Interview: Dr Andrew Murray, GP and long-distance runner

Dr Andrew Murray, champion of public health. Picture: Toby Williams
Dr Andrew Murray, champion of public health. Picture: Toby Williams
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Endurance runner extraordinaire and Scotland’s fitness champion, Dr Andrew Murray tells Roger Cox why he considers public health a very individual challenge

DR ANDREW Murray has been working for the Scottish Government for less than four months, but already the GP and feted long-distance runner is shaping up to be an accomplished politician. In his new role as Scotland’s physical activity champion, Murray has been tasked with increasing fitness levels in a nation where over 60 per cent of the population still fail to take the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week.

Andrew Murray's marathon marathon across the Sahara

Andrew Murray's marathon marathon across the Sahara

It’s a challenge he clearly relishes, but also one that’s fraught with difficult questions of political correctness. How do you get three million couch potatoes to exercise more without alienating them by, for example, describing them as couch potatoes?

But Murray is nothing if not careful with words. Sipping a latte at a pavement cafe just a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament, he listens intently to questions and often takes long, thoughful pauses while mulling over a response.

I ask if he thinks it’s a person’s civic responsibility to take a healthy amount of exercise, thereby putting less strain on the NHS – in the same way that reporting a crime or paying your taxes are civic responsibilities. There is a long pause while Murray cocks his head slightly to one side and squints into the sun. Eventually, after a good ten seconds of silence, my photographer colleague breaks the tension with “Oooooh, that’s a toughie!” We all laugh, but I wonder how much longer Murray would have pondered without the interjection.

“I think it’s certainly our role to provide good quality information as GPs, and as government to allow people to make decisions for themselves,” he says.

“For example, the Take Life On campaign [which Murray launched earlier this year with Shona Robison, minister for Commonwealth Games and sport] is extremely helpful because it gives parents information about how they can help their kids. I think it is quite concerning, the rates of obesity and the rates of physical inactivity amongst children, so I would encourage parents to take advantage of that website.”

So if it’s not necessarily the responsibility of each individual to get a healthy amount exercise, is it at least the responsibility of each parent to make sure their kids are exercising enough?

There’s another pause. “I’m not going to answer that,” he says. And then, with all the skill of a veteran Secretary of State, he launches into something he does want to talk about. “I think another really useful website is Active Scotland. If you go to that website it gives you a whole range of options you can access and tells you what’s available locally, and I think that’s really important – putting the public health message out there, letting folk know that they can play bowls or they can join a tennis club or that there’s a walking group nearby.

“That website is a very good resource for people to look at what’s available locally in terms of getting active.”

Getting active certainly doesn’t seem to be a problem for Murray. He first hit the headlines in the winter of 2010-11, when he ran an achilles-tendon-shredding 2,664 miles from John O’Groats to the Sahara Desert, averaging 34-and-a-half miles a day over 78 consecutive days. To achieve that feat, he says, researchers at Coventry University have calculated that he consumed enough calories each day to power an 800kg crocodile, or three average-sized adults.

Then last month, the 31-year-old proved he can run just as well on ice and snow as he can on scorching hot desert sand, winning the North Pole Marathon in an impressive time of four hours 17 minutes, two minutes ahead of Spain’s Luis Alonso Marcos. Although he says he took part in the race on his own time, and not as part of his Scottish Government remit, he didn’t miss the opportunity to use the resulting publicity to further the aims of his new employer: “The message to get active is so important, we are taking it to the ends of the Earth,” ran the much-repeated quote in his press release. “I’d urge everyone to do a bit more walking, or whatever form of physical activity suits them – everything counts.”

Established in 2002 by Irish ultra-marathon runner Richard Donovan, this year’s North Pole Marathon attracted 41 participants from 16 countries. To minimise the chances of runners falling through cracks in the ice, the event took place on a 4.2km circuit, which had to be completed ten times. Armed guards were stationed at regular intervals around the course in case the large group of humans running round in circles attracted the attention of hungry polar bears. Temperatures fell as low as -26C.

