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.