Running is an inherently selfish pastime. As an ultra runner participating in 100km and 24 hour events preparation requires quite a bit of time on the feet running. While I structure my training so that the impact on my family and work commitments is minimal the need to get out for a run that is up to 5 hours in duration is going to cut into the weekend.
My family are used to this. When it came to considering treatment options for my Breast Cancer the impact on my running influenced my decisions. My husband agreed with me perhaps for different reasons that Breast Conservation Surgery was preferable to a Mastectomy. A mastectomy decreased the need for chemotherapy. I agreed to Radiotherapy as this appeared to be less invasive. Radiotherapy uses x-rays to destroy any cancer cells that may be left behind after breast cancer surgery and reduces the risk of breast cancer coming back in the breast. My risk as a result of these two treatments is pretty low. I could reduce it further if I had Chemotherapy. This is where I selfishly made the decision to accept some risk.
My proposed Chemotherapy treatment option would take 3 months and then I would also undergo Radiotherapy a further 6 1/2 weeks of treatment. I am extremely careful about what I eat and have an avid interest in nutrition. My preference is to use real food as medicine rather than rely on supplements in tablet form. So I was reluctant to have drugs injected into my body to treat something that might not even be there. Especially since chemotherapy works by killing not just cancer cells but any rapidly dividing cells. While these normal cells will repair themselves it takes time. I was at the time of my diagnosis in peak physical health, injury free and had the 100km in 2016 and 24 hour World Championships in 2017 firmly in sight. I decided selfishly that I wanted treatment options that would significantly reduce the risk but allow me to remain competitive in the short-term. I did not want to be in a situation where in the future I wondered ‘what if’ I had been able to compete at those World Championships. If the Breast Cancer returns in the near future I will deal with it then.
My husband and friends were supportive of my decision to avoid chemotherapy. Not everyone with early stage breast cancer will have chemotherapy, the decision is based on each persons risk of breast cancer coming back, the stage and grade of breast cancer, whether there are hormone receptors on the breast cancer cells, general health and personal preference. Others in my situation might choose to eliminate as much risk as they can I selfishly chose to accept some risk.
My breast cancer cells have strong hormone receptors. Hormone therapy should not to be confused with HRT. Hormone therapy stops the growth of cancer cells that may be left in the body after other breast cancer treatments but cannot be detected. So I accepted this form of treatment which is far less evasive than chemotherapy. Then came a stumbling block. A check of the Australian Sport Anti-Doping Authority check your substances link revealed that the hormone therapy I was prescribed is a prohibited substance. While I have never been tested and it is highly unlikely that I will the very fact that I represent my country and compete at International events means it’s possible that I will. I successfully applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) and can now compete knowing my treatment is completely legal.
During the process I tried to find examples or anyone who had a similar experience to me. My contact at the Anti Sports Drug Medical Advisory Committee advised that I was unique. A TUE had been issued for my particular treatment before but not for someone competing in athletics. I have tried to find ultra runners in my position with a similar condition in an effort to understand what I can expect. I have asked the members of my medical team and again nothing. It seems I am a trailblazer.
Yet, I still feel a little selfish. Every time a high-profile person dies as a result of cancer I can’t help thinking that this may be my fate well before I would like it to be. That be while I still had a lot of running left to do. My children are almost young adults, my work there practically done. BUT, my risk is low and my choices have been well-informed.
So I am off to Kaohsiung, Taiwan on the 19-20th November for the Asian 24 Hour Championships and will have the privilege of representing Australia for the 4th time. I will miss my daughter’s birthday for the third year in a row because I am somewhere else in the world running. I have the honour of being nominated Women’s Captain and I am excited because I have been able to do some of the harder sessions I did before I was diagnosed. For the most part I forget that I have cancer but it is never long before I am reminded of that fact. I live for now and will run my best and enjoy every opportunity as I always have.
Life as an Ultra Runner and Breast Cancer Survivor
I literally had to consider this year whether or not I would have a mastectomy. It was an option I seriously considered one of a few explained to me by my surgeon. As an ultra distance athlete in the best form ever I certainly wanted to keep running at the International/elite level. At 44 as a female ultra distance athlete I certainly have a few good years in me but I don’t have time on my side. I wanted or perhaps needed to be back competing as soon as possible. Ultimately I elected to have Breast Preservation Surgery for now I still have two boobs.
In April I completed a virtual run around Australia. I was the 1st female and 2nd person ever on Run Down Under to do so. Travis the founder of Run Down Under joined me for a run over those final kilometres that completed that lap of Australia. On that run he asked me a question that gave me pause to think. He asked me what or how I motivated myself to run. On reflection I realise that running for me has become a habit. I have a training schedule, it includes 6 runs a week, my schedule doesn’t vary much and I rarely miss a session.
When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in January 2016 I knew I would still be able to run I just wasn’t sure exactly what it would mean for my running and the opportunity to represent Australia as an ultra runner in the future.
My training was scheduled to make the most of the period leading up until I had surgery to remove the cancer and some lymph nodes. I trained through the fatigue knowing I would be forced to rest after surgery. I kept active and returned to running as soon as it was comfortable. I saw no reason to stop and I had the blessing of my surgeon and Oncologist.
But running after surgery to remove the cancer and while undergoing treatment is different. I had a very good base fitness and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t race. After surgery but before I underwent Radiation treatment I ran the 6 Foot Track Marathon a 45 km trail event in the Blue Mountains in March (15th female, fastest female team -UP Coaching), then a 55km trail race at Easter (2nd female) and then I joined three other amazing women athletes, Samantha Gash, Jo Brischetto and Marita Eisler for Oxfam Trailwalker Melbourne in April (Team She Science), we were the fastest female team and 2nd overall. Recovery from two lots of surgery seemed to be fairly quick and didn’t stop me running. Radiation Therapy was another matter.
