The 100 Mile Comeback

Over the past year or so, my idea of a bucket list has fluctuated a lot.  Indeed – it’s still a work in progress and you may find significant variation in my responses depending on when you ask me about it, my current mood, the immediate health outlook, weather, phases of the moon, etc. etc.  But since the day I walked out of that hospital a confirmed cancer patient, there’s one ambition that has not wavered.  I wanted to run 100 miles again.  Truly, madly, deeply and very very badly.  Why?  I’m still not sure.  Back in March, I went on the Runner’s World podcast and told Rick and Ben that I like stories and wanted to satisfy the narrative arc of 100 miles to cancer and back again.  Very much aware that I’m a shadow of my former self, I’ve always known that    to do so would be an achievement of immeasurable significance.  Not because I’d be doing something new (I already have three such distances to my name) but because, although there are days and weeks when it’s possible to forget that I’m dying, my body simply isn’t capable of what it used to be.  This is objectively, subjectively and relatively true – I feel it every day.  It’s like I’ve aged twenty years, and not well.  This cancer is on my lungs now – I’m hardly going to get any fitter.  Yes – ultra running is growing, but a tiny fraction of the population have gone past marathon distance, let alone 100 miles – this is considered a remarkable achievement for a ‘normal’ healthy person, let alone me.  There’s no way this tale couldn’t be a page turningly heroic one, full of twists, turns and a good deal of turbulence.

And if you’ve been paying any attention at all to my journey of late, you’ll have a good idea of what it’s taken to turn what was a laughably impossible dream into a realistic prospect.  When talking to me about running, some people almost apologise for ‘only’ going out for 5-10k.  Firstly, choosing to go running when you could be doing something, anything else is to be applauded.  Running is hard, especially if you aren’t used to it.  I maintain that my first 5k was harder than my first 50k and I know which race I’d rather line up for.  Shorter distances require you to push past ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ in order to go for a time or keep up with your age group/fitness level.  Longer runs tend to include walking and meal breaks – in some respects, they’re much easier.

But as my trip around the Alps proved, these long ultras are far from easy.  Even without a load of mountains to contend with, the 100 mile distance is utterly gruelling.  But – me being me – it was a matter of hours after pulling up half way round UTMB that I began to hatch a plan.  I wasn’t injured or rendered incapable of going on – I was simply too slow to make the cutoff times.  So … what if there weren’t any?  What If I attempted to go the distance outside of a race and therefore take as long as necessary?  What if I pulled in a few friends/family to drop off supplies?  Four people had flown to a distant land to help me after all – maybe they could drive a few miles?  A route immediately came to mind too – the Essex Way.  The running club takes part in a relay there every September and they clear the paths of brambles for it – ideal!  It’s only 81 miles but the journey into London must be at least another 20!

I tentatively shared this plan with a few people (including my bedraggled UTMB crew) in the hope they’d talk me out of this ridiculous idea.  But no one did.  Not even coach Kelvin, who offered to look at my data and concluded that with a few weeks rest/recovery, could probably rely on the previous training block to get me round a very long run.  The only real problem was this pesky cancer – I had an appointment in mid-September – presumably to tell me I’d be in for more chemo.  But when I was told I’d have another three months to live normally before the next appointment, that barrier disappeared.  The only thing keeping me waiting was my ability to get round to organising it all.

Eventually I found a suitable date – the one Saturday I wasn’t down to work and at the end of half term, so I could bank sleep over the preceding week.  I contacted Jacob (Club Chair) who kindly produced a GPX file of the proposed route. GB ultras – equally kindly – agreed to send me a tracker.  Support points were provided by the relay and on that basis, I produced a spreadsheet which detailed locations and approximate arrival times.  People started signing up not only to provide supplies but run with me.  This was all coming together nicely.

Then, about ten days before kickoff, the weather hit – badly.  I’d hoped I’d the unseasonably warm and dry weather would linger but no such luck was forthcoming and mud season was upon us.  I desperately hoped that three days of sun would be enough to dry out and firm up the ground.  Calvin from running club even called to point out that the Essex Way is full of muddy plowed fields at the best of times and these were not.  I told him I considered myself duly warned and hoped he wouldn’t be in a position to say ‘I told you so’.

When the day arrived, I was a little late for my lift from Ed – it took me a while to get going as I never sleep well before something like this.  That and a diversion on the A12 left me half an hour late to the start line, where I handed over two large bags to Jon and after a few photos at the lighthouse, I was off – just 40 minutes late!  That was the first clear advantage of this not being a race – no start line stress – just turn on the tracker and go.  And the going was good.  After a road stretch along the costal path and through some marshy fields, it wasn’t particularly muddy or treacherous underfoot.  It was a nice enough day for dog walkers and the sun chose to cast its radiance upon my sojourn through the Essex countryside.  I communicated as much with the crew at the first stops in Ramsey and Bradfield.  It helped that Jon and Ed had set up a brilliant array of snacks from the back of a car.  It was like my own personal tuck shop full of sweets and cereal bars and – even better – I didn’t have to refill my own water bottles or bin empty jell packets – I could get used to having a crew for these long runs!

