When Michelle Mullarkey, 43, from Sutton in Surrey, learned that her second daughter, Scarlett, had cystic fibrosis, she knew there was only one thing she could do – raise as much money for research as she could. And so, at the age of 34, the former fitnessphobe began attempting increasingly demanding physical challenges, finally transforming herself into a marathon runner and raising £70,000 along the way.
“Being told my three-month-old daughter Scarlett had cystic fibrosis (CF) in November 2005 felt like I’d been punched really hard in the stomach – there was actual physical pain. I recall sitting on the sofa with Scarlett soon afterwards and thinking that we should just run away and start again somewhere else where there were no doctors telling us things we didn’t want to hear. It was almost as if the CF would disappear if we did. I knew it was totally irrational and made no sense at all but I remember thinking through possible locations and how we’d cope financially.
“In the absence of being able to cure Scarlett myself, I needed to raise money for the people who were trying to. When she was born, life expectancy was 31 years; 10 years on, it’s now 45, which is obviously a fantastic improvement, but not enough for us yet. The real possibility of outliving your child is just horrendous. We’re hoping that gene therapy (funded primarily by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust) and medication recently approved in America will increase that life expectancy even further.
“I was never good at sport as a child (I’m not really very competitive) and didn’t continue with it as an adult. My first event, aged 34, was a gruelling Ben Nevis climb in extreme heat. I completely underestimated the training needed and had stupidly thought that walking on a treadmill at a small incline would be all I’d need to do. But I didn’t let that experience put me off, and in 2007 completed the 60-mile Capital to Coast cycle ride, which I’ve since done three more times.
Baby brain decision
“It was only in 2008, aged 36, that I took up running. I signed up for the 10-mile Great South Run soon after having had my third child in March, along with another friend who’d had a baby two weeks after me. I have no idea what possessed us – neither of us had run before – perhaps it was baby brain! I had only seven months to train and when I started could not even run to the end of my road. Improvement was slow at first, but it’s amazing how quickly you can improve.
“When I finished the GSR I felt elated, and so decided to enter the 2010 Brighton Marathon. It took me 7hrs 15mins to finish, as the longest distance I ran in training was seven miles, partially due to injury and partially because of timemanagement issues. I’ve now run seven marathons – six of which were with my Dad. The one marathon he didn’t run with me was London, as he didn’t get a place, but he still joined me when I was struggling and ran in front of me with a picture of Scarlett on his back – a bit like a donkey and a carrot!
“Fitting in marathon training is always a challenge: I try to run at weekends as I work during the week, but we often take the girls out at weekends, so this can be a struggle. My daughters attend clubs every weekday evening and I try to go to the gym or for a run while they’re there. I have to give the other parents a wide berth when I pick my children up as I’m less than fragrant and usually a strange shade of purple, but it has to be done.
Achieving the impossible
“Having a child with CF has impacted on every aspect of my life, from the way I look at life in general and how I prioritise things, to the day-to-day routine we have to have to keep Scarlett healthy, which means that anything spontaneous actually needs a lot of planning. Scarlett takes CF in her stride, having physio twice a day (which involves breathing exercises and pounding her chest in order to loosen any mucus) and swallowing about 30 tablets daily. She loves attending streetdance and tap classes, and often pirouettes across the room rather than walking. On a positive note, having Scarlett has meant that I never take my children for granted. Even when they’re testing my patience, I’m aware of how lucky I am to have them. Time with my girls (I have two other daughters, Charlie, 19, and Brooke, seven) is more important than anything else.
“My partner Michael, 39, doesn’t run and questions my sanity every time I enter a marathon! Running is particularly good for clearing the chest, so I fully intend to get Scarlett running as much as I can. Running is one of the few times in my life where I can clear my head completely of CF, although sometimes it does the opposite: if I’m struggling to breathe it makes me think of CF and how lucky I am to be able to run. Either way I’m sure it’s good for my mental health. “I still find running a huge challenge and don’t feel that I’m a natural runner by any means, but that’s OK because to me, each time I run, I’m showing my children that you can still achieve things, even when it feels impossible.”