During the 6 weeks I underwent Radiation therapy the fatigue gradually accumulated. Despite this I maintained my training until it got to the stage where the fatigue was overwhelming and the body really started to breakdown. I could still run but it felt different. I went out for a long run one Saturday prepared to run for 3 hours or so and after 1 hour things weren’t right. My pace had slowed and I felt overwhelming fatigue. I got to a point where I felt ‘stuck’. I am used to fatigue it is something you become accustomed to as an ultra runner where it is not uncommon to run all-day and then through the night. But this was different. I had a long run scheduled the next day; I elected to sleep in and go to Yoga instead. I had a niggle and I couldn’t do the speed work that is a regular part of my training. However I had been invited to a 24 hour event in China and it was an experience I didn’t want to miss out on. My reasons for running that 24 hour event were two-fold.
My medical team was very supportive of my desire to participate in the 24-hour event in China, clinically there was no reason why I shouldn’t participate. In fact it was the trip to China that helped me focus on getting through the Radiation Treatment. Every working day for 6 ½ weeks I fronted up at hospital for treatment it was a tedious process and to top it off the Oncology Unit was undergoing renovations. So an all expenses paid trip to China was something to look forward to. I also wanted to prove to the Australian Selection Committee that I still had the capacity to compete Internationally.
One week after finishing my treatment I was on a plane to China to run for 24 hours. I was certainly not in my best form but I was confident that I could run out the 24 hours and prove that I still had the ability to be competitive for selection at upcoming World Championships. The conditions were extreme the temperature did not drop much below 30 degrees C and the humidity was 80% plus. But I did it. I suffered, I wasn’t happy with the conditions but I persevered and finished 3rd. Under different circumstances I would have challenged for 1st place. I was happy to have fought for 3rd and to run out the 24 hours.
When I got back to Australia it was time to start Hormone Therapy to reduce the risk of reoccurence and Secondary Breast Cancer. This treatment brings another set of challenges that are only just starting to emerge.
I submitted my application to represent Australia at the 100km World Championships which will be held in Spain on the 27th November. I was excited to be selected for the 3rd time for the 100km and grateful of the faith the committee had placed in my ability to work through my Breast Cancer diagnosis. Then a spanner in the works. Another opportunity to represent Australia emerged the Asian/Oceania 24 hour Championships were announced. The 24 hour event will be held in Taiwan on the 19-20th November one week before the 100km World Championships. I qualified to participate in both but it is impossible to do both. I deliberated at length over my choice but finally made my decision.
Stay tuned for more crazy stuff where I share my experience with Breast Cancer and ultra running in the lead up to the Asian 24 Hour Championships. Go Team Australia.
In November 2015 I was invited to run the Inaugural Gobi Ultramarathon a 50km loop in the Gobi Desert. I spent 4 days in China on that trip and missed out on a lot of the pre race activity due to travel delays. When the opportunity to run 100km and an extra loop presented itself I didn’t hesitate despite the challenges I’ve taken on this year.
My world fell apart in January when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I didn’t know what it would mean for my running. At the end of 2015 I felt I was running at my best and I was looking forward to building on it in 2016. My plans were unfairly thwarted with this news. I soon learnt that it was not a death sentence and perhaps not as bad as I imagined. I cannot find anyone who has dealt with Breast Cancer, it’s ongoing treatment and care who has continuing to compete at the elite level Internationally in ultra running. My Oncologist advised me that clinically there was not reason why I should not continue to train and compete as I have. So with the blessing of my Surgeon and Oncologist I chart unknown territory and challenge the status quo as to what is humanly possible and only wish to continue to entertain and inspire you as I live my life running around the world.
Steps on the Great Wall
So on the 22nd September I found myself boarding an international flight and headed back to China to run a couple of 50km laps in the Desert. A day later I arrived in Jiuquan on the edge of the Gobi Desert and was soon united with runners from around the world and we set off for a tour of the Great Wall of China, collected my race pack and rested up in preparation for the race.
On reflection I note I really was in no condition to ‘race’ a 100km event, let alone one that involves a hard slog in the sand. I ran the inaugural event a 50km last year so I had a fair idea of what to expect. On race day I found that first 50km hard and the thought of having to run that loop again really challenged me mentally. I saw fellow Aussie Gary Mullins at about 40km sitting down at the checkpoint with his shoe off, he had a foot injury. He said he wasn’t going to be able to do the 100km and he had to withdraw and the thought of joining him crossed my mind. Fellow Aussie Ella Jamieson had been running near me for a while but had pulled away. I got to halfway where I had a drop bag and was welcomed by Tao who had coordinated all the international athletes travel, seeing her lifted my spirits. She asked about Gary whether he wanted the sweep car, I told her I wasn’t sure and I sat down briefly to restock my pack and now felt encouraged so I set off for another lap with some determination.
On the second lap the fatigue really hit as the it started to warm up. I didn’t seem to be sweating much though and it was a dry heat. I had plenty of gels and electrolytes and water was available every 5km or so. I took a No Doz caffeine tablet, but this didn’t seem to help. I dropped to a walk from about 55km the sandiest section with a gentle climb. And I struggled for quite a while walking mostly and seriously thinking about withdrawing. I tackled 5km at a time. The body felt fine some general soreness but nothing major. I just felt tired. I thought about withdrawing at 75km this is where I had a drop bag. I came across some youths and a motorbike one of them asked to have a photo with me, I was in no mood for a photo and one of the guys said something and gestured at the motorbike I think offering me a ride. It was pretty bizarre to come across them in the middle of the desert, I just indicated that I wanted to keep going and climbed up and over the next sand dune. At 60km I worked out that if I ran the last 40km in 5 hours I would finish in 12 hours and before it got dark. But I couldn’t muster the strength to run and plodded on only sometimes running. The course was marked with barrels covered with the race sponsors logo and red flags. I would pick out a red flag in the distance and would tell myself to just run to the flag. At 75km I picked up my drop bag changed my shirt and collected my headlamp and checked my gel stock. I was a little shaky but otherwise feeling good so I decided that I had come all this way I was going to finish it. I told myself not to be stupid I had come a long way to run this race. I was going to finish the time or place did not matter. For what seemed like ages it had felt like it was just me and a million footprints in the desert. I studied the varied patterned souls of the shoes of runners ahead of me. There were no runners around me and the only people I saw were at aid stations.
