“I won’t let the MS Monster win” - Women's Running UK

“I won’t let the MS Monster win”

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  October 5, 2016

I won't let the MS monster win

At the age of 41, I suddenly lost the ability to run. It was very bizarre – I knew I could run but my brain and legs just wouldn’t connect. I also walked funny, a bit like John Cleese’s silly walk, and started experiencing numbness, vertigo and extreme fatigue. It took four months to be diagnosed, during which time I carried on as normal, secretly convinced I had a brain tumour. I stopped driving as my balance and foot numbness meant I couldn’t feel the clutch but I tried to walk everywhere (with my silly walk!) and leant heavily on trolleys when walking around supermarkets.

“Eventually, on 20 February 2008, I was told I had multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease where your immune system attacks myelin, the covering around nerves that assists in the conduction of nerve signals throughout your body. Initially, I was relieved that I had a diagnosis, then I struggled to understand how it would affect me. MS is called the snowflake disease – everyone’s disease is different. My neurologist couldn’t tell me if I would improve or get worse. In desperation, I turned to the MS Society, which was a life saver. When my friends and family heard the news, many of them cried and I spent a fair amount of time telling people I was OK. I also got one ‘Get well’ card,
which I thought was hilarious.

Fighting back

“Following my diagnosis, I tried to carry on as normal, taking only two days sick leave. This was a mistake as emotionally the condition was taking its toll. I had a very pressurised job and my mood wavered from anger to
despair as I tried to keep up with my workload and my symptoms. For a while, I moved to a less stressful role and went part time, but I soon returned to working full time, eventually even getting promoted.

“What upset me most was not being able to run around with my then six-year-old son Tom. It was difficult to explain to him why Mum couldn’t run with him in the woods. I taught myself to walk without the odd gait by talking my way through each step. I then took up Latin and ballroom dancing and, against medical advice (gentle exercise only), started boxing training. The ability to run came back after about 12 months but I still had to concentrate going down stairs and kerbs so my brain and feet would connect. It’s a big problem if I’m running on an uneven trail with a steep downhill – I have to slowly inch my way down.

Marathon triumph

“In 2012, four years after my diagnosis, I ran my first race – the Folkestone Race for Life – and spent the entire 42 minutes trying not to cry at all the heartfelt messages
pinned to runners’ backs. I later decided to enter the London Marathon and, in 2014, got a place. I was in a dance-performance group at the time and was dropped on my knee several times so I deferred my London place, opting to do a half-marathon instead at the Kent Roadrunner Marathon. I got my place five weeks before the event so had very little time to train. Though I only intended to run 13.1 miles, I ran a full marathon in just over six hours. Apart from some dizziness and disorientation, my MS didn’t really affect me.

“The following year, I completed the London Marathon, which was brilliant and humbling. I caught up with a woman who’d had a stroke and been advised (like me) not to run. We got through a couple of miles together and she smashed it! My plan was to run eight marathons in 2015 but, after three, I injured the tendons in my foot, and then suffered a detached retina which necessitated surgery and a complete exercise ban. I ended 2015 having raced the equivalent mileage of eight marathons – 209.6 miles – to raise £2,500 for the MS Society. So far 2016 has been much better: I’ve done my first 30-mile ultra and seven other marathons. I’m aiming to race 1,000 miles this year to fundraise in honour of my dad, who died of pancreatic cancer last year. I’m currently on 637 miles! Next year’s plan is to run 26.2 marathons in aid of the MS Society. I’ve now completed 12 marathons and will run till the day I wake up and my legs don’t work – and even then I’ll continue in a wheelchair. I’d like to reach 50 by the end of 2018, my 50th birthday year.

I won't let the MS monster win

Gemma has run a 30-mile ultra and seven other marathons in 2016

Singing and dancing

“I’m a very gregarious runner – I love people, and listening to their stories. If you have a laugh along the way, then running’s more enjoyable. I always do the Time Warp when it plays on my iPod, and I sing, dance and do
whatever I can to enjoy the run as much as possible. Every run could be my last one so I always try to find an upside – even if it’s only after I’ve finished.

“Being diagnosed with MS means I don’t have the luxury of a given tomorrow. Tomorrow could be the day I wake up unable to speak, move, swallow or think. I have yearly check-ups and some symptoms seem to be progressing a little, but no-one can tell me what is likely to happen so I largely just ignore them. As long as there are roads or tracks you can run on and race directors who will let you walk or crawl if you need to, there’s no reason why you can’t give anything a try. Whatever distance, whatever time, for me it’s about not letting the MS monster win. I won’t be defined by MS. I want to be that mad woman who hugs people, sings and does odd things while she runs, not that woman with MS.”

I won't let the MS monster win

Gemma won’t be stopping racing any time soon

Women's Running Magazine

NMA’s 2020 Lifestyle Magazine of the Year, Women’s Running provides expert advice on gear and training, motivation from your favourite runners and the latest running news.

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