I accepted that I had Breast Cancer quite quickly.You have to because treatment is a priority and before you know it in most cases you are scheduled for surgery literally within days of diagnosis.Accepting I had Breast Cancer was the easy part, accepting that after 2 surgeries and 6 weeks of radiation treatment that my running performance would be affected was harder.
I trained through the whole process as best as I could.It was a learning experience for my coach as well.There are no ultra runners competing at my level dealing with this scenario.I was determined not to let it affect my life too much but there really was no information around to gauge my recovery as an athlete.For most Breast Cancer survivors increasing exercise and adopting a healthy diet is recommended.If anything I needed to reduce my training load to allow for recovery and a dietitian confirmed that my diet is really good. I was always open with my Cancer Care team about my desire to run, train and even compete. There was no clinical reason why I should not continue to run so I did listening to my body and resting when I needed to.
I feel really fortunate that as a result of my exceptional result at the last 24 hour World Championships in Turin where I finished 6th with 230.244km my selection for the next was guaranteed.I still needed to prove fitness, that I could at least put in a solid performance.My performance at the Asian Championships did not reflect this but it was a good indicator of what I had to do to get back to peak form by July 2017.My mental game was off.I realise now that my expectations were too high for what I had been through.I needed to adjust my mindset and work within my capabilities.That is really hard to do when you have achieved some pretty significant performances.
So I started 2017 with a schedule of events on which I would build.It started with a trail marathon.An event where I held the course record and was the title holder an event I had run just days after my Breast Cancer diagnosis one year earlier.I ran that event content to finish it but managed to grab a place on the podium, happily giving up my title and course record.I enjoyed the night out running and mixing it with other like minded people.
The next event was a 6 hour at Caboolture.It was at this venue that I achieved a qualifier for my first Australian team and broke an Australian Record but again I would have to adjust my expectations and was happy to run almost 60km in extremely hot and humid conditions, finishing 2nd and not quite catching up to my husband Tim who had decided he would give this form of ultra running a go.He concludes that it’s not for him.Just as well as I know I am going to need a reliable crew over the years to come.
Most recently the next step was a 12 hour event on an athletics track in Canberra.Again I had expectations of what I should be able to achieve at this event and again I fell a little short but I am happy that I could pull off a respectable performance and if anything be consistent in my build up and it’s always great to claim a place on the podium. One step at a time. I thoroughly enjoyed my short trip to Canberra. It really lifted my mood, the ultra running community is amazing. So many people from such different backgrounds all with the insane desire to run a bloody long way. It was also great to have almost all the Australian 24 hour team in attendance especially the women. We all look forward to teaming up in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
This year has been frustrating to say the least.I know what I am capable of and the speed that I used to to achieve in my training sessions but the speed and pace are just not there.As a consequence I have suffered some depression and have been diagnosed by my GP as having and adjustment disorder which entitles me to a Mental Health Care Plan.Some days the intensity of my training leaves me extremely fatigued and I find it hard to function or get on with everyday life.Before my diagnosis I would be tired on the days I did long hard sessions but I could get through a full day of work or activity.These days I am pretty much a zombie on the couch. But I am determined to do the best I can and I have time to continue to build towards that. Ultra running has always required patience and my patience has really been tested. I have sort professional help and have a entire team of health professionals behind me. I am extremely grateful to Paul, Angela and the team at Body Leadership Physiotherapy who have continued to treat me and ensure that I make the start line in the best possible shape.
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.