Then I noticed that the wind was picking up and there was the odd spot of rain. I could see a large dust cloud in the desert to my left and I worried that now that I would be pulled from the course because of the storm. Part of me liked that thought and the other was determined to finish. The women’s winner Valeria finished the race in the midst of the dust storm and runners at the start/finish precinct were made to return to the hotel for their safety. It turned out to be for me a bit of a blessing. It was a little dusty but I had a strong tail wind and I was back running. As I approached the lake I came across four locals, two of them ran with me for a while speaking to me in Chinese. I tried to convey that I only knew English but they kept talking and running with me right to the next aid station. The timing mat here had been turned off as things were getting blown away but I was still well within the time limit, I asked if I could finish, to please record my number, they didn’t seem to want to stop me so I ran off. Finally I was back to running more than I walked. It tried to rain and I was almost blown off the side of a sand dune but it was otherwise great to have a tailwind at this point.
At 89km I came across Edit Berces at an aid station she had been out and about on the course all day encouraging runners. I met her in China back in June and it was so great to spend some time with her again at this event. She asked me if I wanted a t-shirt or anything as it was starting to get dark and cool down. I was still running well the body not too sore no obvious niggles or soreness and nutrition and hydration under control. I told her I could finish and ran off. At 8km to go the race director came along he was worried about me it was dark now he said the weather was bad and I should quit, that the volunteers had finished for the day. I was very aware that I was still within the cutoffs and the wind by then had died down. It was turning out to be a nice evening. The course was well marked and easy to follow in the dark with my headlamp and I was still running more than walking and I told him I could finish. He said take some water, the aid station was deserted but the supplies were still there, he said he would send a car to follow me and I ran off. The cars found me with about 6km to go. How they find the tracks in the desert I don’t know but it would have been pretty easy to spot me by my headlamp in the open. The car followed me for a couple of kilometers then the 2km to go checkpoint was in sight, the lights visible from a few kilometers away. I was really happy to be able to turn right having completed 2 big laps in the desert. The finish line was not yet visible, I ran over a short rise and I could finally see the lights of the finish precinct but it still looked like it was a long way away. It was about 1.5km. I finished in 13 hours 11 minutes. I have no idea where I placed. I was greeted by Chuping who had helped us a lot as athlete coordinator the year before and she took great care of me.
There were 25 women who started but I think there were quite a few that withdrew. An amazing dynamic Argentinian women Valeria Sesto was the winner in 10 hours 14 minutes. She had never run 100km before, she had run 50 miles and was tiny I imagine she floated across the sand. I have made another amazing connection. Bernadette Benson was 2nd she is in great form. The amazing Ella Jamieson (winner 6 foot track) was 5th it was her 1st 100km.
Running has become very much my life as I now also coach a number of athletes. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and experiences I continue to enjoy as a result of my hobby which really is a lot of hard work. The world really is an amazing place and there is a lot of wonderful experiences to be found while on the run and before and after. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was given the opportunity to travel to China as an invited athlete for a 24 hour event. It was an experience I grabbed with both hands and I am so glad I did. I had met Race Director Tony Chu on a couple of occasions at International Events and he and his team did a magnificent job getting the support of Chinese officials to create a World Class Ultra Running event. I was one of several invited International Runners that included British athletes Dan Lawson and Ali Young, 24 hour World Champion Katalin Nagy and Hungarian athlete Anita Vajda, South African Johan van der Merwe, and fellow Soochow Champion Italian, Ivan Cudin.
We were accommodated at the National Arts Hotel in Foshan, Guangdong in Southern China which was an easy walk from the race precinct. The International team and other invited officials were treated to a tour of the local sights the day before the race. It was hot and humid and gave a good idea of what to expect on race day. Otherwise it was a great way to pass the morning and the sights and experience around Xiaqio Mountain were amazing. Thankfully our tour bus was air conditioned.
Our tour incorporated three contrasting experiences. We started with a drive up the nearby Xiqiao Mountain where seated at the summit is a 61.9m Bronze statue of Guanyin “Goddess of Mercy”. She sits imposingly 61.9m high atop the extinct volcano. We stopped often on the climb up the stairs for photos and it was a good opportunity to get to know the other athletes. Our next stop was the Wong Fei-hong Lion Dance and Martial Arts School. Wong Fei-hong was on of the greatest Kungfu masters and we were treated to a kungfu display and lion dance before being shepherded to the cool of the buses for a quick stop at a long waterfall that cascaded into a lake at the base of the mountain. This particular lake regularly hosts dragon boat regattas.
Our final destination was the Baiyun Cavern a blessed place for Confucianism, Buddihism and Taoism. It turned out to be a cool sanctuary from the oppressive heat and humidity and was a labyrinth of waterfalls, celestial halls, ancient temples, springs, lakes, forest, pavilions and terraces. Our cultural tour of the mountain complete we returned to the event hotel to rest up for the afternoon.
