If you’d told me, in May 2017 when I was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and told I may only have as little as two years to live that, four years later, I’d be attempting to complete a 100km ultra-marathon I’d have told you that you were utterly insane!
In May 2017 I started on hormone therapy in two different forms and that treatment has impacted on every single aspect of my day to day life. It effectively means that I can’t do anything as well as I did before my diagnosis and I’ve been hit hard with all the side effects.
Reduced muscle mass and bone density, fatigue and weight gain (bloody steroids) in particular make physical exercise loads tougher and, in particular, running. I think that only men who are going through this treatment truly understand its impact.
My first question to my oncologist wasn’t “How long have I got to live?” it was “Will I still be able to run?” and the answer was yes but you’ll be a lot slower and shouldn’t try to run as far as in the past.
Before I could get back to running though, I had to wait for the stress fractures of my pelvis to heal. The cancer had got into my pelvic bone and running on it had caused fractures. That took a while to sort out but I did get back to running and the Oncologist was absolutely correct about me being slower. The warning about running further was primarily to protect my bones from further damage given that the hormone treatment leads to bone thinning. A year after my diagnosis I discovered the extent of the cancer spread. It was in the pelvis, hips, ribs, spine, neck and skull! They think I’d had it for 10 years and I’d had no symptoms at all until a runners “groin strain” developed in February 2017. It was a pretty crap groin strain! If I weren’t a runner I’d have found out even later and been in an even worse condition. Running literally has prolonged my life!
Despite all the challenges faced I have found that exercise is truly the best way to cope with the side effects and when I get hit by a wall of fatigue the best thing to do is get the running shoes on and go for a plod. I know that that sounds completely counterintuitive but it works for me and there is a massive amount of evidence emerging that says that exercise is vital for those living with and beyond cancer.
Why an ultra I hear you asking?
It goes back to a few months after my diagnosis when I asked Prostate Cancer UK if they knew of any man with a similar diagnosis who was also a runner and they introduced me to Kevin Webber. Kev was diagnosed terminal in his late 40’s but hasn’t let it stop him taking on madcap challenges like running the Marathon Des Sables 4 times and taking on the arctic 380 mile ultra-marathon. He really is superhuman but he is also a super human and has been a great source of support to me whilst constantly challenging me to push my limits. So it was all Kev’s fault!
Now I knew that I simply didn’t have the physical strength to complete an ultra-marathon in one day so when I heard about Race To The Castle and that it could be done over two days with an overnight camping stop I thought that that might be within my capabilities even though I knew it would push me to my absolute limits.
How on earth do you train for that distance when the training plan seemed insoluble? I knew that doing the required long runs/hikes back to back on Saturdays and Sundays would leave me wiped out for days so that wasn’t going to happen so I largely followed the two day walking plan but running the distances instead of walking them and I did one longer run at weekends with one shorter one. The furthest I managed was half marathon distance so I knew that there wouldn’t be a huge amount of running in the ultra and I was fine with that, I only wanted to finish!
As an advocate for exercise for those living with and beyond cancer I’ve been privileged to be a patient representative for Prehab4Cancer in Greater Manchester, a prehabilitation programme for people newly diagnosed that aims to get them fitter before treatment/surgery. I jokingly suggested during a steering group meeting that it would be good if some of the other members would join me and the lovely Kirsty Rowlinson-Groves, the programme manager, took up the cudgels and agreed to give it a go.
We both decided to use the event as fundraisers. In my case for Prostate Cancer UK and in Kirsty’s case Kidney Cancer UK which is a charity that had helped her and her late Husband when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in early 2016 and very sadly passed away in August 2016 just a couple of months after their first wedding anniversary. The ultra would take place on John’s birthday so it would be deeply emotional one way or the other.
At this stage let’s step back a few days. I’d also agreed that, with friends from Fit4Life FitClub, a fitness class that I’d been going to for several years that I’d take on the MacMillan Mighty Hike with them. This is a marathon hike around Ullswater but it was the week before the ultra. Crap timing and I’d have to take care that I didn’t take too much out of my body so close to RTTC but a promise is a promise!
