It was May when Mark Thornberry got the news: primary liver cancer. In June, the other shoe dropped. The cancer had spread into his vascular system and was circulating throughout his body. His prognosis morphed from potentially treatable to terminal. As the 57-year-old runner absorbed the news, he made a decision: “I could sit around and moan about it, or I could do something positive,” he says.
He chose the latter.
Thornberry, from Surrey, England, has always been a runner, something he originally began as an adjunct to rugby. As often happens with running, Thornberry found himself swept along with the sport and about five years ago, he started venturing into ultras. He has since covered many 50Ks, 50-milers and even a few 100-milers.
One bucket list item for Thornberry was the Grand Union Canal Race, Britain’s oldest ultra. Stretching from Birmingham to London along the canal, the race totals 145 miles. Competitors have 45 hours to complete the distance and organizers grant entry to only 100 competitors each year.
Thornberry was among the lucky few to snag a spot in the 2017 event on May 27, but the timing of his diagnosis meant he had to pull out. “I was going through treatment, and three days before the race, I knew I couldn’t complete it,” he says. “It’s such an iconic event and I was amazed to get a slot, so this was incredibly disappointing for me.”
The inability to complete the race wore on Thornberry and eventually, he thought of a way to use his frustration for the greater good—and run the race course anyway.
Thornberry’s plan: To raise funds via his canal run for liver cancer research at King’s College Hospital, where he receives treatment. “Liver cancer is underfunded when you compare it to some other cancers, like breast and lung,” he explains. “I decided that with whatever time I have left, I could do something positive.”
In early September, feeling good enough to take on the 145 miles along the canal, Thornberry set out with the goal of running the course over three days. “Coming off lowered fitness and radiation treatments, I wasn’t sure how it would go,” he says. “But I wanted to try.”
Thornberry sought out the blessing of his physicians, who told him to go for it, provided he was careful and stayed on top of his hydration. He went into the adventure with an open mind, knowing he might have to bail if he felt too bad at some point.
Using social media, Thornberry spread the word about his fundraising plans and asked other runners to join him along the Grand Canal route. He never imagined it would grow into the event that it did.
“Every day, I had different people running with me,” he says. “I had four friends who stuck with me for all three days, and 60 others who jumped in at one point or another.”
Thornberry says that he felt surprisingly good throughout the entire 145 miles. “I wasn’t sure I could do it, but when you get so many people joining your efforts, it goes a long way,” he says. “I had nurses checking in on me at different points, and everyone was on top of my needs.”
Whether it was joining him for several miles or providing food and hydration, Thornberry was overwhelmed by the support. “I felt love and concern from so many—the ultra community wasn’t going to let me go it alone,” he says. “I was terribly humbled.”
By the end of the three days, Thornberry had raised £52,000 (roughly $68,000). “All I want to do is pay it forward,” he says. “I want others to know that a diagnosis like this doesn’t have to be all dark.”
A month and a half later, Thornberry is feeling fairly good as the targeted radiation he receives seems to be keeping his tumor site and surrounding blood vessel spread in check. He’s pleased with the amount of running he can manage at the moment as well. “I’m not too far off running as I normally would do,” he says. “I am currently on day 21 of a run streak, running between five and eight miles every day.”
Running, in fact, has helped Thornberry stay as healthy as he has throughout this journey.
“The fact that I’m in good shape helps me tolerate these intensive treatments,” he says. “The medics are happy for me to keep doing long mileage as long as it presents no physical discomfort. They admit I am a somewhat left-field patient as a 57-year-old who runs 100-milers for fun.”
Indeed, Thornberry is feeling so good that he has registered for the Javelina Jundred 100-mile race in Arizona at the end of this month. “This is to keep the momentum going on my fundraising efforts,” he says. “Plus, it’s a Western States qualifier—with a 30-hour time limit, finishing in 29:59 would be just fine.”
Thornberry has found that his greater purpose has done wonders for his attitude and ability to stay positive in the midst of an otherwise grim situation. “Having running goals and tying them to my fundraising has helped me keep away from those dark places,” he says.
To date, Thornberry has raised over £70,000 (about $92,000) for the research hospital, a sum sure to have a lasting impact.
“I’m hoping the reason people have donated is that they have some sort of positive connection with me and what I am trying to do,” he says. “The sum raised is a physical manifestation of that. This experience has served as a reaffirmation to me that there are some great people out there.”