I collected my race pack and later attended the race briefing which was mostly in Chinese before heading to the welcome banquet. After a number of short speeches, the first course of our banquet was brought out with much ceremony and presented to us. It was a whole suckling (baby) pig presented on a platter with two red led lights where the eyes should be for great effect. We enjoyed many different Cantonese style dishes before heading to bed ready for race day.
All invited athletes congregated in the hotel foyer and were guided across the road to the race precinct to prepare for the long day ahead. The aim at this time was to stay cool. The heat was oppressive even at 8am and I draped a wet towel around my neck in an attempt to keep as cool as possible. I worried how all those crewing would fare throughout the day.
Before long we were called to the opening ceremony which included a spectacular lion dance. The important officials were called to the stage one by one and introduced and then it was the invited athletes turn. We all enjoyed a few moments of celebrity. Then finally it was time to start. We set off with most of us having no idea what to expect of the course. It was a 1.15km loop that wound its way through a movie set. The set was a purpose built permanent structure built purely for making movies, complete with a variety of quaint Chinese style shops and buildings. There were a few tight turns but we were afforded some shade and shelter. I quickly realised that I would need to adjust my pace and adopted a general run the sun, walk the shade strategy. It was only 9:30am in the morning and it was already hot and getting hotter. This event would be all about running to the conditions. Sponges and water were provided at a couple of points on the course and were well used. There was also a couple of volunteers who misted water over you as you passed and ice packs were offered throughout the day when available. I set myself targets for 6 hours and then 12 hours. Achieving my 6 hour goal easily but really struggling with the conditions after 12 hours. Despite the sun having gone down the night did not offer any relief from the heat and the heat radiated off the buildings. My entire running kit was soaking wet a combination of sweat and the water I had been throwing over myself in an effort to keep cool. I decided to take a short break and it was a relief to sit for a short period. I changed into dry clothes and attempted to take in food. I had at the time been able to regularly take in adequate nutrition regularly through a mixture of gels, watermelon, coke, fruit juice and sports drink. I felt well, just tired and the body was holding up. I really had no excuse to stop at this point. Yes the condition were tough but I had come a long way and had been through a lot this year and I appeared to be faring better than a lot of people. So I wobbled off from the crew tent limping a little with the discomfort but feeling a little better in a dry outfit. Before long I was running again and making up ground. I was over halfway now and it seemed like there was a long way to go, it was still hot but I am familiar with extreme conditions and adversity I was sure I could run this one out too.
So on and on I went around and around, running and walking and ticking of the laps. A few hours later my stomach decided it wasn’t happy with the balance and I heaved up quite a bit of what I think looked like coke and the black jelly beans I had enjoyed earlier. Again this was not something new for me and I have learnt that I feel better after a good chuck and if I take in a gel straight away I can continue without too much trouble. I am slower to learn that too much coke does not work for me in these situations so I had another throwing up incident on the side of the road in one little street of a movie set. At one point during the night race organisers brought out a heap of fresh towels and at least 15 runners could be seen lying down asleep on them on the paved area in front of the crew tents just off the course. It was a bizarre sight and I envied those who could simply lie down and sleep like that.
As the night wore on it did cool down but only a few degrees below 30 to 27 degrees at around 4am. I tried to make the most of the ‘cooler’ conditions to run more during this period but before long a new day dawned and the heat began to rise again. The sleeping brigade had risen and many returned to the course to walk out the final few hours. I had to maintain my run/walk strategy in an effort to maintain my 3rd place position. My feet had taken a battering on the concrete and paving and were very painful. I could feel the blisters that had formed but soldiered on. I had managed to keep my feet reasonably dry after changing shoes .
Finally were down to the finally 15 minutes and easy runner as handed a small tag with their number on it. I finished another complete loop and decided to run on until I found some shade where I would stop. As it happened I came across British athlete Dan Lawson who had held on to win after stepping off the course an hour earlier and collapsing and Italian athlete Ivan Cudin winner at Soochow 24 hour in Taiwan who had not handled the heat well but had come out with Dan to help him finish off the race. I stopped with them in the shade and waited for the final hooter to sound less than a minute later. We exchanged hugs and a few words enjoying the fact that we could stop before hobbling back to our crew area.
I had done enough to hold onto 3rd place. I was pleased. The winner was Shan Ying who finished 2nd to me at Soochow University. She is a great athlete and the Chinese Champion. I was pleased to see her again at this race and we exchanged a few words often throughout the day. She ran a really strong race from the start and was well prepared. She was a very worthy winner. I hope we get to race again soon. The 2nd place female was a Mongolian athlete. I had been in touch with her most of the day. Had I been better prepared I may have been able to run her down she was in touch with 2 hours to go but she was also still moving well and she was well aware of my position in the field. I did not have the fight left in me on this day. Full credit to British athlete Alison Young. For a British athlete these conditions would have been seriously tough and she kept me honest. I certainly fought for my 3rd place position.
British athlete Dan Lawson rallied from his ‘near death’ experience in the final hours of the event to get out on course and hold onto the win. Dan is headed to Badwater in just a few weeks time. I am sure this event will have him well prepared for Death Valley. The 2nd placed male Wu Chung-fai is an up and coming athlete from Hong Kong. I was delighted when he joined us at breakfast the next day. This was his second 24 hour event. When Dan stepped off the course in the final hours, finally succumbing to the oppressive conditions Chung-fai pushed hard continuing to run lap after lap in an effort to close the gap. When Dan was resurrected with a few firm but encouraging words from Robert Boyce Chung-fai seemed to accept his 2nd place position. It was an amazing race to experience.
