Running with terminal cancer – an interview with Mark Thornberry

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Sarah Cooke

In August 2016, I ran my first ever 100-mile race – Centurion’s North Downs Way 100. Mark Thornberry was someone I followed on Twitter but had not met prior to the race. We got chatting at the start and ran most of the first 20 miles together. I was feeling strong and went on ahead.

I was having a great race until about 75 miles into the route. It turns out that my running legs do not cope with sleep deprivation. I began to get confused and disorientated. I wasn’t injured, but I couldn’t make my brain and legs connect. I passed out at the 82-mile aid station.

After that I was death marching, and Mark caught up with me about 3 miles from the finish. He looked like he was running well, but said he wanted to walk and would be glad of some company. I later found out that I’d been walking and talking like I was drunk and he wasn’t prepared to leave me to finish alone.

I genuinely think I would have curled up on the ground if I hadn’t had someone to talk to me and keep me awake. He dragged me to that finish, and the photos suggest I even made a passable impression of running over the finish line.

I kept in touch with Mark on social media and saw him again at a race in January 2017. We then both ran South Downs Way 50 in April 2017. Mark was treating it as a training run for Grand Union Canal Race in May. We ran together for several miles in the middle of the race.

Mark said he was struggling, but he still seemed to put in a solid performance. Not long after this, he got in touch to say he had been diagnosed with liver cancer and was going straight into hospital for treatment.

This was going to clash with GUCR. With his usual black humour, Mark said the doctors wouldn’t let him out to do the race.

Mark revealed in August that his cancer was terminal. Determined not be beaten, he decided to run the GUCR route over 3 days in September to see if he could raise money for liver cancer research. I ran the last 40 miles of Mark and his compadres’ 145 miles ‘fun run’. It was an honour to be involved in such an inspiring journey. Despite the visible fatigue, I never saw Mark’s determination, positivity or sense of humour falter.

One of the reasons for the fun run was that the doctors did not expect Mark to be alive to run the race this year. He isn’t only alive, he followed up his fun run with Javelina Jundred in October – 100 miles in the Arizona Desert – and has trained consistently whenever treatment allows. He made both the start and finish line of GUCR this year.

Shortly after he finished, he hit £75,000 in his fundraising. This has made it possible for new research projects to be developed which may help future patients to receive a better prognosis than the one Mark has been given. I was able to interview Mark once he had caught up on sleep after his incredible race.

This is his story.

Q. How and why did you get into ultra running?

A. Google.

I’d stopped playing rugby five days after my 50th birthday and was looking for something else I could be distinctly average at, whilst keeping fit. I’d done a few half marathons/marathons and one day just decided to turn left off the tarmac.

Living in the Surrey Hills it was easy to take a rucksack and get out for a morning’s run/hike. I bought a GPS watch and realised I’d run 17 miles one day – I’d never gone so far on the trail…and then I found myself starting at Point A without a map, and just running along new footpaths and bridleways every week.

Then one Saturday in August 2012, I think, I saw a bunch of ‘numbered’ runners coming down from Denbies Vineyards (near Box Hill) and asked them what they were doing…it was the North Downs Way 100. I had no idea that such events were held and then spent all that night searching ‘ultramarathons’ 
Q. What attracted you to the Grand Union Canal Race?
A. It’s probably the UK’s most iconic race, I’d just heard too many good things about it. I liked the challenge and was looking to push myself beyond 100 miles. The eternal ‘can I do it?’

Q. When and how did you find out you wouldn’t make the start line in 2017?

A. I was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer) three weeks before the event (first week in May) and spent race weekend recovering from a trans-arterial chemo embolisation procedure at King’s College Hospital (KCH). I was convinced beforehand that I’d be on the towpath in some capacity, but alas, not to be.
Q. How important was it for you to complete the race route after your diagnosis?

A. I must give credit to Dan Park and Bryan Webster who suggested running the route. I’d had a poor response to the procedure above and my cancer was aggressive…I really didn’t think I’d make it to the 2018 edition (I was given 6-9 months to live if the next intervention didn’t have a substantial impact) and wanted to make some gesture to raising funds for KCH.

Running the Canal just seemed apt. I’d invested a lot of time recceing it and talking to folk who’d run it before, and I thought I could cope with splitting it into 3 x 50 mile chunks.

Q. How did your family respond when you told them that you wanted to run 145 miles in between treatment cycles?

A: They were 100% behind it, especially as they knew running kept me away from spending too much time in those dark rooms, and the fundraising was beginning to build a head of steam.

Naturally, they were a little anxious about me physically coping – but I spoke with the medics, who admitted that they had no reference points (!) but gave their blessing. I did promise my wife that I would stop at any point I felt it wasn’t going well.
Q. You raised a lot of money running your own Grand Union Canal ‘fun run’. Why did you decide to go back and run the official race this year?