On a very warm day 11 of us set out to complete the Mighty Hike but it was very tough and had over 3200 feet of elevation gain but I finished really strongly which gave me confidence for the following weekend and we raised £7,000 between us for MacMillan.
The big day arrived, Saturday 26th June and, after a sleepless night in a hotel my Wife and I set off for the start at 6:30am where I was meeting Kirsty at 7:15 for our starting wave going off at 7:50. Opening the bedroom door and seeing it raining filled me with dread and the forecast for day 1 had changed for the worst. We were going to be wet all day!
As it happened we were allowed to set off a little early and extremely nervously we trundled off to cover the first, allegedly 34 miles it was actually 35 miles and over 2,200 feet of elevation gain (thankfully, only 1,000 feet on day 2), and reach base camp for the overnight camping stop.
The bulk of the elevation gain would be on day 1 and we expected it to be tough. The weather made it much tougher with howling wind and constant light, occasionally heavy, rain. It was also very chilly especially at the high point on top of the moors. We felt so sorry for the volunteers manning the pit stops, they must have been freezing. At least we had movement to keep us a bit warmer.
We certainly didn’t hang around the pit stops as our body temperatures dropped very quickly when we stopped moving but it was essential to stop briefly, re-fuel and top up our water bottles as, despite the cold, you could still very easily get de-hydrated.
Thankfully as we descended from the high point it wasn’t quite as cold and we reached pit stop 2 at the Day 1’s half way mark which was also the lunch stop and, at this point, Kirsty’s friends were waiting for us and it was lovely to see some personal supporters out on the route.
Kirsty was a complete natural as far as ultras were concerned. We’d had some exhilarating long downhill runs through the forests but I knew that I wasn’t able to run a great deal in the 2nd half of day 1 and Kirsty was fresh as a daisy so I told her to push on and we’d meet up at basecamp.
Tracey, my wife was out and about with our dog doing her own thing but she was checking that I was okay with regular phone calls. As we were approaching the 29 mile mark she called me to say that she was at Felton and was watching runners come through. Amazingly we were only half a mile away and it was wonderful to see her and Radler and have them walk with me for a kilometre or so. It was a massive lift at a point when I was flagging massively and doubting whether I’d ever get to Basecamp let alone the finish.
By this time the underfoot conditions that had already been incredibly challenging had got far worse with the rain turning parts of the route into a quagmire which really did sap my energy.
Where on earth was the day 1 finish? It was supposed to be at 34 miles. That mile marker came and went as did the 35 mile marker and then we heard the commentator cheering people in and, as I rounded the corner, I saw the finish line. What a relief but even better was seeing Tracey to cheer me in. She was absolutely brilliant in getting my overnight bag from the baggage area whilst I got my tent allocation and then helping me to get my gear sorted so that I could dive into the showers, warm up and get warm clothing on. The weather was still grim and it was hard to stay warm. She even sorted my tent out for me!
We headed for the food tent and got some hot food which was surprisingly good. There was a bar and a couple of beers helped relax the muscles a bit but I was very worried about day two. It was incredibly hard to get moving once we’d sat still for a while so it was going to be horrendous the following morning.
It was great to meet up with Kirsty and chat with other competitors and the amazing volunteers.
Basecamp had everything you can imagine. Plentiful toilets, excellent showers, a bar, a giant TV to watch the football (poor Wales), medical aid, water stations, food serving area and about a thousand tents!
Have I told you how much I hate camping? This for me was absolutely the worst part of the weekend. The only good thing about the one man tents was that they were dry but it was still very cold and incredibly uncomfortable. I collapsed into my sleeping bag fully dressed but still shivering at 9:00pm and barely slept a wink before finally giving up at 4:30am and preparing for day two. Breakfast was at 5 and we wanted to get going as early as possible.
I really struggled to eat anything but forced something down because I knew how important it was to get some fuel inside me.
My legs hated me. Even very slow movement hurt like hell and the thought of another 28 miles (28.75 in the end) was totally overwhelming.