It was a privilege to spend time with the current 24 hour World Champion Katalin Nagy. Katalin was one of several invited International athletes but succumbed to injury and had not been able to run in the six weeks leading up to the event. The Race Director Tony Chu encouraged her to attend the event anyway and did not pressure her to run. She was more than happy to travel to China and to support the event and participated in a number of media events. Katalin stepped in to crew for the British athletes who were unable to bring crew with them and despite having never crewed before. She was there the entire time helping out others while the air conditioned hotel room must have been a tempting prospect. I feel blessed to have been able to spend some time with her and to call her a friend.
The spectators, event volunteers and all participants were always encouraging and supportive. I did not understand much of the language but a smile is universal and everyone was eager to help where they could. It is another experience I will treasure, the memories of the extreme conditions and difficulty of the event already pushed to one side by the simple pleasures or connections with like minded people from all over the world.
When I received my Breast Cancer diagnosis earlier in the year I was hopeful that I could still participate in this event. I boarded my flight to China on the 16th June pushing any doubt to the back of my mind. My training in the month before my departure had been hampered not by my breast cancer and subsequent radiotherapy treatment but a hamstring/glute injury. I had relied on my physiotherapist Paul at Body Leadership to get me through the last few months. I am extremely grateful for his support.
Last but not least my coach Andy. Having an athlete with aggressive Early Breast Cancer diagnosis is far from usual and we were both working things out as we went. I was forced to schedule training to fit around Breast Conservation Surgery and recovery to remove the cancer and then later Radiotherapy. I completed my Radiation Therapy just 10 days before I was due to race. I continued to run through my treatment but succumbed to fatigue in the final weeks of my treatment. I traveled to China as I do for any event pushing aside any self doubt and trusting in my training base, good health and with a lot of determination. I was determined to do my best whatever that was. I was determined that I would prove that a Breast Cancer diagnosis was not going to affect my running ability. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity whatever the outcome. I am confident I have done just that.
I look forward to my next China experience. Gobi 100km International (Trail) Race taking place on September 25th 2016.
It certainly hasn’t been easy to tell people this fact. I worry about people worrying about me and I am probably one of the last people you would expect it to happen to. I have no family history of Breast Cancer and the only real risk factor I have is being a woman. I have never questioned why me, more why now? Why now when I believe I still have my best ultra running performances in me? Why now when I’ve just signed up and have been training hard for the 6 Foot Track Marathon in the Blue Mountain? An event that has a limited field which fills within minutes of registrations opening.
This is something I have been managing since the 22nd January 2016 when I was officially diagnosed. I have experienced a range of emotions from fear, despair, anger and frustration. I have also found my predicament humorous at times because ultimately you have to make the most of a bad situation. I was envious of full breasted women when I was having my 5th mammogram for the year. It’s incredibly awkward having a mammogram when you have very little breast tissue to squeeze between two plates of cold glass. It also made breast preservation surgery to remove the cancerous tumour tricky but I am fortunate to have a great surgeon. Having nipples on a ribcage has its advantages of course, I doubt I would have found that small lump in a more generous bust and there’s certainly less bounce when it comes to running.
In the back of mind since my diagnosis was how would it affect my running. I have many big running plans. I was assured that being in such great physical shape would really help my recovery and then hopefully lessen the impact of any treatment. I joked initially that it would be great if I was prescribed performance enhancing drugs. I was devastated to discover via a quick check of the ASADA website that the hormone treatment I have been prescribed is in fact a prohibited substance. Just another hurdle which I have successfully negotiated. I will have a Therapeautic Use Exemption so will avoid an Anti Drug Ruling Violation if I am ever tested.
I’ve become accustomed to getting my breasts out to be examined, don’t be surprised if I whip my top off to show you my scares next time I see you. I love that at 44 that I am called ‘young’ and I have been told my breast look pretty good (coming from someone who looks at breasts as an occupation I will take that as a compliment.) My prognosis is very good. I have accepted that while at this time the cancer had been removed and the risk of it returning is very low I still in theory have breast cancer for now. It will be a while before I can call myself a Breast Cancer survivor.
I deliberately talk about managing rather than fighting breast cancer. All good managers surround themselves with the right people. For me that has been my extended family, and what I have come to call my ultra running sisterhood a close knit group of amazing women who I have come to know through running and I have been blessed with their unwavering support. Good managers also make informed decisions based on reliable information. I have had to assess the risks and make decisions in regards to my treatment that will impact not just me but my family and my running ambitions. I have consulted often and openly discussed things. I have learnt that a diagnosis of Breast Cancer is not the same from one person to the next and everyone has to make challenging decisions personal to them. Sometimes you do not have control and that is okay. I am prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Just like any ultra event there are times when things go a little awry and it just means accepting you have an issue, assessing it, managing it and moving on.
Running has always been my ‘me’ time, an escape and something I do for fun. After my diagnosis it also became my therapy. I had entered a trail marathon event on the Australia Day weekend well before my diagnosis and ran it the day after I was diagnosed. I thought about a lot on that run. It was an amazing experience anyway, a run for the soul, a night race starting at the base of Mount Beerwah, there was a full moon and at the highest point on the course the Glasshouse Mountains were silhouetted in the night sky with the bright lights of the Sunshine Coast twinkling in the distance, to the South a lightning storm lit up the clouds in the distance. It had been hot and humid and I tripped over a rock in the soft sand but I am no stranger to managing some discomfort and I know I will manage this effectively too. I mingled with those I had come to know over time at the start and finish and it was great to cross path with heaps more out on the course that night. It really lifted my spirits.
There is not a wrong or right way to respond to this news. I am simply grateful for the kindness I have received over the last weeks. I have withdrawn a little because there were so many unknowns in the initial stages. Since having surgery on the 8th and 18th of February things have become clearer. There are still many unknowns as my treatment is ongoing. We are all an experiment of one and the side affects vary.
