I was 50 in March and had lots of running lined up to celebrate – marathons in Palestine and London, and a 50k coastal race in the autumn with the Bath Two Tunnels marathon as preparation. Instead, I tripped during my last long run before Palestine and ended up with a black eye and a badly bruised knee, which ruled me out of the first two races. Then, in April, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am now part-way through six rounds of chemotherapy, with surgery to come in the autumn.
In difficult times, there are always golden moments and this is one of mine. My oncologist is a marathon runner. In the same conversation about the side-effects of chemotherapy, he sang the praises of German marathons because of their efficiency. In his letter to my consultant outlining the treatment I would need, he included my marathon PB. I don’t know if that is usual, but it felt as if he was acknowledging who I am and what is important to me. When I asked if I could run to my chemotherapy sessions, he said no one had ever asked him that before, but there was no reason why I shouldn’t.
Of course, my running has changed over the past couple of months. Instead of high-mileage weeks with intervals and long runs, I am buzzing from my simple two laps of Ealing Common this morning. Even here, even beside the North Circular Road, I ran on a trail, through long, wet grass, breathing in the cool smell of damp earth after the overnight rain. I am running more slowly and far shorter distances, but look, I am running and it does my soul good.
I still feel the tug of wanting to run fast. At a summer league race a couple of weeks ago, I watched people I used to compete with get PBs while I trudged round, not racing at all, unsure of what my body was now capable of. This needs to be a season for re-examining why I run, of discovering the intrinsic value of running that Mark Rowlands describes in his book Running with the Pack. You don’t need reasons to run when you’re a kid or a dog, he reminds us. In the past, I have run to expand my horizons, to discover what I’m capable of, to give myself headspace, to be my best self. Perhaps now I will run for the simple joy of it, to feel alive, to stay connected to who I’ve been, to find a new normal, to celebrate this imperfect body that is coping with so much.
I was unprepared for how difficult it would be to go into the second round of treatment. I think I expected that, having done it once, the next round would be a breeze. But, in fact, after a week at work, of feeling almost normal and spending time with friends, it was hard to go back to hospital for blood tests, to enter “cancer world” again.
I’d arranged to run to my second treatment with my friend Lucy, and I am so glad I did. I started running weighed down with sorrow, but after a few miles along the river in sunshine and with good conversation, I arrived feeling lighter and ready for what was ahead. Cancer laughs in the face of any plans you try to make, but I’m determined to run to all my chemotherapy appointments. If the river route proves too long, I will take a different way. Even if I have to get the tube part of the way and only jog the final few yards to the hospital, I want to arrive in my trainers and on my terms.
I want to say to everyone I meet: go running while you can (or if running is not your thing, then swim, cycle, walk, box). Get your heart pumping and your lungs working. Use your body, push yourself beyond your limits, feel the sweet ache of muscles that have worked hard and are letting you know about it. Get off the treadmill and out of the gym. Run in the rain, in the shade, in the sun. Run through parks, along canals, beside roads, on trails. Run for your life, and your life will thank you for it.