In July 2018, Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost exactly a year later, she took part in the Peak District Ultra Challenge.
You can’t prepare yourself for cancer
I'm not sure which was worse: finding a lump and knowing something may be wrong, waiting to hear after my biopsy, or being told what it actually was. You can't really prepare yourself for someone telling you it's cancer. You don't take anything else in.
All I heard was 'breast cancer', 'aggressive' and 'we have to act fast'.
My first question was, could I still do the Great North Run I’d been training for? My second was how on earth I'd tell my parents.
I focused on running
Shortly before that, I’d been offered a new job. I contacted them to let them know about my diagnosis and told them I had no idea what the future held. I gave them the chance to offer the post to someone else while I dealt with whatever lay ahead.
That same day they replied to say the position was mine, regardless. I don't think they know how much that meant – it gave me a focus for the future.
My other focus was running.
I waited for a surgical date and decided I'd carry on with my training plan until I had to stop or do my first half marathon – whichever came first. In the end it was surgery.
Just four weeks later, I ran the Great North Run. It was the first time I ran pain free – not because I was magically OK, but because the atmosphere, people and adrenaline lifted me, supported me and got me through.
I ran for my sanity
No one could tell me whether running was a good idea or not, how far I should be going, nothing. It was as if no one with cancer had run before – it was frustrating.
But my breast care nurse told me that I needed to do things I enjoyed, so I ran. I had days out, ate beautiful food, did wonderful things... basically, I lived.
Then I met my oncologist, Caroline. Caroline is a fellow runner and an all-round amazing woman. When my results came back to say my cancer was oestrogen receptor positive and I had to be clinically made menopausal, and that I needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she told me to run – both for my sanity and my body.
I was physically exhausted, but mentally prepared
Due to the type of treatment I'd be having, I wasn't allowed to get dehydrated. I could run, but no longer than a 10k or an hour-and-a-half – whichever came first. Caroline explained that, as things went on, I'd slow down, get sicker, my muscles would waste regardless, my body would weaken, and keeping warm would become an issue.
I went home and wrote a training plan: 18 weeks of pretty much the same thing, but every three weeks chemotherapy would mean a four-day break. Up to starting treatment, I just ran.
I walked into the chemo suite overtrained and exhausted, but also mentally and physically ready.
Over the next few weeks I started looking at things for the next year when I saw that Ultra Challenges were doing a 50k Peak District ultra on my ‘canceranniversary’ weekend. I figured by then I'd have finished treatment, so thought, ‘Heck, why not? Go big or go home!’
After a year of training, I was ready
The run presented some problems.
The hills were brutal and really took it out of me. I also ended up in a cornfield and was only saved from cutting myself to pieces by fellow runners who navigated me back into the trail. I misjudged an uphill over the river and a man actually lifted me off the slope I was on and put me back on the path! I got a huge blister, I had issues with my hips feeling tight, and a feeling almost like cramp pulsing through my muscles on and off. But otherwise all was OK!
I couldn’t fight the emotion
Just after 43k, the volunteers said to me, ‘Well done, it’s 9k from here.’ I’d forgotten the run was 52k and not 50!
I tried so hard to push, to speed up, to try and get back sooner. My body did fine but I couldn’t fight the emotion. Then, two fellow runners caught me up and tried spurring me on and I just let everything out. One was doing 100k and the other the 50k like me. They told me there wasn’t a cut-off time, that I would get a medal and to think about all I’d done and achieved. We were at 49k. They decided to stay with me and that we’d all cross the line together.
We ran–walked the next kilometre then ran downhill to the finish line. I shall be forever grateful to them for their kindness and support.
At the line I cried, was given my medal, plus a T-shirt and fizz.
After, it felt sad that it was over, and surreal that I’d achieved such an amazing thing.
At home, I checked my details – I was the fourth female in the 50k! The whole experience made me realise just what I was capable of.
If you've been inspired by Emma's story and would like to test yourself, why not try out one of our sports challenges?