I will continue to run, train hard and coach. I get a great deal of satisfaction from my coaching. A lot of the time I live vicariously through my athletes especially when they participate in events I have run and loved such as Ultra Trail Australia and the 6 Foot Track Marathon. It has been a welcome distraction for which I am also grateful. I still believe I have my best performances in me.
I will also continue to be inspired and inspire that amazing network of women as Ambassador for Running Mum’s Australia. I have connected with just a fraction of you personally but love how that community has brought many together and created another level of support and connection. I am sure there are many of you with a story similar to mine and totally get it.
I am off to Melbourne on the 7th April 2016 where I will join up just three of my amazing ultra running sisters Jo Brischetto, Nikki Wynd and Samantha Gash. We will run 100km together as part of Team She Science at Oxfam Trailwalker Melbourne. I committed to the team well before my diagnosis and despite the uncertainty about my fitness I was determined to participate no matter what. While the members of Team She Science are competitive runners there was never any doubt that I would be there whatever the outcome and I am again blessed to know such amazing women who think the same. We would love your support for such a worthy organisation just $10 will get a ticket into a raffle for a LOT of amazing prizes. Donate here.
The Finer Details.
I discovered my lump which was 13mm in diameter via self examination. I then made an appointment at Breastscreen Queensland for a Mammogram and was referred to the Breastscreen Clinic where I saw a Doctor and had a Mammogram, Ultrasound and Fine Needle Aspiration (biopsy). I had Breast Preservation Surgery and a Sentinel Node Biopsy and two lymph nodes were removed. I will now have Radiotherapy followed by Hormone Therapy and I plan to run and train through it all, adjusting my training when I need to.
I implore you if you are female to know your body and look for the signs and feel free to reach out if that is what you want to do.
Jodie is an Assistant Coach with Up Coaching and has represented Australia at the 100km World Championships in 2014 and 2015, and the 24 Hour World Championships in 2015 and automatically qualifies for the 24 Hour World Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland on the 1st – 2nd July 2017. She holds a number of Australian Ultra Running Age Records and is currently the fastest Australian Woman ever to run 100 miles (161km) with a time of 15 hours 33 minutes and 56 seconds.
When I ran the Comrades Marathon in 2012 I discovered it was pretty much an all day party in ultra running terms. It was my induction in a way to ultra running and where I discovered I had an ability to run long, really long. At the Soochow 24 Hour Ultra Marathon I got a 24-hour party. The venue a university campus is otherwise a quiet peaceful place of learning.
My first few days in Taiwan were humid. There was a bit of a breeze at times but it was otherwise fairly warm and humid but not hot. I enjoyed some down time and a trip to a shopping precinct via public transport (bus) with our student helpers was fun.
I enjoyed the opening ceremony and other formalities leading up to race day. I met many of the other International athletes from Germany, Italy, Russia, Malaysia, China, Japan and more. It’s a little surreal to hear your name called out amongst the babble of a foreign language.
Race day it was overcast but still a little warm, it had rained overnight. We were provided a timing chip and I weighed in. I didn’t agree with this method of calculating the level of dehydration of athletes but as it was the same for everyone I complied. I asked what would happen if I missed a weigh in which was to be every 4 hours when we changed direction. I was assured that it wouldn’t matter that I could continue and I considered not participating in this part of the event. It was a warm day I knew I would probably drop a lot of weight running through the heat of the day and I did. I really didn’t think this system was fair for a small female. I weighed in at 58.1kg and I was down to 55kg 4 hours later. This was to be expected as we started running at 9am and were weighed at 1pm after running through the heat of the day. My crew were told I had to drink, I wasn’t thirsty and refused at first but took in 250ml a lap or two later. Mr crew followed my nutrition and hydration plan which has worked for me in the past and I did ask for more water if I felt thirsty.
As with any race the plan should be to get to halfway feeling fairly comfortable. I take the same approach with a 24 hour race. Get to 12 hours feeling pretty good, moving well and happy. I ticked off small milestones along the way, 100 laps (40km), 3 hours, 6 hours, 100km (250 laps) and so on. I had goals for each and I was pretty close to my target if not a little ahead. I didn’t take much notice of my competitors. A lot can happen in 24 hours and even with 6 hours to go a lot can go wrong and the race won and lost.
Day turned to night and it rained after trying to rain all day. I enjoyed the cooling effect of the rain and chased my first major goal a personal best and an Australian Age Record (Women 40-44) for 12 hours. I needed to surpass 127.789km. It was going to be close I pushed for a few laps picking up the pace a little and completed 320 laps (128km) in just under 12 hours getting halfway in 128.209km a new record. I continued on confident I had paced the first half of my race well but very conscious that there was a long way to go and my struggle in 24 hour events to date has been getting through the night, battling the need to sleep. It was only 9pm I kept on circling. I partied a little and felt happy with myself and smiled a lot.
My next target was 100 miles or 160.934km or 403 laps (402.335 to be exact). I was able to maintain a fairly steady pace and pushed hard for this goal. It was around 15 hours that I took my first caffeine tablet and really pushed for the 100 mile Australian Record which currently stands at 15 hours 38 minutes 18 seconds. I had it I was excited. The officials had marked the spot on the track and told me next lap. My crew told me one more lap and I circled around. I was excited I flashed passed the 3 officials and they said ‘right here’ as I passed. I knew I had it. Later I learned I had clocked up 100 miles in 15 hours 33 minutes and 56 seconds. Amazing. My next target was 200km but this is the toughest part of the race for me. Getting through the small hours of the morning. There was so much happening around the track that this wasn’t too much of a problem.
