Lis Merrick is the managing director of a mentoring and coaching company. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2019, and lives with a stoma after surgery. Lis is also a keen runner, and in April 2024 will run her third marathon since October 2022, and her second in a row as part of team Bowel Research UK. She shares her story and what running means to her since her diagnosis.
I turned 60 in the summer of 2019 and my very mean older daughter decided to enter me into our local half marathon, as ‘everyone does a half marathon when they turn 60 Mum!’. So, I thought, why not? I had a go and managed to get round quite a hilly route. Two days before this half marathon, I had a call from my GP to say that a recent test had come back showing me at high risk of having bowel cancer and I needed further investigations. What had been diagnosed initially as IBS, seemed now to be more sinister.
Two months later I was in hospital for the first of two operations I needed in 2019. My lovely work client, a children’s charity, were aware of what was going on and suggested I ran the London Marathon for them the following year. They felt it would give me something to aim for to help my recovery. However, with the pandemic and another major op in 2021, it was actually October 2022 before I got to run the London Marathon.
Having this enormous challenge to aim for was really inspirational for me. I think my client understood the psychology of having something to get well for and focus on, even though it seemed so out of my reach. I can remember chattering away to the anaesthetist when I went into theatre for my first operation and telling everyone I was going to run a marathon. I think they thought I was barmy, but I remember holding that thought in my head as I went to sleep. All through my recovery and various setbacks I knew that I was going to run.
My first training run after the two operations was just one mile. Some of it was walking, some of it a fast hobble as it was so uncomfortable. I thought the very small amount of colon I had left was going to fall out! But I experienced such joy, I had tears streaming down my face, as I was sort of running. It felt amazing to be moving faster than a walk and I just felt so alive! Slowly, I increased the distance and although I had hoped to run in October 2021, another big operation that summer put the marathon back a further year and I had to start again with my training from scratch.
I did our local half marathon in summer 2022 (this time it was my idea, no coercion!) and I continued my training ready for London in the October. My client had given me two places, so Sophie my younger daughter could run with me as my ‘minder’, so we were able to do some of our long training runs together. Although poor Sophie runs a lot faster than I do, she didn’t complain and just kept me going.
Marathon Day, 25 October 2022 was a dry pleasant day, not too hot, which I had been worrying about. We started off from Greenwich and I was shocked how far we had to walk and how long we had to wait even before we started running. Sophie did her best to iron out my inconsistent timing and not go too fast at the beginning when I was so excited. The crowds, the atmosphere is just so intoxicating, you just get so carried away, especially at the beginning. It was tough and it really hurt. It was so lovely to see friends and family pop up on the way round. My older daughter had made a sign that read: Run Mummy Darling, which made my throat catch every time I saw it!
Things got bad at 16 miles when Sophie told me she was ditching me so she could run a bit faster. I cried after she went but for four or five miles, I followed a lady who had lost her husband recently; she inspired me to keep going. Some of the messages on people’s running shirts are just heart breaking and the bravery and courage of these runners is just awesome. I spent a lot of that marathon in tears as every time I saw someone running for a bowel charity, I just welled up inside. I loved my client and was so happy that Sophie and I raised money for them, but somehow it didn’t feel right that I wasn’t running to prevent bowel disease and cancer. I finished in 5 hours 8 minutes and was so happy with myself.
I knew immediately I must run the marathon again and this time, to run it to give back for my treatment and give thanks for my recovery from bowel cancer. I applied to various charities, but everyone was full. In February 2023 Bowel Research UK (who had kindly put me on a waiting list) approached me as they had a place. I said ‘yes’ with rising panic as I hadn’t done much running over the winter and certainly hadn’t raised funds. However, I just knew I wanted to do this so much to give back. I had about 8 weeks to train so it was quite a condensed schedule, especially as I got flu for a week as soon as I started to train. I went from 3 miles to 11 miles in a week, coughing and spluttering all the way! My fundraising sprang into action, culminating with a French Evening with dinner and wine tasting which kind people paid to attend. On the 23rd April 2023 I was back at Greenwich, this time on my own, in the rain and terrified beyond belief. It had taken us longer to get there than envisaged and I got soaked at the beginning, despite my black bin liner. I knew I wanted to improve my time, so found my amazing pacer Rick who was holding a 4 hours 45 min flag to follow. I ran with his little group to mile 18 and it really helped me be more consistent with my running pace. Sadly, Rick lost his flag at this point, and I couldn’t see him with so many people around so ran the last 8 miles on my own. It was very, very hard, but I was so determined to finish under 5 hours and my time of 4 hours 44 minutes felt so good!
I am running again in April 2024 for Bowel Research UK. It sounds complete madness as I find running very hard, tiring and with my stoma, quite awkward at times. I have to really fuel myself consistently when I am running as I get weak and dehydrated if I am not careful. Plus, my stoma gets overexcited with all the adrenalin pumping through me and tends to explode! Training for the marathon(s) has got me through a very difficult four years of my life. Running makes me come alive, it stretches me mentally and physically and has shown me I can achieve what seems impossible! Without my running I am sure I would have needed a lot of therapy to heal my mind whilst my body was recovering from my treatment and operations. Plus, it has made me fitter, stronger and so much tougher.
Thank you to Bowel Research UK for all the amazing work you do and for the opportunity of running for you again in the London Marathon 2024!