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I'm doing my first ultramarathon at 46 – and I've never been a runner!

'I wanted to remind myself I'm grateful to be alive', says two-time cancer survivor Deborah Ward-Johnstone

Lady running outside in greenery
26 January 2024
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After surviving bowel cancer twice, I wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of the all-clear, to remind myself how grateful I am to be alive, and how much I can achieve despite living with a stoma.

I decided to look for a challenge that was more than just a day, to prove that my body is still strong despite perceived limitations. Despite always telling my husband I would never run a marathon, I started to realise that perhaps this was the once-in-a-lifetime challenge that I should take.

I was inspired by Dancing on Ice star and fellow bowel cancer survivor Adele Roberts when I watched her running the London Marathon, so went one step further and signed up for an ultramarathon, with the help of Threshold Sports, an organisation that helps people realise their potential through world-class events.

Senior woman resting after exercise outdoors in nature in the foggy morning. Copy space.© Getty
Deborah wanted to take on a challenge

I decided to do the Race to the King ultramarathon – and I was riddled with doubts as soon as I signed up. My first concern was that I am not a runner.

My running regime focuses around 5km every two weeks with my dog, and more importantly my trainer and friends, at a Kent-based canicross group - Skellywags. That's it! No midweek exercise, no evening runs, nothing else apart from yoga at home.

Doubts and fears

When I first pondered the opportunity of an ultramarathon, I felt the fear and the pressure of this being a challenge that was perhaps too big to take on as a complete novice runner.

However, during a conversation with Threshold Sports, someone mentioned taking part with walking poles. As soon as I realised people can walk during the ultramarathon, I was sold.

Some people start running and walk at the end of the course, some people walk and run intermittently, and some people start walking and finish walking. My perception of an ultramarathon changed straight away. I saw it as something that could be achievable for a very average person like me (and that if I tried running there was a high chance I wouldn’t come last!)

Lady running with her dog on a lead© David Pearce
Deborah Ward-Johnstone normally runs with her dog

Overcoming challenges

I didn't think that I would enjoy training runs in the snow and the rain, but I have! It's nice to train with my husband too, although he does have to slow his pace to stay with me, bless him.

It's been nice to notice that I de-stress after a run as well. I've enjoyed the support from the other ambassadors. I am the underdog and they are so supportive.

INSPIRATION: I found a sense of freedom at 49 through a challenging new hobby

I've also enjoyed the belief of my family and friends and how they are understanding the need for all types of women to be represented in Ultras. I've even got some signing up to join me!

What I've learnt from ultramarathon training

  • I've always been a determined person and it’s dawned on me that running should be no different.
  • I learnt that the first KM is the hardest and that it does get better the more you keep going.
  • I've learnt that sometimes my body's not in the right place to be running (bad allergy attack) and I don't have to beat myself up about it.
  • I've learnt that I am quite self-competitive, plugging my Runna progamme into Strava and trying to compete with myself!
  • I’ve realised that I really enjoy wearing trainers- I never really wore them before!
Jogging and running are fitness recreations© Alamy
Deborah has a new love of trainers!

Advice for others

If somebody had told me a year ago I would be training for an ultra-marathon I would have laughed.

I'm an average person who doesn't go to the gym, has never been massively into exercise, has never run a half marathon and hates being cold. However, I am a person who wants to achieve, wants to be healthier, wants to support women and equality, and wants to prove to herself that she can do it.

Young male runner preparing his sneakers for running. Tying shoelaces on the road.© Getty
Running doesn't have to be daunting

The biggest thing to remember is it is not a 50 km run, yes I will be trying to run part of it but I also know that I will be walking most of it.

My achievement will be crossing the finish line because I can, despite two bouts of cancer, despite a stoma bag and a really stressful job.

READ: How my breast cancer diagnosis took me on the path to unexpected happiness 

It's important I take time for myself and I can already feel the benefits. I would urge other women to consider doing this challenge for themselves and to support Threshold Sports in their mission to get more women into long-running.

Threshold Sports’ new initiative Ultra 50:50 endeavours to achieve gender parity and set new industry standards to inspire, empower and enable women to take part in events at the toughest end of the running distance spectrum.

 Race to the King takes place on 15 June and Race to the Stones takes place on 13-14 July. Find out more and enter here:

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