn’t really about the four races. It was the knowledge that I was doing it for my Dad and this charity that had helped us all so much. Afterwards it became almost surreal - when we got back to the hotel Allison overheard two girls in the toilets talking about the guy who had run all four races.
And then when the photo appeared on Facebook of me crossing the line in my last race with the Nelson Mandela quote on it, the magnitude began to sink in. Macmillan circulated that image everywhere and used it on their thank-you cards to runner. Then in July I won the Inspirational Runner Award from Run 4 It and now, its September and I’m only a few days away from completing my challenge.”
I ask him if Edinburgh has been the highlight of his running career.
“It has all been overwhelming but really, the highlight has been the people I’ve met along the way. They tell me how inspired they’ve felt following the story and how much it has helped them stay motivated. It doesn’t feel spectacular to me but then I hear these people and I see it in a different light.“
“It’s not been about the running, or the training or even raising the money. It’s been about the amazing help from others, especially my wife, and opening my mind up to the idea that anything is possible. Becasue of course, I've realised that it is and the journey along the way is truly amazing.”
We’ve not had time to chat about the fact he is a trained NLP coach, that he met Allison at a party in my friend Lizzi’s kitchen (that I invited him to – just call us Cilla!) or that he still has a thing for a well-made pizza and a cold beer.
But all you need to know is here: Steve runs The Loch Ness Marathon this Sunday and would love to break the £10,000 mark in his joint fundraising with Alison.
Sponsor Steve by visiting his page STEVE BONTHRONE JUST GIVING.
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