A. Gosh, good question. I loved running the Canal (and there are so many people who helped me complete the journey, people I can never thank enough) and to have Dick and Keith put the ‘official’ gantry out at Little Venice and present me with the 2017 medal was humbling.

But the race still gnawed at me, and in no way being ungrateful, I felt I couldn’t lay real claim to that medal until I had run the route under race conditions. 
Q. What impact has running had on how you have coped with your treatment and prognosis?

A. It has kept me sane, optimistic, focused and fit. Being fit has helped me cope with some quite intensive interventions and their recovery afterwards. And running is great for the old noodle, I get myself lost, away from the ‘what ifs’ that can easily permeate much of one’s thinking.
Q. What impact has cancer and your treatment had on your ability to run?

A. Notwithstanding I am an Old Codger, my cancer has made me less ‘efficient’ as a runner and I have noticeably slowed down, and sometimes I feel fatigued. But I can run, enter races and just get into the hills, and I’m very grateful for that.
Q. Did you have any doubts about whether you would finish the race?

A. Once I got going…no. May sound a bit arsey, but I spent the weeks leading up to race day visualising the finish at Little Venice and resolved to bloody crawl to it if I had to. I felt a large obligation to all the kind people who had made donations to the cause to finish, and I just so wanted to get that medal.

Not for the intrinsic bling, but for my head. Every time I enter these races, I’m going into battle with my cancer. They become a proxy…if I can finish, that’s that b*****d put back in the box for a while.
Q. How did GUCR compare to Javelina Jundred?

A. They are both brilliant races. I had very different physical problems at both. Heat exhaustion versus bad blistering! The GUCR was tougher.

It’s a grind, and it is much more than ‘just another 45 miles on a flat 100’. It is a beast with that three headed hydra on the towpath telling you you can’t come any further. And it has far better hallucinations.
Q. What were your lowest and highest moments during GUCR?

A. The highest was definitely having a brilliant crew (Karen, Claire, Sara and Dave…so much love for these guys) and the support from other crews, runners and volunteers, many of whom knew my back story, all just willing me to Little Venice. Just off the chart in human kindness.

And the low was realising at around 60 miles that I’d not paid proper attention to my feet, which were now blistering badly, compounded by that epic electric storm that hit about 4 hours later. It got too painful to run for more than a few hundred yards here and there and I realised I’d be spending many more hours out than had been my intention. 
Q. Can you tell us a bit more about how the money you have raised is being used to help in the fight against liver disease and liver cancer?

A. The funds are earmarked for research that seeks to further understand the ‘mechanics’ of liver cancer. Providing a robust patient stratification of the disease will enable further understanding of disease progression and why patients respond/don’t respond well to certain treatment therapies. This will all help with improving patient outcomes.
Q. What are your future running and fundraising plans?
A. I’m only going to stop running when either a) I physically can’t or b) I’m given a good medical reason to stop (!). This means I have a number of races planned and, although it is getting harder to rattle the tin, there are still folk I can approach and awareness is still playing a huge part in getting the message across.

I am constantly amazed at the public who are continuing to make donations to the Virgin Money Giving page for KCH Charity. So, I’m keeping it open, especially for the next few months as I take these events on:

  • August: C2C Ultra, 140 miles non-stop, Whitehaven to Tynemouth, 38-hour cut-off, 15,000ft or so elevation.
  • October: Autumn 100…the third time I will have done this race. It is a Western States qualifier.
  • December: Bello Gallico 100. My first time racing in Benelux.
  • February 2019: The Arc of Attrition. Approximately 105 miles on the beautiful, rugged South West Coastal Path. 
  • March 2019: The Legends Trail, 250km, 25,000ft+ of elevation in the Ardennes.

Q. If you could give one tip to new ultra runners, what would it be?

A. Don’t be in a hurry. I’m aware of many people who rush to get that coveted 100 mile buckle and fail or do not want to repeat the experience again. Enjoy the trails, run with your head up, learn to fuel with what works for you and distance will come.

Q. I think your achievements will inspire a lot of people. How can they support the fight against cancer?
A. It really is about money, sadly. ‘My cancer’ is vastly under researched. The vagaries of the market…other priorities…yes, but not to nearly six thousand of us who are dying every year.

If you can forgo a glass of Prosecco or the odd pint now and then, it would be great if you could donate that money.

Or come and do one of the running events I get involved with. A modest donation gets you in! Search for Wednesday Nights Headtorch Runs on Facebook, we post the events there! 


Mark on Twitter

"running is great for the old noodle, I get myself lost, away from the ‘what ifs’ that can easily permeate much of one’s thinking"

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An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

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Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

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Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

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Increase of up to 1500 metres

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Increase of up to 1000 metres

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Very little change < 500 metres

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First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.