Thankfully the rain had stopped and the forecast for day two was much better, getting very warm in the afternoon.
We got away from basecamp shortly before 6am to attempt to complete day two. It was about 5km to the coast where we would basically head north for 25 miles following the Northumberland coastal path, St Oswald’s Way, to finish at Bamburgh Castle.
After 5km it was clear that Kirsty could go much faster than me so I told her to crack on and I’d see her, hopefully, at the finish.
On day 1 we’d seen absolutely nothing apart from low cloud and mist but wow, day 2 was so much better and the views of the coast were stunning.
On day 1 I’d managed to run all the downhill sections and a little bit of the flat sections (there weren’t many) but day 2 was going to have to be a power walk all the way with a very short sprint finish for the camera’s!
What does power walking look and feel like? Well, it’s very tough and absolutely relentless but I was trying very hard to maintain a 4mph pace and ended up quite close to that.
As the day progressed it got hotter and hotter and, as a result, tougher and tougher and I seriously doubted whether my body would hold up and get me to Bamburgh but I did have one thing in my favour. I’m a stubborn, determined and strong minded person and every time my body said no I made sure my brain kept overruling it. I also used a mantra “Relentless Forward Motion” and I used that over and over in my head to keep me driving forward.
Whilst the coastline was stunning it was also undulating but I was very grateful for the cooling sea breeze. Unfortunately, a lot of the walk was in the dips in the sand dunes and you couldn’t feel the breeze there and it was baking hot. It was important to stay hydrated and fuelled and thankfully the pit stops were every 10-12km and staffed by the most amazing encouraging volunteers who really gave us a lift.
Tracey had kept in touch during the morning and she had managed to get to the final pit stop at 90km and walk back up the course with Radler to meet me and walk with me for a couple of kilometres which also gave me a great lift.
Leaving the final pit stop I had started to think that I could finish but I was totally, utterly wiped out and it really became a battle between brain and body. Brain said “come on you can do this” body said “you’re beaten, just admit it and quit”. The brain won again.
Boy those kilometres counted down slowly from the 90km mark and it was incredibly warm by now.
At 98km I saw Tracey and Radler walking towards me and we walked to the finish together.
As we reached Bamburgh Castle it was clear that the finish line was at least 1km further on and my spirits did drop a little.
The last 400m was back onto the sand dunes, through a stile and then 150m through to the finish. Bring on the sprint finish then I thought and I must have looked like a whirling dervish as I ran that 150m punching the air in jubilation. Bloody hell, I’d only gone and done it! Completed a 100km ultra-marathon, despite my condition, and proving that that the mind is an incredibly powerful thing that had driven me through the two days.
I was totally and utterly broken! This event had pushed me beyond anything that I had imagined to be the outer limits of my physical and mental strength but, bloody hell, I’d done it hadn’t I? Just over 18 hours, including pit stops, after I’d started, I’d managed to get to the finish. Totally elated!
The first thing I did was to head for the bar for a celebratory cold beer when I heard the commentator say that there was a wolf, aka Radler, in the finish area. Kirsty knew that this meant I was probably in the finish area as well and I suddenly felt someone throw their arms around me and it was Kirsty looking as fresh as a daisy. We had a good catch up over a beer and some pics just to prove that we did it. I think she’s got the bug. She was a complete natural.
After a while it was time to head back to the hotel and a long hot shower before Tracey and I headed for a meal and a celebratory drink or 5.
It had been an epic two days, pushing me to the absolute limits.
Between Kirsty and I we’d raised over £10,000 for charity and I’m sure that that had also helped drive us both forward.
I’m writing this 4 days after finishing and my legs are gradually getting back to normal. I’ve had a massively swollen left ankle and a very sore left knee and right achilles but pain is temporary, the achievement is permanent and my medal now takes pride of place with all my other important medals, Comrades and the World Marathon Majors.
Since completing the event I’ve come across a saying that I think truly encapsulates the two days:-
“Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only resource is to call on your spirit which, fortunately, functions independently of logic”
That really sums my two days up perfectly. Brain 1 Body 0. Tony 1 Cancer 0.