I have been a runner now for over 30 years at a level that many people can probably identify with. I will never be in danger of troubling the elite participants in any race but, at times of consistent training, I can put in a performance that many runners would be proud of. I have completed 7 marathons in that time with finishing times ranging from 3.22 to 5 hours exactly. In the early stages I was motivated by the challenge of the distance and the desire to improve performance but in recent years the attraction has been the escape running gives you in a busy life, the pleasure of running scenic routes and the level of fitness it offers you when you are getting too old for other sports. As a result I have probably enjoyed my running more in recent years than I ever did previously.
However, in 2002, at the age of 40, I was to discover a whole new dimension to the power of running. Out of the blue I was diagnosed with what appeared to be terminal cancer. My condition comprised a large, aggressive tumor running from my cheek, around my eye to my brain. It was a rare condition and I seemed I had no chance. My initial consultant told me that he expected I only had weeks to live.
I was eventually referred to a cancer hospital in Liverpool to see if treatment was possible. My consultants there told me the surgery I required would be extremely high risk. Without it I would die, but it was so risky it was likely to take my life even before then. In the end they offered me treatment but told me my chances of survival were less than 5%.
Before I went for surgery I ran 6 miles every day. These runs, around the narrow roads where I live, became crucial for my mental preparation for what lay ahead. Running is never easy. Never automatic. If you are fitter, you will only run faster. It isolates you with your challenge in a way that few other activities can. It offers you no shortcuts, no distractions, no teammates. It will begin with the first stride and not end until the last one. Every time you run a little part of your brain will rebel. “Why not leave it until tomorrow”. The spirit it drew out of me was the best mental preparation I could have had. It was teaching me how to override discomfort once a plan was is in place. It was equipping me with a mindset that would be essential to get me through a long painful recovery.
I also believed my job now was to become the best possible patient I could be, both mentally and physically. My daily running not only helped my mindset, it also ensured my surgical team would receive the fittest possible version of me for their work.
The operation lasted 12 hours. When I came around in intensive care the staff were amazed at how well I had come through. I am convinced I have my running to thank for this.
My consultant came and sat on the end of my bed two days later. I was more machine then man. He told me he felt the operation had gone well. He reminded me that the surgery I had undergone was as big as it comes. I had survived the operation but would remain critical for many weeks ahead.
My experience from running was a great source of strength to me now. When I returned to the ward I had 12 tubes coming out of me and the next day, when the first of these was removed, I just clenched my fist and thought one gone, 11 more to go. I could relate how I was feeling to the 20 miles stage of a marathon. You have nothing left, but you dig and find something. When I run badly I often adopt a strategy of run what you see. Literally get yourself around the next bend or over the top of the next hill and so on. If you keep doing that the finish line will come by itself.
I applied the same tactic to these days of recovery. All I wanted was some little bit of progress for each day that came. This could be the removal of a tube, to sit up, to get out of bed and eventually to talk, eat, drink and walk for the first time again. All of the inches would make a mile.
10 years later my recovery had reached such a miraculous level that I ran my first marathon, post-cancer. That was the 5 hour one. So my slowest is the greatest of all. My running was only one of many factors of my successful fight against cancer but I have no doubt it was an essential provider of the spirit I needed to stay alive. Running forces you to discover the great depth of personal resolve we all possess. So the next time you pull on your running shoes, remind yourself that not only are you about to do something you enjoy and that is good for you, it may also one day play a role in saving your life.