A Spectacular Failure

I think most people reading this will know what happened at UTMB by now. No – it wasn’t the glorious comeback I’d hoped for, but in reaching for the stars, perhaps I landed on the moon, and the view from there was glorious. It’s a shame that I’m still not able to appreciate achievement in the distance I was able to tread. That’s because – however you look at it – I fell short. But that’s just the way I’m built and it’s this mindset that’s gotten me so far in my short life. The Runner’s World article below does a pretty good job of describing the buildup pre-race. As does the account of it (copied below) that a national newspaper commissioned but couldn’t find space for.


I’m. Not. Done.

This simplest of mantras bounced around my head as, after twenty four hours of relentless mountain trail, I attempted, yet again, to break into a run.  That didn’t amount much by this point. Struggling significantly in the searing heat of a second day on my feet, the succour of electrolyte infused water and my umpteenth energy gel barely registered as I dragged my weary carcass up and down the crest of yet another accursed incline.  I heard a chorus of cheers below as my fellow runners arrived at the next checkpoint, ready to continue their journey ascending the Grand Col Ferret and, eventually, to the glory of an unforgettable finish line moment.  My knees seemed to let out an anguished scream, grinding in their sockets as I descended into the alpine village of Arnouvaz.  But by the time I crossed the timing mat, triumphant cheers had been replaced by sympathetic shrugs and I was informed that I’d arrived five minutes too late – my day was done.  A pair of scissors appeared and literally cut me from the race as my bib number was slashed to confirm my defeat.  As this harsh reality set in, I felt an overwhelming emptiness – as if a piece of my soul had been severed too.  It really wasn’t supposed to end like this.

On Friday 1st September, 2,693 ultramarathon runners gathered by the church in Chamonix’s main square.  Surrounded by a crowd of onlookers lining the streets of this sport-centric Alpine town, we prepared to take on the most iconic endurance challenge on Earth: the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  With almost 10,000m of elevation gain over 171k of rocky mountain trail ahead, this phalanx of hardy warriors was in for an epic battle with all the adversity the mountains had to throw at them. After an hour of building anticipation with samba bands and speeches, Zimmer’s Gladiator theme heralded the start of the race and time to circumnavigate the Mont Blanc Massif.  The euphoria of this glorious moment was almost tangible as it sunk in that we few, (we happy few!) out of over 20,000 hopeful entrants, were about to cross this most prestigious start line.  But for one runner in particular, this moment in itself was a famous victory.  Because I found myself here at the Gala Performance of trail running, despite suffering from stage four incurable bowel cancer.

This would not be my first ultramarathon affected by the metastatic tumours that continue to grow inside me.  Last October, two days before the colonoscopy that would lead to my diagnosis, I took on a hundred mile race across the Ridgeway and Thames Path. I finished in under twenty three hours, despite suffering from a number of bowel cancer symptoms, including a good deal of blood on the toilet paper before and during the race.  But the cliché is true that the moment of diagnosis, it is true that one’s life changes irrevocably in an instant.  I spent weeks breaking the news and with it the hearts of family and friends, not quite sure how to live from this point.

But as my cancer spread to liver and lymph nodes, my prognosis worsened to the point I was told I could hope to survive a year but probably not five.  I received the most unwanted present of chemotherapy for my 37th birthday, my running ability and, for that matter, quality of life took a distinct nosedive.  My increasingly successful career as a primary school music teacher was put indefinitely on hold.  I had to cancel gig after gig as a musician and, indeed, every renege on every single commitment or promise I’d made to everyone I know.  As little as the journey from bed to sofa became an extreme endurance challenge.  Towards the end of January, days of crippling stomach pain led to a bowel obstruction, which required emergency open surgery.  Although my primary tumour was successfully removed, I was left with four more on my liver and lymph nodes in addition to a colostomy bag and a body that felt irredeemably broken.

But as I began to recover from this horrendous ordeal, I felt a steadfast determination to run again – to express my innate desire to push myself and keep moving – cancer be damned.  So much so that I marked my return to the sport with a couple of laps of the hospital ward.  I’d have jogged a good while longer had I not been told off by a concerned looking nurse!  With chemo on hold, I carried out the simple yet arduous process of putting one foot in front of the other more and more often.  A mile’s shuffle was plenty at first but as the weeks and months progressed without further debilitating treatment, so did I.  Ok – I struggled to make it out of the door to run, I was a lot slower, I’d lost leg strength, I became tired more easily and I had to deal with leaking colostomy bags but nonetheless I was able to run again and it felt utterly fantastic.  By May, I made my ultramarathon comeback with a local 50k and dared to dream big.

The symbolism of 100 miles to cancer and back again was and is a huge motivating factor to keep going.  In addition to raising awareness of bowel cancer symptoms, I have made it my mission to show through words and deeds that it is possible to live a full life post-diagnosis.  So when the opportunity to run UTMB came up, I was concurrently thrilled and daunted by the enormity of the challenge.  With newfound impetus, I set to work to train for mountain running, which is essentially a different sport.  The specificity of charging up with trekking poles and picking my down with fast feet took me on an ascending European tour from Yorkshire to Snowdonia to the Picos de Europa (in Northern Spain) and finally to a week surveying around 130k of the UTMB course itself.  Thankfully, cancer stayed at bay to the point that my oncologist declared me race fit. Even a knee injury sustained a month out was just about fixed before the big day.

As ready as I could possibly hope to be, given the circumstances, I crossed the UTMB start line full of hope and defiance.  This wasn’t a case of me versus the mountains or even other runners.  I was running to prove that cancer would not limit me.  But wow – the mountains are humbling. From gruelling peak to pass to valley again and again we trudged in the silence of mutual suffering through wind, rain, cloud forests, blazing sun, boulder fields and sheer drops.  Occasionally a conversation would break out and I made friends with a Canadian podcaster who received more of a backstory than he’d bargained for when he sprung a camera on me.  I met a para-athlete with a blade (wow!) and formed emotional bond with a Belgian runner who’d had a liver transplant.  I wasn’t the only one at UTMB battling the odds.  There were sleep (and even massage) stations spread throughout the course but I didn’t have the luxury of time and had to keep going.  I wasn’t feeling all that awful but this course just ground me down.  Try as I might, my legs just wouldn’t move quickly enough.  I later learned that 700 people had called it a day before I was forced to return to Chamonix on a bus.  I couldn’t bring myself to visit the finish line.

I’d so desperately hoped to write a fairytale ending to my ultrarunning story.  But the bleak reality of living with cancer has crushed my dream of finishing UTMB.  Absolutely everyone has hailed my 98k as an achievement, but it will take me a while to see past the spectacular failure and forgive myself for letting down the huge supporting cast who have helped me so much along the way.  Do I have really have another 100 miles in me? I’d like to find out and one thing is for sure: 

I’m. Still. Not. Done.


  1. Wow, Nat! Your disappointment cannot be denied. Especially over “letting people down” but really the only way you could let people down was by not trying. And boy, did you try!!!

    I’m happy for you to have had such an incredible experience. And maybe just a little bit jealous.

    Xoxo 😘

  2. Only just catching up on blogs. You let down nobody, you loon. I am just as proud of you as if you had won the bloody thing. Everyone knows you gave it everything. X lots of love.

    • Hey Nat… good to catch up the other day. Well written fella! I know it still feels like a fail to you and it still hurts but please know that it was also spectacularly inspirational to me and I am utterly sure it was to many others as well. Thanks for letting us share the journey and Cheers to the next adventure!

      • Thanks Becki!
        Yes – cheers to the next mudbath by the looks of the forecast!
        Oh well – it will feel easier than pavement 🙂


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