Since the very beginning, the Great North Run has been a celebration of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
This year, the event is celebrating everyday heroes, people who give back to their communities and inspire those around them with their dedication and perseverance.
Paul Wilson is taking part in his first Simplyhealth Great North Run in September, raising funds for the Dark Horse Theatre, a national touring theatre company based in Huddersfield who provide training and acting opportunities for learning disabled actors.
Paul, who has Down’s Syndrome and is himself an actor at Dark Horse, decided to take on the challenge of running a half marathon after the theatre called out for volunteers to help raise vital funds for the registered charity in order to provide greater training opportunities and to organise more productions.
The 42-year-old, from Wakefield, has never taken part in a half marathon before – but has competed at the Special Olympics where he has won a range of medals in his specialism of powerlifting, which led to him being torch bearer in the 2012 Olympic Games Torch Relay.
Paul will join a team of runners from Dark Horse in the world’s biggest half marathon and will also be running in memory of his mum who lost her life to leukaemia in 2014, following in the footsteps of his brothers and sisters who have also completed the Great North Run.
He said: “Now it’s my turn. I’m doing this for my late mother. My dad and myself need to keep happy and fit for the rest of our lives. Running is not my strongest skill but I can do it, with walking and jogging.
“Having heard that Dark Horse need more funds for shows, I decided to volunteer for this. I’m excited in a nervous way. It’ll be fun. I know people will help me to relax. I know I will enjoy it. It means so much to me, it’s such an excellent experience for me.”
Paul joined Dark Horse almost five years ago, and since then his father Barry believes he has improved his life by getting involved with the theatre company.
He said: “It has helped with his confidence. He’s really keen to come here, he feels a real benefit in coming here, he never wants to miss a session, he looks forward to every day here.
“It’s one of the best setups for people with special needs that I’ve come across so far. I’ve always tried to find him things so he can be the best he can be.
“That’s something his mother had always said. Anything that can improve his life – that’s the reason why he comes here. It’s a step forward in his life.
“It makes me feel very proud to think he could do this but it also makes me sad to think his mum never got the chance to see him on stage doing a proper show.”
Barry will be supporting Paul on the day, and has helped with his training, getting up to around ten miles a week in the bank ahead of the half marathon.
He admits seeing his son cross the finish line on Sunday, 9 September, will be an incredibly proud moment in a long line of impressive achievements.
“Personally, from being a baby, we were told all the things he won’t be able to do, so obviously seeing him on the stage it was exactly the same as seeing him in the Special Olympics and how I’ll feel when I see him doing the Great North Run.
“It just fills me with pride that he’s able to achieve these things that people told me he’d never be able to do in his life.
“As soon as Paul heard about the opportunity he wanted to do it. His brothers and sisters have all done the Great North Run and have raised funds for Leukaemia UK.
“He’s always been on the fringes and has said he wanted to do something like this. So when Dark Horse offered him the chance to take part, where he can raise funds for the theatre and also do something in his mum’s memory as well, he was straight in.
“It’ll be probably exactly the same as him getting the gold medal at the Special Olympics, I’ll just cry. When he does this kind of stuff I just well up, I can’t do anything else. When I think of the beginning then I see him do this – it makes me emotional.
Paul and his dad have been working on his strategy on the day, with the plan being to walk and jog the 13.1mile course from Newcastle to South Shields.
He said: “He’ll have to go into the run in a steady way rather than trying to take off straight away. The initial plan will be to try and complete the first half fast walking and then once he’s got into that rhythm, then he’ll kick in and try to jog to the finish. He just needs to get to feel the situation.
“We’ve overcome all of these situations in the past in the things he has achieved. He will overcome them, he will master them and he will do it.”
Paul, who is part of the theatre’s ensemble group, has gained so much from his sessions at Dark Horse, and despite being worried at the beginning, he has grown into a valued member of the team.
He said: “When I first came along it was frightening but I could relax soon after. It has given me the chance to work with real life professionals who have Down Syndrome. I’ve never worked at that level and I’m pleased to be able to.
One colleague, Joe Sproulle, has high hopes for Paul when he takes part in the Simplyhealth Great North Run.
He said: “Paul is my colleague and I wish him all the luck and all the success for him in the Great North Run. He’s got full potential and he’s got strength – I believe he can win it.
“It will be a challenge for him but hopefully he can do it by himself, and do it for Dark Horse Theatre.”
Paula Brook, outreach and audience coordinator at Dark Horse, was not surprised when Paul volunteered to take part in the Simplyhealth Great North Run.
She said: “We were happy, not surprised. There’s a couple we’d have thought would have gone for it and Paul was one of those.”
Paula will be one of the team joining Paul over the half marathon and is looking forward to the day, admitting it will be an emotional scene when they all cross the finish line.
She said: “I think it will depend on how we’re feeling on the day. I think we’ll start off together, and I hope we can complete it together but we’ll see how it goes.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to describe it, it’s overpowering watching them perform, so to see Paul achieve that will be overwhelming.
“When you work with any professional actor, when you see them progress you’re always going to be proud of them. You’re always proud of your colleagues when you see them achieve something. That’s completely natural.
Paula believes Paul’s enthusiasm to achieve his goal of completing the Simplyhealth Great North Run matches his energy at Dark Horse, summing up the ethos at the theatre company.
She added: “What we want them to be is inspirational to others, to make other people realise that having any kind of disability shouldn’t limit you and there are opportunities. We love that in them.
The confidence, the control, the poise and the professionalism just develops daily. When you see them on stage and how that brings them up, it’s amazing. We’re proud of them, as anybody would be, but it’s more about the industry changing and people having opportunities.
“We’re working with people who can do the job of a professional actor, they just need the job opportunities. It’s about getting audiences in and changing the perception. That’s always going to be a challenge but it is changing, it really is. The industry is starting to open up to people with learning disabilities.
“And it’s not just about finding a role for a learning disabled person, it’s about realising that they’re as good as any other actor and giving them the roles they deserve.
“He’s great to be around, he’s a bag of energy, he is so determined in everything that he does and he’s always asking how to improve what he can do. We encourage them outside of Dark Horse to continue their training because it’s about it becoming part of their lives and Paul does that.
“Any funds we get is appreciated at Dark Horse, we’re not nationally funded so we fight tooth and nail to get the funds in to make sure we give the best training for our guys.
“We want a place they enjoy coming to but they enjoy it because they have a goal, and they have got something to reach for. They can be the same as anybody else.”
Simplyhealth Great North Run is live on BBC One on Sunday 9 September, 09:30-13:30. For more information on the Simplyhealth Great North Run, visit: Greatrun.org/North