Nurse, grandmother and endurance runner Sian Williams shares her story...
I often find my biggest running inspiration in everyday stories – it’s incredibly empowering to hear women that we can relate to tell us how they’ve achieved extraordinary things. When I caught wind of ultra runner Sian Williams’ story, I knew it was one worth sharing: her introduction to running wasn’t easy, which applies to many of us, but she’s a shining example of the grit and determination that helps us break boundaries.
Sian, 62, and I had a chat over Zoom where she told me all about preparing for a long trail run, her journey from short jogs to 100-mile challenges and how running is helping her overcome breast cancer. We got a bit emotional as she told me what running means to her, and how important it is to our sense of self. She’s running 100km on 24 April to raise money for Cancer Research Wales – you can support her here.
How did your running journey begin?
““I lived on a farm in rural mid-Wales and had just had my daughter at twenty eight when I [started running]. In the rural community, not many people ran – it didn’t feel like quite the thing – but I gave it a go. I had a slight setback as I found out that I had a heart condition in 1989 that got a bit serious and I had to have heart surgery in 1990 which curtailed the running. I was often in pain while I was running, but the doctors thought it was just reflux and indigestion It turned out that I had contracted a rare virus which lead to a lot fluid floating around my heart and finally my liver got engorged – I was very poorly and spent six weeks in hospital . Eventually, due to chronic flare ups, I had to have my pericardium removed.”
How did you make the transition to longer distances, and eventually ultras?
“I was a club runner with my local team and was keen to do some structured track training to improve my speed. We had a great coach, and I was often the only woman who trained with the men, and I could see improvement. When I hit forty I was still training several times a week and seeing improvements – I was in my forties when I did my best 10K time of 45 minutes, which I didn’t realise wasn’t too bad! At the same time we got into challenge walking, joining the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA), where their standard event is around 25 miles. They say they’re not races, but they nearly always publish the results! It’s mostly off-road, with checkpoints where you eat some food and then you set off again. We found ourselves getting faster and faster at those, wanting to run the flats and down hills. We realised that everyone around us was wearing trail shoes as opposed to walking boots! So, along with the regular running training, [my] fitness was improving.
““I’ve never been super quick, I’ve not been up there with the elites or anything like that, but I just love being out and working hard. My first road marathon was when I was 49, and I chose the fairly demanding Snowdonia Marathon , and loved it, . I did a marathon every year from 2007 to 2011, including Bermuda where I was the first female in the 40-49 category. I did my first 100-mile challenge event in 2008, which was 35-hours continuous run/walk over the Yorkshire Hills.
“I then did the LDWA Heart of Scotland, which ended up being 104 miles, and where my husband unfortunately had to dropout at around 30 miles due to an ankle injury. I managed to catch up up with some guys because you can’t go through the night on your own, and in the end it was just me and one other guy that finished ahead of the pack that I was with.
“Two years ago I did a Run Walk Crawl ultra on the South Wales Coastpath, and was first female in the over-50 category – I did 100km in 18 hours.”
Tell me about your latest challenge.
“It’s not an organised one because there are no organised events at the moment due to COVID, but it’s 100km on 24 April. I wanted to do something for Cancer Research Wales. I knew I needed a big challenge to focus on, and I couldn’t do 100km with friends: the person I knew who could do it with me was my son. So he’s going to support me all the way round – he is used to challenges because of his military background, and is very fast, so the challenge for him will be to go at my pace!”
What was your motivation for supporting Cancer Research Wales?
“In October last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so it was during lockdown. I put off [going to the doctor] because I thought doctors might not want to see me, because of the pandemic – which is completely ridiculous! As a nurse I should have known better, and in the end I thought I better go and get checked.
“As soon as they examined me they went “right, fast track”. And I had a mastectomy within a month.
“Then I had a bit of a wait, because they sent some tissue off to California to do some tests. They can tell whether you need to [have] chemotherapy or go on the drugs. Luckily, I didn’t have to have chemo – so it’s five years of drugs and then hopefully that will be that. Just a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have had that sort of choice, and I would have been straight onto chemotherapy. But it’s because of research that these amazing tests exist now that can quite accurately predict what your chances are. So it feels right to try and raise a little bit of money to support that.”