During the night there was a lot going on. The music played continuously, this was supplemented with live music from the University Concert Band on the stage erected just across from the track. There were also cheerleaders and other entertainment on the stage. While I couldn’t observe it closely I caught glimpses of it throughout the night. Then every 6 hours a 5 hour relay event started. These athletes ran in lanes 3, 4 & 5 with the changeover area at one end of the track. A large group assembled in that area and on a balcony there overlooking the track the whole 24 hours. At most 24 hour events there is a quiet time in the small hours of the night. This was not the case here. Even the crew area was animated right throughout the night. There was no shortage of encouragement from the entire crew gang that lined the fence on the edge of the track. Even those supporting other athletes had come to know me as I circled around and called out encouragement continuously. I received messages from friends back in Australia and around the World through Leanne (Matthew’s) Mum who had come to crew for Matthew. Thank you for your support.
After 15 hours or so I noticed that I was running close to my main competitor #2422 CHEN Ying a Chinese competitor, she had been running consistently all day. She was just 5 laps behind me and we appeared to be running a similar pace. We played a game of cat and mouse for a few hours. I pulled ahead managing a 7 lap lead, she rallied coming back to within 4 laps. I had no choice but to keep running and pushing. Almost every time I circled I would check her lap count and mine it hadn’t changed she was right there also ticking off the laps. I pulled ahead a little she seemed to be slowing I had a 11 lap lead but I couldn’t let up. Anything can happen in the last hours of a 24 hour race. You just never know who might rally and who will die. I was determined it would not be me.
A new day dawned and having consumed 32 Gu Energy Gels I had had enough and refused the next one. Having had something every 30 minutes for the last 21 hours I thought I probably had enough on board to get me through the last few hours. I passed through 220km (550 laps) in just under 23 hours achieving the International A standard, this was announced to the crowd and I celebrated. By now I had about a 20 lap lead, I kept moving but my paced had slowed. I wanted the running to be over. I asked my crew to speed the clock up for me. They really wanted to make it so but kept encouraging me just like they had for the past 23 hours.
Finally the 24 hours was over. I had finished near the grassy area on the far side of the track I put down my sandbag and moved onto the grass. Russian athlete Tatyana Maslova and my room mate who had not been permitted to participate (that’s another story) came over to see me and congratulated me. Shortly after I made my way back to the crew tent and I was immediately the centre of attention. My lap scorers came over with my final lap total (568) for a photo and an autograph. I thanked them they didn’t miss a lap.
I was interviewed, I quickly changed and then discovered I was immediatly required for the press conference which was also streamed live. I later learned my family had been able to watch it back in Australia and I wished I had thought to wish my daughter Kira, Happy Birthday. It was the 2nd year in a row I had missed Kira’s birthday because I was away somewhere in the World running an ultra-marathon.
I then had about an hour before the closing ceremony and presentations. This was just enough time to make my way slowly up several flights of stairs back to my dorm room accommodation, to shower, change and be back at the student common area. I loved the floral wreath and medal Ivan and I were given as race winners. The athletes at these events are celebrated by the students and spectators and they all seemed to want a photo with me and an autograph. Matthew received similar attention. That night even the staff who managed the Mexican food stall in the food hall on campus asked for our autograph and plied us with free hot chips. I couldn’t finish them.
The Soochow International Ultra-marathon is an invitational event. Up to 18 International athletes of a certain standard are invited to attend. The premise of the event is to help upgrade ultra-marathon in Taiwan. A further 27 Taiwanese runners whose personal bests meet the national standard may be invited and finally where openings are available the best runners from the 2015 Taipei Ultra-Marathon Festival are invited till the quota has been met. The event recently achieved and International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) Gold Label. To achieve a Gold Label the event must primarily meet strict course measurement guidelines and haveat least 5 athletes (mixed men and women) performances at international level (220km for women and 240km for men).
My nutrition plan was fairly simple. I take something in every 30 minutes with some water to wash it down. This was primarily Gu Energy Gels, I rotated through several different flavours I had for variety, Vanilla Bean, Tri-Berry, Espresso Love, Chocolate Outrage and also included Gu Roctane Gels Sea-Salt Chocolate. Every 3 hours I took something other than a gel, a banana, sports drink which I sourced locally, 250mls Berri and V8 fruit juice which I brought with me from Australia and at one stage threw my crew a test when I asked for something that wasn’t on the plan, some coke. I was pretty sure that someone would have plenty and would be able to spare some and my crew delivered having 250ml available for me a few minutes later when I circled around again. I was pretty happy to find that Starbucks Frappachino was a sponsor of the event and I enjoyed their Iced Coffee before and during the event. I also enjoyed this during my 100km race at the 100km World Championships in Doha.
My stay in Taipei was brief but I was made to feel very welcome by the staff and students at Soochow University. I am extremely grateful for the assistance of Eileen Hsu and Harvey (Syu Chen) who were my crew, translators and guides while I was in Taiwan. It was great to have the company on my travels of fellow Aussie, Matthew Eckford and his Mum, Leanne who was chief overseer of our crew during the event and played an invaluable role in my performance.
Finally I am indebted to my husband Tim who is my biggest supporter I have the freedom to travel the World in pursuit of yet another ultra-running experience while Tim mostly stays home to work and look after our fairly independent teenage children. I’ve done some pretty cool things this year and feel really blessed to be able to do so. I can’t wait to see what 2016 will bring. BRING IT ON.
The following Australian and Australian Age Records are yet to be ratified.
On the 8th November 2015 over a hundred runners assembled on the edge of the Gobi Desert in China to run 50km. Runners had come from all around the world for this experience. For an inaugural event it was extremely well organized with all the runners needs catered for.
