UPON meeting Marie Tilley for the first time, on a sunny Thursday afternoon at the Hotel Plas Hyfryd in Narberth, I could have been forgiven for assuming I was about to interview an individual under a mountain of pressure.

After all, she had spent the previous night at Glangwili General Hospital with her eldest son, Theo, who now has his leg in plaster after what Marie jokingly described as a ‘clash with a wall’.

Marie herself, is nursing a sore Achilles after recently completing the Carten 100 challenge, a gruelling cycle from Cardiff to Tenby, and yet is still plotting her next event – another bike ride from the Welsh capital to Holyhead and back, a mere 400 miles.

Nothing mind, compared to what she had planned once that was done – another cycle event, the La Marmotte in France, consisting of 20,000 feet of elevation over 110 miles of dangerous terrain.

All of this is going one whilst the single mum serves as a full time-carer for her youngest son, Marley, a type 1 diabetic, alongside running her ‘Marie’s Marvels’ fitness group, helping out with junior football coaching at Narberth AFC, and organising a ladies night at the afore-mentioned Plas Hyfryd to raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and Breast Cancer UK.

Stressed out? Feeling the strain? Snowed under?

Not remotely. All smiles, enthusiasm, and laughter.

In fact, I was soon to learn that this incredibly time consuming schedule was anything but exceptional circumstances for Marie Tilley. It was simply a reflection of how she chooses to live her life.

And boy does she embrace it.

But what also became apparent to me over the next few hours, days, and then weeks between then and now, is there is a very poignant and serious motivation behind her desire to make every second count.

A talented footballer, she represented Wales under 16s as a youngster, before a club career with Cardiff City ladies, Newcastle Emlyn, and Haverfordwest.

She was to later move to Australia in 2008 her then partner and Theo, now 10, and it was ‘down under’ where her second son Marley, 7, was born.

But it was during that 18 month stay she received her phone call that would affect her life for evermore.

“I was told my sister Louise had gone into a diabetic coma and it lasted for eight days,” she explained.

“I soon returned to the UK and by the time Marley was one, he was picking up various illnesses. He had a throat infection, chest infection, chicken pox and two bouts of hand foot and mouth.

“Because of what had happened to Louise I knew the signs. Namely the four T’s – thirst, tiredness, toilet, thinner.

“I took him to a doctor and within hours, received a phone call telling me to go straight to the hospital.

“Like my sister, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Soon it hit me – I was going to have to essentially live like Marley. Preparing and eating the right food and injecting him at least four times a day.”

And it was during the early years of Marley’s life that Marie noticed a distinct lack of knowledge and awareness within society for her son’s condition. Come 2014, and she decided it was time to grab the bull by the horns and do something about it.

“I decided everyone needed to know the ins and outs of diabetes,” she said.

“Type 2 is manageable but Type 1 is hugely serious. And I realised people didn’t know just how life changing it was.

“It was then I knew I had to start something. My life was hectic anyway but I wanted to keep busy, and to help people while I was doing it.”

And keep busy she did, setting up ‘Marie’s Mission’, an ongoing quest to raise funds in order to help improve treatment of diabetes or better still, contribute towards eventually finding a cure.

So clearly not one to do things by halves, the former Greenhill School pupil entered five endurance events for 2015 – the London Marathon, Broad Haven Triathlon, Cardiff Velothon and Tenby Long Course Weekend, and to finish of course, the small matter of Ironman Wales.

She sought help with her training from Clair Davies, a Pembrokeshire based triathlete who in October 2014 competed in the World Ironman Championships in Kona – and in a whirlwind year, duly completed the five mammoth challenges, raising more than £7000 for JDRF in the process.

Most mere mortals would assume a lengthy rest period after all that, but Marie instead immediately went about planning more fund raising events for 2016.

But here, she paused the story, and clarified why there was a more complex motivation to her desire to keep going than sheer madness.

“Back in 2005 I suffered from chronic fatigue and I was very poorly with it,” she explained.

“I recovered fully but ever since, I’ve been aware of the importance of managing my body.”

Further fundraising followed via another Cardiff Velothon, a cycling challenge of 300 miles in three days with one of her training partners, Mark Reed, the Cotswolds Half Marathon, and the start of an attempt to walk around Wales on the coastal path.

The latter challenge is still ongoing, with Marie only last week completing another section from Llantwit to Port Talbot, spending a night in Porthcawl along the way.

And 2017 has been no different, with Carten and Cardiff to Holyhead cycling adventures merely forming a build up to what was one of her hardest challenges to date, cycling La Marmotte in France, 110 miles of mountainous terrain that forms part of the Tour de France,

Accompanied by training partner Mark and his wife Liz, Marie went in on the back of four weeks of disrupted training due to that Achilles, and for once, her seemingly unflappable temperament was tested due to concerns over her own fitness.

“We did a training run on the Alpe D'huez and after that butterflies set in,” she admitted, as I contemplated the thought she was maybe human after all.

