Run for your Life

This was Liam’s 4th post for Careers in Government in the U.S. and went out in January 2015. It outlines how important the mindset of running was to him in his cancer battle. It is available at

I have been a runner now for over 30 years at a level that many people can probably identify with. I will never be in danger of troubling the elite participants in any race but, at times of consistent training, I can put in a performance that many runners would be proud of. I have completed 7 marathons in that time with finishing times ranging from 3.22 to 5 hours exactly. In the early stages I was motivated by the challenge of the distance and the desire to improve performance but in recent years the attraction has been the escape running gives you in a busy life, the pleasure of running scenic routes and the level of fitness it offers you when you are getting too old for other sports. As a result I have probably enjoyed my running more in recent years than I ever did previously.

However, in 2002, at the age of 40, I was to discover a whole new dimension to the power of running. Out of the blue I was diagnosed with what appeared to be terminal cancer. My condition comprised a large, aggressive tumor running from my cheek, around my eye to my brain. It was a rare condition and I seemed I had no chance. My initial consultant told me that he expected I only had weeks to live.

I was eventually referred to a cancer hospital in Liverpool to see if treatment was possible. My consultants there told me the surgery I required would be extremely high risk. Without it I would die, but it was so risky it was likely to take my life even before then. In the end they offered me treatment but told me my chances of survival were less than 5%.

Before I went for surgery I ran 6 miles every day. These runs, around the narrow roads where I live, became crucial for my mental preparation for what lay ahead. Running is never easy. Never automatic. If you are fitter, you will only run faster. It isolates you with your challenge in a way that few other activities can. It offers you no shortcuts, no distractions, no teammates. It will begin with the first stride and not end until the last one. Every time you run a little part of your brain will rebel. “Why not leave it until tomorrow”. The spirit it drew out of me was the best mental preparation I could have had. It was teaching me how to override discomfort once a plan was is in place. It was equipping me with a mindset that would be essential to get me through a long painful recovery.

I also believed my job now was to become the best possible patient I could be, both mentally and physically. My daily running not only helped my mindset, it also ensured my surgical team would receive the fittest possible version of me for their work.

The operation lasted 12 hours. When I came around in intensive care the staff were amazed at how well I had come through. I am convinced I have my running to thank for this.

My consultant came and sat on the end of my bed two days later. I was more machine then man. He told me he felt the operation had gone well. He reminded me that the surgery I had undergone was as big as it comes. I had survived the operation but would remain critical for many weeks ahead.

My experience from running was a great source of strength to me now. When I returned to the ward I had 12 tubes coming out of me and the next day, when the first of these was removed, I just clenched my fist and thought one gone, 11 more to go. I could relate how I was feeling to the 20 miles stage of a marathon. You have nothing left, but you dig and find something. When I run badly I often adopt a strategy of run what you see. Literally get yourself around the next bend or over the top of the next hill and so on. If you keep doing that the finish line will come by itself.

I applied the same tactic to these days of recovery. All I wanted was some little bit of progress for each day that came. This could be the removal of a tube, to sit up, to get out of bed and eventually to talk, eat, drink and walk for the first time again. All of the inches would make a mile.

10 years later my recovery had reached such a miraculous level that I ran my first marathon, post-cancer. That was the 5 hour one. So my slowest is the greatest of all. My running was only one of many factors of my successful fight against cancer but I have no doubt it was an essential provider of the spirit I needed to stay alive. Running forces you to discover the great depth of personal resolve we all possess. So the next time you pull on your running shoes, remind yourself that not only are you about to do something you enjoy and that is good for you, it may also one day play a role in saving your life.

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Life: Is it the end or just the beginning?

Liam’s 2nd piece for Careers in Government, posted October 2014 It is available at

Life.  Is it the end or just the beginning?  I went to a funeral yesterday. I have gone to a lot of funerals over the last 12 years of people who expected to be going to mine. It reminded me again of how we can all be so busy living, we forget about dying.

We want to forget about dying.  But we are all going to die. It is the worst kept secret in the world.

In the middle of my treatment I was asked if I got ready to die. This was done by people who either knew me well enough, or whose curiosity was brave enough.  From my diagnosis, I always knew that if I did survive, I would have come as close to death, as any human being possibly could, without actually dying.

I considered therefore, that I would have been foolish to ignore the possibility of my demise, or pretend it wasn’t going to happen.  It was, after all, the elephant in the room. And the room was very small.

I also knew my fight would only be as strong as its weakest link.  I couldn’t afford to have a chink in my armour. If I did my cancer would find it and devour my resistance through it.  For that to happen I needed to be not afraid to die.  Being not afraid was part of that armour.

So one night, as I lay on my hospital bed, I told myself I would not be here this time next week. How did I feel?  After an initial very deep breath I was amazed at where I was taken from there. It was only when I forced myself to focus on the part of my glass that was half empty did I begin to see what I now recognized as the portion that was half full.

I had lived a wonderful life. At 40, I had reached the top of the hill and was just beginning to go down the other side. I had come from a great family, gone to college, became an architect, married a great woman and lived to see three of my own children come into the world.

Suddenly I began to see the people who hadn’t lived a life anything like I had. The 3 year old diagnosed with leukemia. The 17 year old who comes off a motorcycle. The 20 year old who leaves home, only to never return again.

Then I could see people who would live twice as long as me but who would never have anything like the life I had. The child soldier. The oppressed factory worker. The many people in the world whose entire lives are blighted by illness or violence or poverty. Perspective is the antidote to fear of death. I was now glad that I had lived so well, for so long. I had turned a frightening negative into an immense positive.

I felt I had sat at a poker table with the Grim Reaper that night. I took the aces out of his hand. Now he had nothing on me. My cancer knew everything had changed. If it was going to claim me, it would only be after being dragged, kicking and screaming, down every single road available to me.

Had I not looked at my death, I would not have seen my life. My appreciation of that life meant that if my time had come, I wasn’t afraid to die. If I wasn’t afraid to die, there was nothing I was afraid of. I was indestructible now. My pain threshold went through the ceiling.

I just put all those thoughts away then. I knew they were there. That was all that mattered. I didn’t want them to dilute my fight. I would only return to them when there was only one outcome left. That outcome didn’t come. But they will still be there for me when it eventually does.

We all spend too much of our lives inhibited by fear. Fear of being different. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of what others will think. Fear of dying. Fear often clogs up the lives we should let ourselves lead. It blinds us as to how beautiful and precious life IS, not can be. If we all dealt with the fear that one day we will die and put it away we would be amazed at what it would do. It would stop letting negatives dictate to us. It would free us to value and appreciate and do things differently. It would make us strong.

I wouldn’t be here without it. By not being afraid to die, I lived.