There were plenty of twists and turns to navigate but those first 15 or so miles were perfectly pleasant.  I even encountered Mel and friends, who presented me with a large box of brownies somewhere around Manningtree.  This was the first of many people or groups that came out to say hello despite some not knowing me particularly well.  The gesture was incredibly touching and made even more so when they popped up again at Dedham, despite me being at least an hour behind schedule.

Of course it didn’t really matter, but it’s true I was running late.  I’d expected to take around 26 hours and guessed my level of deterioration in advance, but observed after about 30 miles that I felt worse than I’d expected to by that point, and was definitely slowing up.  But I ploughed on regardless.  This was my party and it was going to happen at my pace.  Around here, Maddy and Tom from the UTMB crew joined and for a mile or so, I had a support car driving slowly behind me.  It felt like I was leading the Tour de France or something but on foot and very slowly.   Just before dusk, the enormity of the task ahead was reaffirmed when a walker I passed asked how far I was going and couldn’t quite believe that I was headed for London – the very concept of running through the night completely alien.  I arrived at West Bergholt just in time to reach for the head torch and found Greg waiting – we hadn’t met in at least a decade, so the surprise was welcome, yet difficult to process in my depleted state.

Then the rain came.

The complexion of the challenged ahead turned from difficult to extreme as the soft paths quickly turned to puddle strewn obstacle courses.  Road sections soon became lakes that required wading and every step was instantly more difficult.  I reached for my waterproof coat and gloves in time to not get particularly wet and hoped against hope that I was in the midst of a passing shower.

I wasn’t.

The drenching persisted and took with it a good chunk of my morale.  By the time I arrived at Great Tey, it was to be greeted with a horrible shower and a few soggy chips, but also with my sister’s friend Nicola who had given flooding advice in advance.  I could tell from the looks on people’s faces that they weren’t intending on staying outside of cars a second longer than necessary and I again set off along the Essex Way wondering if I’d be able to hire a tractor for the next bit – or perhaps a canoe.

Evening turned to night as I trudged on through various relentlessnesses of rain.  At one point before Cressing, I elected to take a road that ran parallel to the field I was officially meant to navigate.  I did not hesitate in doing this.  The mission was very much to run 100 miles and the route was for reference only.  That’s another perk of being able to make up the rules!  By the time I saw the support cars just after 10:30pm, I gratefully took up the offer of sitting in one whilst I munched my trek bar and a load of sweets.  Cold, wet, drained and hungry yet finding it increasingly tedious to chew, it wasn’t easy to leave the comfort of the warm car and my teeth chattered as I gained running body heat again.  It felt like I was on to the hard yards and this wasn’t even half way.

Ed followed me in the car for about a mile as we negotiated a few flooding roads and on to a concrete bridleway before the road ended and I was again alone in the mud and rain.  As I approached Little Leighs, someone yelled out of a car and I presumed I was in the way.  When this person started running with me and showing the way through a system of roundabouts, I realised it was Bobby who was to be my first running companion.  We’d met briefly after a club run a few months ago, but such is the camaraderie amongst ultra runners (Bobby has run a lot of ultras over a lot of mountains) that it felt like the most natural thing for him to stay up after a hospital shift to accompany a mere acquaintance in the middle of the night and in the driving rain through a load of sodden fields and flooded roads.  We had plenty to talk about including his three UTMB series races, most recently a 75k finish at Transvolcania.  I’d imagined that by this point, I’d only be capable of grunting, but as we made our way through paths, fields and roads, we chatted away and pretty much exchanged life stories.  I was most certainly grateful of the company, even if by this point it was taking a distinct effort of will to run and not walk.

I was starting to hobble by the time we came to Good Easter at 3am and for Bobby to pass on the support baton to Maud. The first half of this leg seemed to involve lots of uphill, which by this point was definitely for walking.  I heard about Maud’s concert earlier that day and received all sorts of updates.  But above all, I remember starting to feel increasingly worse and evaluating the situation as we rerouted along yet more roads.  We came to the conclusion that getting to intended finish point of the the Albert hall was distinctly unnecessary.  If it was 100 miles, why not finish around the Tower of London at the second to last stop – at Bankside.  This decision buoyed me a bit.  We were already over two hours late and I just didn’t see the point in keeping everyone waiting another two hours whilst I got to 106 miles by unnecessarily traipsing across London.