My journey to the race in northern China began on the morning of Friday the 6th November and my travel plans and race preparation was immediately thrown into disarray by my flight’s delayed departure from Brisbane. I spent over 3 hours trapped inside the plane on the ground and had enough time to watch a movie and enjoy the inflight meal before we finally took off for the 8 hour flight to Guangzhou, China. This meant I missed my connection that night to Lanzhou and instead stayed the night in Guangzhou. A lovely Chinese woman an event volunteer had waited into the night for my arrival in Lanzhou. The race organisers soon worked out through the airline that I was booked on the next available flight the next morning. I finally made it to Lanzhou in the middle of China and it was snowing. After a few warm humid days in Brisbane this was a nice change. Ada who had waited at the airport the night before was there to meet me the following morning. She was very pleased to locate me, this international athlete was not lost somewhere in the middle of China. We waited for a Japanese runner on a different flight and then the final leg of my journey was a 4 hour high speed train ride to in northern China. I had of course missed my earlier train and caught the last train of the day, which didn’t arrive at my final destination until 10:00pm. I arrived late at the hotel in downtown Jiuquan which doubled as the race headquarters and sadly missed the press conference, a tour, race briefing and an evening meal. I did have the essential information my race kit and my roommate USA athlete Meghan kindly updated me.
There were only a few mandatory items, 2 race bibs (1 front, 1 back), a timing chip and a whistle. We were strongly advised over and over and over again to wear running gear that covered our legs. One section of the course passed through thorn bushes and the event organisers did not want anyone to be badly scratched up. I had planned to wear my running skirt which has plenty of pockets to stash my nutrition and my whistle so I didn’t need to wear a race vest. So now I had to seriously reconsider my race outfit.
Race morning there was a minor delay as all athletes were taken by bus to the race precinct a 30 minute drive from downtown Jiuquan. Thankfully I was able to enjoy a light breakfast before we were on a bus heading to the race start. The morning was cold which I enjoyed and it was clear and sunny, great conditions for racing.
Athletes milled about inside the runners marquee going through their race preparation. I stepped out to take some photos of the race precinct and was soon asked to have my photo taken with locals. It seemed EVERYONE wanted a photo with us (the western athletes) we were certainly a novelty in regional China. I am pretty sure I did not have my photo taken that often on my wedding day. After watching a traditional Chinese drumming display we made our way to the start line only to be told that the race start had been delayed as they were still waiting for athletes to arrive via bus. I enjoyed the pre race entertainment found it was warmer if we stood up next to the white marquee in the full sunlight and chatted to the other international athletes. This also gave people opportunity to gesture at the uncovered skin on my legs and to urge me to cover it up otherwise I would be injured. In the end I told them I would collect some tights at the major checkpoint at about halfway.
Finally the race start was rescheduled one hour later for 10:00am. We huddled on the start line where 5 officials were poised with starter pistols. The countdown in Chinese started the starter pistols fired, not exactly simultaneously and we ran off into the Gobi Desert while fire crackers and rockets were fired off in our wake which made for quite an electric atmosphere.
The course was well marked and easy to follow, the course markings consisted of two pegs hammered into the ground marking the shortest course through the desert. From time to time large flags were on the rises. The course did not follow a road or trail for the most part we simply picked our way through the low scrubby bushes, over the sand dunes and through the fine powdery sand of the desert. Timing mats were placed at strategic turns which meant it was impossible to cut the course short. In fact it was often faster to run longer and to skirt around the short steep sand dunes and this was well within the rules. I soon adjusted my expectations when I found the running particularly over the first section of the course quite challenging.
The desert was vast, desolate but beautiful. Small hills could be seen in the distance. We passed some ancient ruins just visible between some dunes, a stone marker I had no idea of its significance but it was quite distinctive and seemingly in the middle of no where. We came across a lake surrounded by some trees and tall reed like plants and some buildings but it was otherwise fairly sparse and rocky. Near the lake we passed through two round concrete pillars at the top of a small rise and enjoyed running on a paved road for a short period before crossing another timing mat and heading again off through the desert following the posts.
I finally came across what I thought was the section with the dreaded thorny bushes. Instead of being waist height as I imagined they were remarkably similar to vegetation we had encountered earlier and it was easier and possibly faster to take the gravel road around it rather than run the shortest route between the wooden pegs. I am glad I didn’t decide to change my race outfit. The vegetation soon thinned out again and imagine my dilemma when I needed a comfort break and there was nowhere to hide. There was about 5km to go and I was sure I wasn’t going to make it to the finish. Fortunately I came across a small mound of dirt that hid me from oncoming runners. My modesty was intact. I crossed the final timing mat on the course and headed for the finish which I could clearly see in the distance 2km away. Often on the course a white marquee set up for aid stations could be spotted in the distance and often it was several kilometres away.
I crossed the line in 4th position. A volunteer immediately offered me a bag of ice and a towel and I was handed my medal. My volunteer escorted me to the runner’s recovery tent keeping an arm on me to ensure I did not fall over. While this was not necessary I expect she had been instructed to do so. She stayed with me as I made my way to the runners marquee to collect my drop bag. Again security was great as only runners were allowed in here and while I had simply left my bag on a chair in the runner’s marquee someone checked that the bag I was collecting which had my race number securely fastened to it made sure the number matched my race bibs. The recovery tent was well equipped with massage tables and therapists, mats and foam rollers, chairs and more bags of ice and the runners tent had a table full of recovery snack food and bottles of water. Chinese race recovery food at this event included small bread rolls, packs of savoury crackers, tins of soup that were served at room temperature, which a British athlete said was ‘extremely unappealing’ and long skinny sealed sticks of processed chicken meat. I settled for the bread roll which was slightly sweet and the crackers and plenty of water.
The Chinese definitely have a strong running community, there was also a large contingent of Japanese runners as well as the other ‘invited’ runners from right around the World that included this athlete all the way from Australia. The Gobi Ultramarathon 50km is sure to be run again in 2016 the race organisers are keen to improve on this years experience and hope to see me again. Absolutely.