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Defying all odds

By Sally Roach

5 time Cancer Survivor Bali based Sally Roach tells us about her inspirational trail running story

Photo by Mantra Summits Challenge

I feel like a phoney writing a story for a Trail Run publication as I never think of myself as a runner. But its true to say that I can walk faster than some people can jog and I run when I can. When I can, is if the trail is flat or downhill. I certainly can’t run uphill!

I’ve always loved walking trails. I’m from Perth in Western Australia and I’ve done most sections of the Bibbulman Track. This is a trail that runs for nearly 1,000 km and where you carry all of your needs, the most important being water! I came to live in Bali, Indonesia, 15 years ago, but I didn’t get into trails here regularly until just over three years ago. It’s a bit late to come to trail running, by most peoples standards. I was 58 years old. When people see me achieving difficult or long-distance trails, they say they are inspired by the fact that I can do it at my age. But what a lot of them don’t know, is that it is not my age that is my biggest hurdle.

In 2003 having just turned 44, I was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. It had burst my bowel and already spread into my lymph nodes. By the end of 2004, I had had three bouts of colorectal cancer and was told I probably had 3 to 6 months left to live. There were no more treatment options and I should go home and enjoy my life. This led me to move to Bali as I wanted to be somewhere where it was always warm.

Since then I have had two more recurrences of cancer, the last time resulting in the loss of half of my left lung. The cancer has certainly moved around. Besides the loss of lung capacity, I have also had an awful lot of abdominal surgery. This has led to a loss of strength in my core, as not only are my muscles weakened from surgery but also some of my nerves have been cut and I no longer have innervation to some of my abdominals. I also now have something called ‘short bowel syndrome’ which I won’t gross you out with but suffice to say that a lot of people with this condition don’t go far from home. But hey, I’m still here!

I saw the cardiothoracic surgeon about 6 months after the lung surgery and asked him what level of fitness I could hope for? I was feeling frustrated as everything physical seemed an effort. He asked me what fitness meant to me? I said “well I have climbed Mount Batur five times, am I ever going to be able to climb it again?” He said “No. You won’t be able to do things like that again”. Less than 6 months later I sent him an SMS from the top of Gunung Batur!

The thing that really got me into more difficult trails was when I joined the Bali Hash House Harriers. For those of you who have yet to experience the delights of hashing, its defined as a drinking group with a running problem! There are groups all over the world and it started in Malaysia over 80 years ago. Within a year of joining I was running three times a week and covering at least 50klm/week. I found if I used trekking poles, I could do more as it was like using my whole body instead of only my legs. The runs I have loved most of all are those with a challenge. We call them ‘Ball Breakers’ and that’s a hash where you follow the paper trail for at least 20klm. In Bali our trails are known in the hashing world for their dangerous elements, such as deep river crossings etc. It’s fairly common for a hasher to be left out in the jungle overnight, being unable to make it back to the runsite!

In 2018 I entered my first official race, which was a half marathon. I walked and jogged and completed it in 3 hours and 6 minutes. I was elated, I just wanted to do more and more races. My first proper trail race was in Java in 2019, I competed in the 15km Mantra Summit Challenge. I had three goals. Firstly, to finish, it didn’t matter how long it took me. Secondly to finish within the cut off time of 6 hours and in my wildest dream to finish within 5 hours which I thought I could do, if all went well. I started out at the very back of the pack as the initial part was directly uphill. It was freezing cold and early morning and that didn’t help my lungs as I am also an asthmatic. There was no way I could run up that hill. I was filled with negative thoughts telling me I should pull out now. What on earth had I been thinking at 60 years of age to run in something like this? But I told myself that coming last is better than DNF and DNF is better than Did Not Start! By the time I reached the summit I had somehow passed a few people, not many, but I wasn’t last. Then on the way downhill, all of my hashing experience paid off. I was passing people 40 years younger than me. I couldn’t believe it. I finished in 4 hours and 6 minutes. Surpassing my very best hopes.

From there I wanted to run. I wanted to run enough that I felt more confident in races like that. So with a young friend as a coach I started training. I really loved it, although I still struggled a lot. My heart rate can stay fairly low but I just can’t get enough oxygen. It’s a problem, but I did improve. At the end of that year, we had 2 Ball Breakers that were super tough. One of them was 32 kilometres and 1500m elevation. Many much younger runners pulled out and didn’t finish. It took me 10 hours, but I did it.

This year didn’t start very well. At the end of January I tore the meniscus in my right knee (probably due to age degeneration) and a flap now extends posterior to the joint. This has led to a mechanical problem in that leg where I can’t fully bend my knee. It has taken me the most of 6 months to get back to doing long trail runs. I managed a 22 km trail last weekend but I still have a way to go with cardio fitness and strength that was lost when I didn’t exercise as my knee was swollen. I am also still learning how to negotiate obstacles, muddy slopes and other technical bits, when you can’t fully bend one of your knees. It’s getting more automatic now to go backwards. Then there is Covid-19. Naturally with only one and a half lungs, I would be a prime candidate for that virus. So I don’t join the other hashers anymore, I go the next day when I can still see the paper trail. I do miss the people though, but again, it’s a small price to pay for still having my life.

Another thing I have done is I stopped using my trekking poles. I will just keep them for Ball Breakers and races. I think I can strengthen my leg muscles and my cardio fitness by not using them and just keeping them for when I really need them.

I don’t personally know anyone else who has had cancer 5 times. I am a medical miracle. But throughout, I never wanted it to identify me. Just like the problems it has left me with… I don’t want those things to be me. I always try to find a way around it and there usually is a way. I love nature and feel best when I am out in the rainforest or the rice fields. I don’t particularly like going uphill, but I do love the view from the top. Its always worth the effort.

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