The rain had stopped and pre-dawn replaced the full moon and torch light by Chipping Ongar and a waiting Calvin.  He was gracious enough not to say ‘I told you so’ as he found me a route that was entirely on roads.  Calvin had a knack of reminding me to start running again at the just the right time.  We talked about all sorts including mountaineering and motorbikes for over two hours, which was more than double what this stretch had once taken me on the relay.  Shane found me a couple of times in his car, offering apricots which looked great but unfortunately fibre and stomas don’t mix.  It’s my party and I’ll eat what I want to!  Just before the end of the Essex Way at Epping Station, I suddenly found myself serenaded by two dedicated members of Pavilion Brass Band.  As John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare rang out, I felt compelled to start running.  The only problem was that they’d placed themselves at the top of the steepest hill on the entire route.  I gave it a go, but this was the most ‘slow motion’ hill sprint ever accomplished.  No matter – I was in Epping and I’d notched up 81 miles, the sun was out and plenty of people were there to greet me, baring coffee and an injection of positivity when the finish seemed so so far away.  Jon had switched from chief support crew to guide runner and Debbie and Nacho from the club set the pace as we headed out across Epping Forest.

Yes – through another forest.  I hadn’t quite appreciated that in order to get into London and avoid motorways, this was the best way.  I’d even intended to change into road shoes by this point but was very glad I opted not to as the usually fine paths had become challenging after the previous night’s deluge.  There are quite a few hills in this area but they’re not significant – unless you’ve already run 81 miles without stopping.  I found myself complaining a lot and regarding each incline with an indignant disdain.  But eventually, somehow, we made it to Chingford and another reception party patiently waiting in the chill of the morning, clutching coffee.  Then I saw Nessa.  We hadn’t met in person until that moment but we shared the biggest hug.  Because Nessa had lost her partner Chris to bowel cancer just two days before.  I knew not to expect her clearly but here she was, willing me on.  This was where the choking emotion started and it just became stronger until the end.  I wasn’t feeling great – as would be expected after about 88 miles.  In fact I wasn’t sure which was harder out of this or chemo and I said as much.

But experience reminded me that peaks and troughs juxtapose this far into an ultra and as I chugged my umpteenth energy gel, I felt ok again – just in time for the rain to start again. Our bedraggled crew trotted on through the kind of weather that yields absolutely no one bothering to come out and trying to spot runners and we just put our heads down and endured it.  I think it helped that we were on roads by this point and there was a gentle downhill.  By Leytonstone the rain was a bit lighter and another large group was waiting with more coffee and jelly sweets ready for the final push to London.  Emily miraculously appeared at Stratford having just gotten off a bus to run with us to the finish.  It was just a case of getting there now.  I hadn’t bargained for a half flooded canal path through Limehouse that made running really annoying.  My feet were just screaming at me by this point and I was dreading the sight of what must surely be a decent collection of blisters.  I just about managed to find the odd few steps of running but momentum couldn’t happen.

But none of that mattered.  Because eventually my watch ticked over to the 100 mile point.  All the pain suddenly disappeared and my face flinched as I held back the tears.  Another kilometre went by as I took it in.  I’ve been known to go for a sprint finish but as I spied Cath on the camera by Tower Bridge, I just collapsed and cried.  For what seemed like an age.  My entire body rocked with the most cathartic outpouring of mixed emotions.  It took finishing 100 miles to realise what it really meant to me.  

Right there, in that moment, it meant everything.

I’d done it.  I’d actually done it.  I’d run 100 miles. With cancer in three places.  After chemotherapy, major surgery, a stoma and half a dozen colostomy bags.  I reeled off a kind of Oscar speech of course but this was about one last demonstration that I’m still strong in mind, body and spirit.  However much my body deteriorates now, however disabled and incapable I become however soon, nothing can take that glorious achievement away from me.  It’s certain I’ll be forced to abandon doing everything I enjoy:  Everything that fulfils me and again, I’ll be missing a lot of action.  But this time I turned up and I got the job done.  And quite some job at that.

Even if I have no more chapters to write, I’ve written the story:

Of 100 miles to cancer and back again.


  1. So happy you got to do this in your own terms. The strength you have despite all that happens to you is overwhelmingly inspiring. Keep doing what you like for as long as you can , even if you have to rewrite the rules.

  2. I saw a rainbow as I got home.
    I’ll never forget that day Nat

  3. Happy happy ending to this 100-mile run story! Thank you! Xoxo 😘

  4. Amazing achievement, I can barely run 2 miles as a young man! What you have done is so inspirational. I just wanted to let you know that even if cancer takes your body, it cannot take your spirit! Jesus Christ died for you so that you can have eternal life with him. He died on the cross for us so that we could spend eternity in perfect relationship with the Lord. If you believe on him as Lord and savior and accept the free gift of eternal life that he offers, your sins will be forgiven and you will be saved and have a new body in heaven! All you have to do is believe, he does the rest! The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved! You will be able to run marathons for all eternity and for the glory of God! He loves you so much, and you are such a beautiful person. I just felt to share that with you. I will continue to pray for you, you are such an inspiration to those around you. If you want to talk feel free to email me friend, God bless you.


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