Dafydd James admits keeping fit has become almost an “obsession” since he was forced into retirement 11 years ago.

The former Wales and British and Irish Lions winger, who prided himself on his fitness during his playing days, has used exercise as both a tool to maintain his mental health and to raise money for a number of charities.

James first opened up about the anxiety and panic attacks he has suffered since his playing career ended in an interview with BBC Wales in 2019.

At the end of last year, inspired by the feats of Kevin Sinfield — who ran seven marathons in seven days to raise funds for the Motor Neurone Disease Association — and facing an uncertain start to 2021, James decided to take on a physical challenge of his own.

During January, James ran, cycled or rowed more than a marathon every day, ending the month having covered 900 miles. In doing so, he has raised more than £6,000 for Hafal and Noah’s Ark, two charities very close to his heart.

“I was just there thinking, ‘Well, I've got a dark month coming, January, what can I do? I'll do something every day,’” James, who finished his 31st marathon alongside his eldest son and pet cocker spaniel, told World Rugby. 

“That's how it started, and then I went into [thinking], ‘Right, OK, well I'll do 42km’. Then it was ‘I'll do 45km a day’, you know, so it just went from that and I just took it day by day, really. 

“It was very tough. It was very demanding. My body was very sore, it has to be said. You know, it was a mental exercise, but it was to prove to myself that I could do it as well. 

“And, I wanted to show people that we're probably stronger than we think we are. And, you know, just show a little bit of resilience in tough times.”

‘I couldn’t walk down the stairs’

James reveals that his exertions out running or cycling on the road, or on his indoor rowing machine, were such that he struggled both physically and mentally at times.

“I had my emotional times, my dark times doing it, wondering why I was doing it,” he said. 

“The element of self-doubt creeps in and the nights before were the part which was the worst, thinking 'Well, I've got to get up again in the morning to do another one’.”

The ex-Scarlets winger broke down each day of the challenge into manageable sections, although it still took a significant toll on his body.

“I started off with a plan prior to going into the 31 days and thinking, 'Right, I'll do 10km in the morning and then I'll do a little bit of biking and perhaps row in the evening’,” James said. 

“But, as the days wore on my joints would [swell], my ankles… I couldn't even walk down the stairs sometimes.”

Helping others

James was keen to highlight the positive impact exercise can have on mental health, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

He admits that he has been his “own worst enemy” in the past, but is happy that talking about mental health is no longer taboo and is determined to help other people who may be struggling.

“Unfortunately, I have had a number of friends who've taken their own lives in recent weeks, male and female, unfortunately. And, you know, it’s a difficult time. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to get it more out in the public eye,” James said.

“It takes a lot of courage to come out and say you're struggling. But, it's a tough world out there at the moment.”

James began suffering anxiety and panic attacks as he struggled to adjust to the world outside of professional rugby, which had provided structure to his life for the previous decade and a half.

He concedes his own story came out almost by accident, as he had not planned to talk about mental health. But, he urged others to do just that in order to release any emotions they may be bottling up.

“[It’s important] having that opportunity to talk within a group or to find someone that you're comfortable to talk to and just vent and release,” he said.

“Although you don't think there's anything wrong, something may knock it. It may be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and it just escalates from there.”

Last month’s challenge was the latest in a number that James has taken part in since retiring. He has cycled around Britain and from Cardiff to Paris for charity in the past, and he intends to do more in the future.

“I like to help people out,” he said. “I like to get out and support people.”

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