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Sir Christopher Ball


I have lived a fortunate life – and I am deeply grateful for the nature I inherited, and the nurture I received, from two loving parents and the wider family. Others are not so lucky. But the nature-nurture debate is flawed by the omission of the third term: the choices we make.

I am interested in the simple idea that we can choose to transcend our inheritance, upbringing and education. That was (for me) the point of learning to run marathons (at the age of 67) and, in due course, founding and helping to inaugurate the Brathay 10in10 challenge.

I wanted to prove that anyone can do anything (that humans can do) by choosing to do it. Of course, rigorous training is needed, and for that you need deep motivation (‘really wanting’) and strong self-belief (‘I know I can’). A coach helps!

I went to school in Keswick during WW2 and learned to love the lakes and fells of Cumbria. ‘Outdoor Education’ works. Our family (of six children, two ‘born’, four adopted) spent many holidays here and, when I was asked to serve as a Governor of Brathay, I was delighted to accept – since I admired (and shared) Brathay’s mission, and had a new excuse for visiting Lakeland. Later, I was made an Honorary Fellow of Brathay – and asked to think of ways of helping to fund their work to support vulnerable children and young people. Inspired by the example of Ranulph Fiennes, who had just run seven marathons (in seven different continents) on consecutive days, I had recently run the length of the Thames from the source in Gloucestershire to Tower Bridge (a distance of 7×26.2 miles) in a week as a training exercise, and suggested the 10in10 challenge to Brathay. The rest, as they say, is history! In ten years the event – and the doughty ‘endurance runners’ (who now number almost 100) have raised more than £1 million, and helped to change lives for the better – both by contributing to the funding of the transformational youth training and offering an example of ‘ordinary people choosing to live extraordinary lives’. We are all ordinary people – and so are you.

I enjoyed school (most of the time) but messed up my A levels (by failing to turn up for the examinations – not a good plan!). National Service in the Parachute Regiment saved me: I learned to jump, gained a commission, and served overseas in Cyprus in 1956. Oxford University offered me a place to study English, apparently impressed by my military service – since I had no educational achievements to speak of. Scholarship suited me, and after a few years I started a happy marriage and rewarding career as a university teacher. In due course, I found myself head of Keble College and entered public life. I realised the focus of my interest had shifted from the study of early English literature and linguistic change to the question of human learning: why do some people learn more effectively than others? The answer is, of course, the three influences on our lives – nature, nurture and choice. And the greatest of these is choice! Most of us, most of the time, do what we always do (habit), do what other people do (imitation), or do what gives immediate gratification (coffee and cake). That kind of life ignores the possibilities of choice. Choose your own thing! I did.

Sir Christopher Ball running


  • 2002: Started running aged 67
  • 2003: London Marathon
  • 2004: London Marathon
  • 2004: Edinburgh Marathon
  • 2005: 7 Marathons in 7 Days (following the Thames finishing on Tower Bridge)
  • 2007: Brathay 10in10 (aged 72)
  • 2007: Edinburgh Marathon
  • 2016: Brathay Half Marathon (aged 81)