My great friend James Cracknell has been accused of midlife crisis behaviour: new young girlfriend. New tattoo. Motorbike. Running marathons. Going on Strictly Come Dancing.
But it’s a lazy cliché. Cracknell was – and still is – a sporting freak. He has two Olympic gold medals. He is the 17th fastest person to complete the notorious Marathon des Sables, which involves six marathons back-to-back across the Sahara desert.
At 45, he ran the London Marathon in 2hrs 43 mins, and this year was part of Cambridge’s winning Boat Race crew, making him its oldest ever competitor; his teammates’ dads were younger than him.
None of this is classic midlife crisis territory – it is what sporting legends do.
Even more astonishing is that, just a few years ago, Cracknell nearly died in an accident that left him critically brain-damaged. He was told he would never be the same again. James has spent nearly a decade defying the doctors and resisting being labelled an ‘injured’ man.
At the time of his brain injury, it threatened to define him. There were acres of press coverage about it, which threatened to undermine ‘James the athlete’.
When we walked across the desert together, we did so with a medic in tow (a BBC health and safety stipulation, in case he suffered adverse affects from the heat and dehydration due to his head trauma). After he was approached to appear on I’m a Celebrity… he was turned down due to concerns about his mental health.
Even I was culpable of ableism when I decided that climbing Everest with him might be too risky; I was wrong. James is a fighter. His is not a story of midlife crisis. It’s more like survivor syndrome.
My wife Marina defines midlife crisis behaviour as anything selfish; anything that overshadows the family. For instance, if I went out cycling in Lycra for 8 hours every Saturday.
But if you are Cracknell, this is acceptable because he is a sportsman. Sure, he might be retired from professional competition, but it runs in his blood. It’s who he is.
We as a society should be championing such behaviour. We should be applauding the ability of a 47-year-old to run marathons faster than younger athletes. It’s why the lines can become blurred about what is and isn’t acceptable.
Sadly, his marriage collapsed after 17 years, and that is a tragedy. Both he and his former wife, Beverley, fought to save their relationship. But, statistically, more than three-quarters of those who sustain life-changing head injuries will end up divorced.
James now has a new girlfriend. She might be younger, but so what? If he has found happiness again, let us wish him luck and congratulate him.
Because some of us like to follow a script, but others follow the heart.