When a 5k run means so much more than a 5k run

The very slow 5k run I did this morning ranks among the sporting endeavours of which I am most proud. It is also almost certainly the slowest 5k I have ever run.

The idea that I might get out there and try running five kilometres began forming a week or so ago. I hadn’t done any running at all in more than two months. As a result of that and various other factors, I’d really lost my confidence. But the omens were good. 

The main thing was that the wounds I’d had on my right calf and right sole were finally healing. I had two pigmented and irregularly shaped lesions removed towards the end of April and the resulting wounds were taking longer to heal than I’d anticipated. Apart from the odd bike ride a month ago to see how the wounds would bear up – they didn’t – the only exercise I’d done since having the procedure done was walking.

Secondly, my feet were feeling better than they’d felt in many months. The side effects of capecitabine, the previous medication I was on, had worn off. The specific side effect from which I suffered is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome, where you develop sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet. The skin may also begin to peel. With me, only my feet were affected. They would hurt even when I was walking and the pain would keep me awake at night. With running, I’d get huge blood blisters even in the most comfortable and supportive running shoes.

So as I say, the omens were good.

Then, to top it all, just three days ago on Friday last week, I had a blood transfusion. The reasons for needing a transfusion are never good but I know from experience that they give you an energy boost. In my case, the metastatic breast cancer that has spread to my bones and bone marrow is preventing my body from making healthy red blood cells. My haemoglobin keeps falling, making me anaemic. This was my fourth transfusion since being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer over two years ago. The third one was only a few weeks ago. The effects of a transfusion can last for up to two weeks.

So those were the reasons making me think I should do a run. On the flip side, it’s been a really difficult few weeks on the cancer front (more on that in another post) and I’ve been struggling to deal with it all. Also, I have a cold sore that’s taking forever to heal and that is making me feel really self-conscious, not to mention lethargic and down. 

One part of me was thinking “go for it”. Another part was saying it would be no big deal if I never ran again. 

Anyway, I can’t tell you how many pep talks I had with myself before I finally put on my running shoes, left the house, and walked to where I wanted to start the run. 

I reminded myself that I will probably have to change treatment again soon. It’s a dead cert that my ability to exercise will be curtailed further once that happens.

Also, hand-foot syndrome is a potential side effect of the treatment I’m currently on and have been on for just over two months. While my feet have indeed been fine for a while, very recently the tingling and throbbing has come back at night and my sleep has been badly disturbed a few times in just this past week.

If I didn’t attempt a 5k now, when would I? The answer to that was possibly never. 

I also tried to think of what the various cycling coaches I know would say to motivate me.

I’m pretty certain that when I was in my 20s, I ran a 10k in almost the time it took me this morning to do 5k. But it really doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. What matters is that I ran at all today.

What makes it even better is that I did the local Parkrun route. Parkrun is a free, timed, mass-participation, volunteer-led 5k run that pre-pandemic took place on Saturday mornings in parks around the UK and indeed in many countries. I was a huge fan and ran my 100th Parkrun in January 2020. I managed one more before the very first lockdown began two months later. 

The route comprises three laps of Tooting Common, the green open space that starts at the bottom of our street in south west London.

I did stop once, to take a photo of a cluster of mushrooms (see above).

That probably added at least 20 seconds to my time. Anyone who’s pushing or over 58 will know how much effort and time it takes to get down into and back up from a squat!

It was hoped that Parkrun might start up again in England some time this month but it’s been postponed to the end of July. Initially I was really excited at the thought of it starting up again but now I’m not sure about running among large crowds. I wrote recently that I’d like to do at least one more Parkrun. After this morning, morally, I feel I’ve done it.

When buying new ski gear is an act of defiance

I’d resisted buying new ski gear for years but last week I finally succumbed. I blame Storm Ciara and cancelled flights – and a sudden, enlightening realisation that while I might have advanced cancer, it’s up to me how I choose to live with it.

My old ski outfit had become something of a standing joke. Not only was it very much past its best and dangerously close to being not fit for purpose, I’d lost lots of weight in the past few years and it was now far too big for me.

There were various reasons I hadn’t already replaced it. A key one was that a few years ago I essentially stopped buying stuff I didn’t need. This year there was an additional reason. Last April, I found out that the primary breast cancer I’d been treated for in 2015/16 had spread to my bones and bone marrow and could not now be cured. It’s treatable and I’m doing well but ultimately it’s incurable. 