Bizarre tales of freezing winds, borrowed leg warmers, and temporary biking partners were to follow, all amounting to Marie completing her mission, and what she describes as her biggest event accomplishment to date.

And far more significant than her own personal accomplishment, is the sponsorship raised, boosted by what proved to be a successful ladies night at the Plas Hyfryd, has taken her total made for JDRF to over £15,000.

Therefore, when I met Marie a second time, several weeks after our original interview, it’s fair to say there was much to discuss as I joined her for another of her fulfilling ventures, a ‘Marie’s Marvels’ circuits session.

Prior to the training, that takes place weekly on Wednesday and Thursday’s at the Bloomfield Centre, I joined her on a ’light’ run around Narberth, and as we spoke more about her Marvels group, her local popularity became evident.

We barely turned a corner without a car beeping or a pedestrian shouting hello.

“I’m training 30 people to do the Cardiff half marathon,” she told me, as I feigned a relaxed running style while secretly struggling for breath.

“They are all mum’s of all shapes and sizes, and some of them wouldn’t have run to the bus before they started,” she laughed.

“My mum Shirley is the oldest member - but they are brilliant. We also meet most weekends and have stacks planned together.”

Indeed, on this particular night the ladies are preparing for the ‘Pretty Muddy’ running event in Swansea, a ‘Pram Push’ in Narberth Civic week, and a day of dancing at Narberth Carnival, to raise further funds for JDRF and also the Wales Air Ambulance.

Furthermore, Marie hopes to soon start up ‘Marie’s Mini’s’, a similar venture for youngsters, but for now, it’s the Marvels who will all take to the start line in the Welsh capital later this year.

And when they do, it won’t be quiet, as over the 75 minutes I spent training in Bloomfield, I learnt Marie had moulded a great group of people, as intent on having fun as improving fitness.

“We’re very social and we all enjoy ourselves together,” one member told me.

“But coming here is great and makes you feel so much better physically and mentally.”

I’m not surprised. Because as I battled through the 12 different circuit stations, before finishing with a tough spell of core work, it became apparent that for all her smiling demeanour, Marie is no easy task master.

The exercises are intense and varied, and for those who struggle, there is no dropping out. Alternative, more manageable routines are suggested instead.

And most heartening of all, also joining in were Theo and Marley. The latter has recently embarked on his own fundraising for Marie’s Mission, organising and participating in a sponsored head shave with three other seven-year-olds from Narberth CP School.

Unsurprisingly given his mum’s outlook, he doesn’t come across a youngster weighed down by the stresses of type 1 diabetes. Both he and brother Theo are a credit to Marie, and there is no doubting the three of them are embarking on this journey together.

And whilst it is a journey that Marie currently admits has ‘no finish line’, there is an eventual goal.

It is here, where Marie’s jovial personality gives way, to steely determination.

“I believe there is a cure for diabetes out there somewhere and I want to help find it, but not enough is being done.

“Marley was originally given the option of four different pumps, and is now on one called the omnipod which we feel suits him. But why can’t one efficient pump be created to make things easier? I don’t believe this can’t be worked out.”

“I don’t want other parents to go through the uncertainty I did. I’ve always remained positive but I can understand how the situation can ruin lives and there isn’t enough guidance– people need to know when to test themselves or to take insulin as it’s easy to be oblivious.

“We have never been shy about it with Marley and he won’t be stopped by anything. He may need 10 minutes out for sugar sometimes but then he’s good to go again.

“When he first went to Reception class his bloods were done when needed in front of everyone. And now his friends in school understand and are great about it.”

Her words make sense. Many of us are aware of a condition called diabetes. Few of us, including myself prior to meeting Marie, were aware of the true dangers and intricate details.

Therefore, the past several weeks have been as educational for me as they have been humbling. Here is a selfless individual living life to the full. Being a single mum, coping with Marley’s condition, cycling up a death defying mountain in France to raise money for charity – it’s all part and parcel of life for Marie Tilley. And she doesn’t even have a spare second to complain about it.

Which brought me to my final question, the one that had plagued me all along.

How on earth does she find the time to fit everything in?

“I don’t,” she said, back laughing again.

“I have no time I just go from one thing to the next. People call me crazy, mad, and tell me I’m not on this planet. I do find time to socialise though.”

Crazy, mad, and not on this planet.

I mean this in an entirely positive way – but I couldn’t have put it better myself. 

  • Since our interview, Marie has applied for the 2018 London Marathon, is hoping to compete in the 2018 Ironman Wales, and is in the process of organising a cycling event, all to raise further funds for the JDRF. She is seeking sponsorship in order to help her with her mission, and continue running Marie’s Marvels with a view to setting up Marie’s Mini’s for youngsters. If anyone is able to assist Marie, she can be contacted via 07572 660662. Alternatively, contact her via e-mail on maza3@hotmail.com, her Marie’s Mission Facebook page, or her Twitter handle @MarieTilley2.