Champion of Road Running

Running: My Saving Grace


Love brought me to South Africa. While living in North Carolina I met a man from South Africa. We fell in love, got married and moved to Gordon’s Bay, where we still live today. I couldn’t have asked for a better life and sometimes it is hard to believe that not too long ago, I was on the verge of death. My life expectancy was around 18-24 months. That was seven years ago! The following is the story of my bout with cancer and how running helped me through the bad patches. – BY JULIE MARSDEN



I met my husband Mike through work in August 2004. At the time he lived in the United States and I worked for a property management company in North Carolina. In February 2006 we made the big move to Gordon’s Bay in South Africa.


About a year before I met Mike I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Until then I was always quite healthy! Or so
I thought. I started running in June 1982 after I had gained 9kg while living in New Orleans. 


In the months prior to my diagnosis I was training for Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota. I had assumed the fatigue and stomach disturbances I was experiencing were a result of hard training. Most runners pay close attention to their bodies, but we also tend to ignore simple aches and pains. We run because we love it, because it makes us feel whole, and for the joy we find at the finish. Despite my body’s complaining, I continued to accumulate miles.



On 9 June 2003 I felt so sick I had to go to the emergency room. What I expected to be diagnosed as a simple case of food poisoning led to tests, and new vocabulary I never knew existed. Tests revealed lumps in my right breast and a significant number of lesions on my bones. My doctor convinced me to fly to Duluth, run the marathon and upon my return, meet with the surgeon.


My running partner, Sallie Whitmore, and I did just that.
As Sallie and I wandered the expo, queasiness began to set in.
I quickly became well acquainted with the porcelain fixtures in the bathroom. My marathon was spent in hospital! On my return home, I went to the surgeon. He ordered a biopsy on my breast. The colonoscopy had shown signs of colon cancer. The breast biopsy was also cancerous…



After being diagnosed I continued running. It was something that kept me sane. I actually ran right up until the day before my surgery in late July 2003. My breast cancer was Stage 4 metastatic, which meant the cancer had spread to the colon and bone. My first operation was the colon resection. Some breast tissue and nodes from the top of the breast and under my arm were also removed. Four days after my release from hospital I walked a very slow kilometre around my neighbourhood. The distance increased slightly every other day until the ‘thrilling’ world of chemotherapy ensued.



Chemo was usually on a Friday. I have four sisters and a brother and each of them went to a chemo treatment with me. A friend accompanied me to the last one. The first seven days after a chemo session were the worst. Despite the anti-nausea drug, I was sick the entire time. I watched television, read books and ran back and forth from the couch to the bathroom to the bed constantly. The second set of seven days was slightly better.  I knew I had to try and run. Two days a week I ran 5km with my usual group. These runs were slow with frequent walk breaks and often a pit stop for the toilet. I noticed my running times had slowed considerably. I also required more water but at least I was running.

I relished the fresh air on my face; sometimes I even took my hat off and uncovered my bald head allowing the cool air to invigorate me. Most of all I dreamt that one day I would run again without the fear that my stomach would send me off in search of a porcelain bowl! On Saturdays Sallie and I managed about 10km!


During the last seven days of the chemo cycle I actually felt almost normal. I had more energy. I would then try and run three times a week, and sometimes as far as 15km.


My decision to continue running throughout my illness was never in question. I needed to try and live as normally as possible. Running kept me from isolation, it got me out of the house and around my running friends.



I am so grateful to my children, Michael and Zachary. They were in school in California and Florida at the time I got sick. We spoke at least twice a week, and they visited me at Christmas. As a present they gave me an iPod engraved with the words ‘Big
Bald Mama’.


I think the boys liked having a bald mother. Even though it was winter I refused to wear a wig and opted for hats in the cold.
I enjoyed going out to dinner and to the stores bald.
It was great fun watching the children’s eyes widen in wonder. My doctor, my surgeon and my oncologist helped me understand my cancer and its ramifications. I considered them friends not doctors, and refused to call them by their surnames.


My friends Sallie, Nancy, Melissa, Ben and Sue were with me throughout the process. They came to the hospital, they cooked for me when I couldn’t (or wouldn’t), and listened to me complain about how rotten I felt.



In 2006 when we moved to South Africa I was in remission. I joined Strand Athletic Club in Cape Town and ran the Two Oceans Half Marathon in April 2006 and the Winelands Marathon in November. My husband has always supported and encouraged me and he has been at the finish line of most of my races. In 2009 I ran the full Two Oceans Ultra Marathon!


Shortly after moving to South Africa I heard many of my club’s members tell endless stories about the Comrades Marathon. Last year after completing my second Two Oceans I felt it was possible for me to run Comrades. On 1 November at 9am I registered. Within 20 minutes, with my money spent, nervousness ensued. 


My training went well and on 28 May, my husband and I flew to Durban. On the night before the race Mike cooked me dinner and put me to bed by 8:30. Race day was exciting. There were the families of runners, the residents of Pietermaritzburg, and others who had just come out to see the crazy folks run 89km.


At the 10km mark my friend, Candice Winterboer, and her friend Craig Vivian found me. For a down Comrades there sure seemed to be a lot of ‘opdraandes’ but at halfway, I knew I could finish it! I ate oranges, bananas, biscuits and more potatoes than I can count. Drank Coke, Powerade, water and then some more water to wash everything down.


What can I say about Field’s Hill? I asked Candice and Craig, “Is that it?” I had barely noticed it!
My mind was mush by that point. Then we hit Cowie’s Hill and I walked. At Mayville I began to
feel nauseous, but we realised if we picked up the pace we could cross the finish line in just under 11 hours.


At the 1km to go mark we ran! Not a slow slog; we really ran! Entering the stadium was amazing. The crowds were clapping and yelling; the vuvuzelas were blowing. Crossing the finish line was one of the best feelings I have experienced.



I have several races planned for the future: the Cape Town Marathon in September, several local half marathons, another Two Oceans and of course the Comrades next year. Having goals motivates me to be the best I can.


The South African running community has been so good to me. I found the South African runners to be more focused than Americans. In my opinion this is because of the time limits imposed on races in South Africa. In America there is no time limit for marathons or half marathons. Therefore, not all but most Americans put no emphasis on speed.



The thought that I had cancer and might die never bothered me. I valued my quality of life more than the quantity. Accepting the situation was the first part; then I had to live with it and the impact it had on my life.


To those suffering from cancer my advice to you is to live your life as close as possible to what it was before your diagnosis. Read a novel, check out all those movies you have always wanted to watch. Treat yourself with kindness. And never ever be afraid to ask for help. Ask your doctors questions. And if you want a second opinion, get one.


One of my saving graces was running. It defined me. It allowed me to visit new places, and make new friends. There is always something new to discover whether it is beautiful scenery or new neighbourhoods. I have run in snow, rain, humidity, heat and cold. To me each run was a personal success. Each race was my race, and my finish time mine! I often say I run to keep the weight off. It may have started that way but that plays a small part now.


If you had told me in 1982 that I would be running marathons and ultras in 2010 I would have said you were nuts. Today running is a vital part of my existence. After chemo the oncologist said my life expectancy was around 18-24 months. That was seven years ago! I am not worried that the cancer will return. I have too much living to do and too many races to run!