“Running through snow is very similar to running through sand,” says Murray, “it takes a lot more effort and you feel a lot more tired than you would at the end of a standard marathon.

“But the North Pole is the trip of a lifetime. It’s a world that you can’t really describe. You’re not actually running on land, you’re running on the ocean, so you’re running on water, so-to-speak – it’s bizarre.”

Murray was one of three official race doctors for the event, meaning that, had one of his fellow competitors been taken seriously ill, he would have had to break off from the race to administer first aid. “I’d have been more than happy to do it,” he says, when asked if he’d have been able to bring himself to stop running with victory in his sights.

Indeed, you get the sense that, while he is satisfied with his first place finish, that satisfaction is largely due to the fact that it gave the resulting press release more impact – helped spread the public health message that little bit more effectively. “Scots runner comes second in Arctic Marathon” probably wouldn’t have garnered as many column inches.

At times, it seems as if he hardly sees any distinction between his exploits as a runner and his job as a health tsar. When asked what his next big personal challenge will be, after running to the Sahara and racing around the North Pole, he says: “I think the biggest challenge is to get Scotland active…” Only when the question is made more specific – what will be your next big physical challenge – does he start talking about the hugely ambitious project he has planned for later this year: to run seven ultra-marathons on seven continents on seven consecutive days.

Starting with the Antarctic Ice Marathon on 20 November, Murray will travel on to Patagonia, “either New York or Toronto”, then London, Egypt, Dubai and finally Sydney. And as if that’s not enough, he also mentions the possibility of running up the 828m Burj Khalifa in Dubai – the world’s tallest building – as part of the trip.

“It’s going to be a significant logistical challenge as well as being a good jog,” he says, “and I’ll be interested to see how I cope with the jetlag. Maybe a few cups of coffee will help me along the way.”

He says the “single aim” of his seven continents adventure will be “to increase awareness of the benefits of physical activity,” yet his initial contract with the Scottish Government ends in July. Does that mean he will still be working for them when he touches down in Antarctica in November? Yes, he says, it’s “likely” that his existing contract will be extended for a second six-month spell.

Something of a latecomer to competitive running, Murray played football and tennis casually throughout his student years at Aberdeen University, and only started running seriously after bumping into a group of athletes training for the Everest Marathon while trekking in Nepal. Since then, he has racked up an enviable CV as an ultra-marathon runner that includes firsts in Egypt’s seven-day, 250km ultra-endurance desert run, the Sahara Race, and the Gobi Challenge, which traverses Southern Mongolia.

Now based in Edinburgh and working as a locum GP in Stirling, he talks passionately about how his experiences of general practice have informed his outlook regarding public health. He describes tackling preventable illness – conditions linked to factors such as low levels of fitness, obesity, smoking and alcohol – as “one of the major challenges of our age,” and he also talks about how the role of GPs can be as much about improving people’s quality of life as simply curing them when they get ill.

“Time and time again, people come back and say to me, ‘you know, since I’ve been doing a bit of activity or since I’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m a bit happier,’” he says.

But do people have a right to be fat?

“Yeah,” he says, “as government, and as doctors, we’re not telling folk what to do. We’re just saying ‘here’s a bit more information for you, we think we can improve your health outcomes for you.’

“Mortality rates in Scotland are 100 per cent. Mortality rates at the North Pole are 100 per cent and mortality rates in America are 100 per cent. Everyone’s going to die at some point, but you can live a bit longer and you can live a bit happier if you are physically active and you eat a bit healthier, and I think those are really important points to make.”

And with that, he’s off, jogging down the road to the parliament to have his picture taken – he’s late for his next appointment, but when you’re training for seven consecutive ultra marathons, everything counts.

• Andrew Murray will give a lecture on Sport and Physical Activity at the Scottish Sports and Exercise Medicine Symposium at Hampden Park, Glasgow, on 16 May. Speakers include Aberdeen FC manager and former Scotland manager Craig Brown, Glasgow 2014 chief medical officer Dr John MacLean and Shona Robison, minister for Commonwealth Games and sport. See www.rcpsg.ac.uk