Sian and her son, Tudor, will be running 100km on 24 April for Cancer Research Wales
And how has cancer affected your running?
“Running has been a huge part of my rehabilitation process. I don’t think I would have got over cancer as well without running. I probably don’t want to encourage this, but I was back on the trails two weeks after my mastectomy! I asked the team who were treating me for a physio appointment because I was desperate to get out running, but nobody ever got in touch. So I thought blow it, I’m just going to do what feels right for me. I went for a run with my husband, and we were only going really slowly, but that first trot was so therapeutic. From that moment I knew it was all going to be alright. I feel quite emotional thinking about it.
“My team and the oncologist kept telling me that, physically, I was very lucky for a woman of my age. But mentally it was a bit more complex, because the diagnosis was so out of the blue. I kept thinking: this is ridiculous, I don’t have cancer, I’ve got far too much living to do! So that took a little more unravelling, and running was a huge part of that. It was a such a huge motivator to get back on track. I started jogging again with two dear friends and that gave me some structure to my week.
“It’s hard to articulate, but running is just mentally and physically incredibly good for you.”
What an amazing attitude to have. Did you surprise yourself with your own strength?
“I had run 65km on Offas Dyke from just above Abergavenny to the end point at Sedbury Cliffs just before my cancer diagnosis. I just thought, flipping heck, if I can do this with a tumour in me then I can get through this!
“The drugs I’m on are keeping the cancer at bay, but have a few side effects. They can sometimes keep me up at night and cause some joint and muscle pain. My oncologist knows about all the endurance running I do and he has encouraged me to carry on – he said if [I] can keep on top of the exercise [I] can reduce those side effects.
“I think having a positive attitude and really working to understand the benefits of exercise have been the right thing for me.”
That’s good to hear! So what do you expect to be the greatest physical challenge of your upcoming ultra?
“Let’s face it, they’re never easy. My sole aim is to keep my body comfortable. But my biggest problem is probably nutrition. With any sort of long distance, I never feel hungry – I have to sort of force myself to eat. So I’ve been doing a lot of work on trying to work out exactly what I want to eat. We will be eating wraps, bananas pasties, nuts, smoothies and, of course, cake!
“I’ve got a running vest, so I’ll probably have an electrolyte in one side and plain water in the other side. My husband is going to be waiting in the car at strategic checkpoints with water and everything. He’ll basically be providing the support you’d get at an organised event.”
You’re right, it’s not easy. So why does trail running light your fire?
“For the confidence that it has given me. When I did a 65K training run the other day, I was totally unsupported other than my husband picking me up at the end. I carried all my own food, I bought extra water along the way – it’s such an amazing feeling to be totally self-sufficient. You’ve got your roots, you know where you’re going, you’re on a mission and it gives you such a boost in confidence.”
What’s the key to a good trail run?
“I wouldn’t want to do it without digital mapping. That’s what I think has been a total game-changer for people that do this sort of thing. I take a battery and a charger so that if my phone or my watch is running low, I can charge it up on the go. You know you’re always connected and that opens massive doors for women. Better technology and better connection is just brilliant, and it’s helped me build up confidence over the years.”
And who or what inspires you to keep it up?
“Jasmin Paris and Nicky Spinks are phenomenal women that do incredible things – they’re sort of my icons. But equally, I love to encourage women who have never run who want to do things like like Couch to 5K. I think if just a small handful of people think “oh, Sian’s doing this so I can do that” then that’s fabulous.”
What would be your advice to women who want to take on a tough running challenge like you?
“I think just gradually conditioning your body to go a bit longer over time, even if you have to walk a little bit. It’s just about spending time on your feet and getting out there: have a walk, have a run, have a gel if you need it, that’s fine.
“Whatever the distance, what we get out of it as runners, the biggest part, is training and mental attitude. Meet up with others to train and have a bit of a social, but also get those longer sessions in where you just have thinking time for yourself, and enjoy your environment. We all get nerves the night before, but if you’ve prepared and done your long run then you can confidently say: “I’ve done all the work now – let’s do this!””