After my diagnosis last April, I assumed I wouldn’t go skiing again. When I realised I would in fact go this year, I convinced myself I shouldn’t buy new gear because I might get only one season’s use out of it. To be honest, the thought that my cancer might recur was always in the back of my mind in previous years – another reason I couldn’t bring myself to buy new kit.  In the end, last week, I bought new trousers and a jacket in what I can only describe as a major act of defiance against the fact I have this cancer.

I’d had my old ski trousers for at least 15 years. They’d long lost any claim to being waterproof and indeed for the past couple of years had offered very little protection against the wind. The jacket was in fact a hiking jacket with none of the niceties that make a ski jacket a ski jacket. These include a little pouch on the sleeve for your lift pass – and, more importantly, inner cuffs in the sleeves and a “snow skirt” inside the body of the jacket to stop the white stuff going right up the inside should you fall. I say more importantly as I tend to fall, at least once every trip.

I’m extremely fortunate that, in normal circumstances, I get to go on more than one trip a year. I went with friends a few weeks ago and I’ve just got back from a week with my husband – our first ski trip together without the children in 19 years.

Not exactly flattering.

Having seen a photo of me on the trip with my friends where even I have to admit I look like a bag lady without the bags, I was almost persuaded. The photo’s there; see for yourself. In the end, though, even that wasn’t enough.

I read an article a couple of years ago about consumerism by the American author Ann Patchet. I was never that materialistic to start with; even so, this article changed the way I live my life. I’ve also just read a book by Vicky Silverthorn called “Start with your sock drawer”. If you read either or both and like what they say, you’ll appreciate my reluctance to buy anything new, never mind kit you only wear once or twice a year. Having this cancer adds another huge dimension. “How much use will I get out of it?” and “Do I really need  I it?” are questions I ask myself every time I think I might buy something new. On balance, I felt I couldn’t justify new ski gear.

So when I packed last Saturday to come away with my husband, it was my old gear that I folded into the suitcase. Our flight from Gatwick to Geneva was the following day, at around lunchtime.

And then Storm Ciara happened. First thing last Sunday we found out our flight was cancelled. Over breakfast while we tried to reschedule our flight for the following day, I had an epiphany. That’s it, I announced, I’m getting some new ski gear this afternoon. And that’s exactly what I did.

The miracle is that I’ve gone skiing at all this season. When I got my secondary cancer diagnosis last April, I thought I’d be kissing goodbye to this particular activity. When you hear you have cancer in your spine, you don’t think, great, that’ll set me up nicely for  skiing.

The closer it got to the ski season, however, the more I found myself thinking I might be able to go.

I did a thorough risk assessment before booking anything.

I hadn’t had any pain in my spine or anywhere else for months. I was feeling fit and well. Despite an initial scare towards the end of last year, an MRI scan failed to find any sign that my cancer had progressed. I was taking bone-strengthening drugs as part of my treatment. Finally – and this final factor was given extra weighting – I just really wanted to go!

I promised myself that if I did go, I’d be really careful. Sure, I might still have a catastrophic accident but I ride my bike downhill at speeds most people would think were fast and no-one is suggesting I don’t do that. And, as we all know, any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. It’s highly unlikely, but you know what I mean.

On to treatment.

Between one ski trip and the next, I had my monthly blood tests and appointment with the oncologist. I went ahead with the tenth round of the monthly treatment I began last May. The blood test results were good enough to keep me on this treatment but that blasted blood tumour marker keeps going up. This means there’s active cancer somewhere, but at the moment we don’t know where that is. I have my next set of scans – MRI and PET-CT – this coming week and they may or may not pick something up. The results will determine whether I stay on this treatment or move to another.

That’s more like it!

I’ve said this before, if you think scans and other types of diagnostic tests are “just to check everything’s ok”, you’re very much mistaken. It’s the total opposite; they’re to see if they can find anything wrong.

Back to the new ski gear. No, it doesn’t make me ski better* but I feel like a total badass wearing it.

I have so little control over what’s going on in terms of this disease – most importantly in terms of how it will progress but also in terms of the appointments and the blood tests and the scans and the treatments. This wasn’t just about buying a new jacket and trousers. It was about taking control and confronting my fear about the future. I’ve done just five days’ skiing in my new kit. I’ve already had more than my money’s worth.

*That’s a nod to my brothers. We come from a sporty family and even now, when someone shows off a new piece of, say, cycling kit they’ve just bought, someone else is always quick to ask if it makes them pedal faster.