Bristol student with narcolepsy is set to run 70km for charity - with scheduled naps

Freddie Dowland (front) and his friends during a training run Credit: University of Bristol/PA

A student with narcolepsy will need to nap several times as he and five friends take on an epic 70km run.

The friends, who all study at the University of Bristol, are running from Bristol to Cardiff to raise money for the charities Mind and Narcolepsy UK.

They also hope it will raise awareness for a condition many misunderstand.

At 10 years of age Freddie Dowland was sociable, a promising young footballer and a choirboy at Southwark Cathedral.

Freddie Dowland is preparing for a charity fun run from Bristol to Cardiff Credit: University of Bristol/PA

But everything changed when he started getting “uncontrollable” bouts of tiredness. Eventually, aged 11, he was told he had the incurable conditions narcolepsy and cataplexy.

His body was no longer making the hormone hypocretin, which regulates sleep and wakefulness – perhaps due to an autoimmune response from a recent chest infection.

People with narcolepsy experience extreme tiredness and ‘sleep attacks’, where they fall asleep unexpectedly.

Cataplexy, which often accompanies narcolepsy, is sudden muscular weakness triggered by strong emotions such as laughter or surprise.

“It was one of the hardest periods of my life,” Mr Dowland remembered.

“I was put on all sorts of drugs, with some bad side effects. My life changed completely and I spent most of my time napping in the medical room.

“I started to lose social connections and put on a lot of weight. I was angry and frustrated.”

Fast forward 12 years and Freddie, now 21, is thriving at the University of Bristol, where he studies geography with innovation.

He manages the conditions with medication, scheduled naps and healthy lifestyle choices, such as keeping a regular bedtime.

At 6am on Saturday December 2, Freddie and his five friends will set off from their shared house in Bristol and run the 70km to Cardiff Castle. Their families will be waiting at the finish line.

Along the way Freddie will need to sleep three or four times in the support car following them.

Mr Dowland, from North London, said: “I never thought I’d be able to run a half marathon, let alone this.

“It’s the biggest challenge any of us have done – there could be tears, injuries, anything could happen.

“It’s great to raise awareness about narcolepsy because there’s a lack of understanding around it. It’s not just someone who’s lazy or likes to sleep, there’s a lot more to it than that.”

His university friends have seen firsthand how it affects him.

The six University of Bristol friends taking on the run Credit: University of Bristol/PA

Joe Hughes, who studies economics and finance, said: “When I first encountered Freddie, I was as oblivious to narcolepsy and its effects as the majority are.

“It wasn’t until becoming closer friends that I saw the day-to-day effects. For example, it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see Freddie doze off in social settings or be late because he had to sleep.

“Then living together, I saw how he’s got to structure his whole day around when he needs to nap, and yet he still manages to achieve and thrive at uni, as well as work a job several times a week.

“I speak for the whole group when I say our admiration for how he doesn’t let his condition restrict his life has spurred us on with our training for this run.”

The other four runners are economics students Charlie Mills and Joshua Gordon, accounting and finance student Lewis Danter and geography with innovation student Finn Carter.

Mr Dowland said: “Training together has been such good group bonding. We did a marathon during a training run and I couldn’t have done it without having the others with me. I know we’re going to get each other through the 70km.”

Together the runners have already raised more than £2,000. To donate visit their JustGiving page.