While for most people running is a way to keep fit and healthy, for Ealing resident Jenny Baker it has become her saviour. A pacer and a marshal for Ealing Half Marathon, Jenny received the devastating news that she had breast cancer just after she turned 50 years old and was at the peak of running fitness. Rather than let the disease get the better of her, Jenny’s instinct was just to keep running, and in doing so she found a secret weapon to come to terms with the diagnosis and build resilience against all that lay ahead.
Jenny’s story has been documented in her blog, an honest and thought-provoking account of her cancer journey and what running means to her. Now clear of cancer, she has also released a book about her experience, Run For Your Life, which was published in January 2017. The over-riding sentiment in her thoughtful and inspiring writing is that running has enabled her to hold on to her sense of identity when she felt like she was losing everything. It is a brilliant story of coping that will resonate with other women facing the same thing, runners or non-runners.
It was a few years before cancer turned up uninvited that Jenny met Kelvin Walker, Race Director of Ealing Half Marathon and Event Director for Pitshanger junior parkrun. Both members of Ealing Eagles running club, Kelvin coached Jenny for a while and it wasn’t long before she became a pacer for the Ealing Half Marathon, an award-winning race that attracts thousands of runners and spectators to the leafy streets of West London each autumn. Set up as a legacy to London’s Olympic Games, the race is well known for its huge community support and lively atmosphere, each year attracting athletes from all the world wanting to soak up the #EalingFeeling.
“After two years of pacing I planned to run the Ealing Half Marathon in 2014, but I injured myself so ended up marshalling the race instead,” recalls Jenny. “It was wonderful though, cheering people on and enjoying the great atmosphere. I loved it so much that I decided to marshal again in 2015, but didn’t expect that I would have just finished a course of chemo by then. I did it though and I was based at Mile 12 which was just brilliant, cheering all the runners on in the last mile of the race.
“Being a marshal is a lovely way to contribute and be part of this fantastic community event in my home town. I marshalled again in 2016, by then clear of cancer, and hope to be there in 2017 too!”
Life has certainly not run the course Jenny expected between each Ealing Half, but running has played a huge part in ensuring that she never missed one. A key turning point came when Jenny, who had enjoyed the physical and mental benefits of running for 15 years, discovered her oncologist was a marathon runner. With his support, she decided to stare cancer right in the face and run seven miles along the river to each chemotherapy session at Charing Cross Hospital during the summer of 2015.
For Jenny, turning up at each chemo session on her own terms was a way to take control of a situation where she otherwise had no control. Running to chemo put a totally different light on it, and it very much rescued her when she was feeling anxious and miserable before her second chemo session. “I started running weighed down with sorrow, but after a few miles along the river in sunshine and good conversation I arrived feeling lighter and ready for what was ahead,” Jenny says of her run with good friend Lucy.
In addition to the release of endorphins at times of need, it is clear that running has helped Jenny to find enormous strength. “Running really builds resilience,” she declares. “Whatever you are doing, whether it is a morning run or something you don’t really want to do like a speed session, you can get through the discomfort and know that there is a goal at the end of it. It gives you confidence in so many aspects of life.”
Running has also been a way for Jenny to support causes she believes in, and her book recounts how she has run two marathons in Palestine for human rights and one half marathon in Palestine less than three months after finishing cancer treatment.
In her days of running less, as treatment took its toll, Jenny also came to love parkrun. A much more manageable 5K distance, it gave Jenny a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community and an incentive to get out there. On the days when she felt she couldn’t go any further, parkrun was still possible and her finish time didn’t matter.
Even though Jenny is now able to run up to 25 miles a week, she continues to run parkrun most Saturdays, sometimes at her local Gunnersbury parkrun – where Kelvin Walker was one of the founding Run Directors – and equally in new locations she visits. She completed her 70th parkrun in December 2016 and has set herself a target of 100 parkruns by Christmas 2017.
Kelvin Walker, Race Director of Ealing Half Marathon, commented, “Jenny had an infectious love of running from the moment I first met her, and it has been truly inspirational to see how she has used running as a coping strategy during her cancer treatment. Her tireless energy as a pacer and marshal at Ealing Half Marathon have helped many people to cross the line and achieve their goals, during which time she has been coping with her very own personal goals.
“I hope that her story will inspire other people to put on their running shoes and feel the benefits of running both physically and mentally. Ealing Half Marathon is a fantastic race for all abilities of runner and we are looking forward to welcoming Jenny back in 2017.”
October 2016 marked the one year anniversary of Jenny’s cancer surgery and her annual mammogram reported no evidence of disease. Through exercise, a positive state of mind, healthy eating, treatment and surgery, she had come through the other end and, as her book cover states, ‘ran circles around breast cancer’.
As for what’s in the pipeline now, Jenny has earned a Good for Age place at the Virgin Money London Marathon in April 2017, which is sure to be a huge milestone. She is often seen running around Ealing and is likely to be marshalling – or perhaps running? – the Ealing Half Marathon on 24th September 2017.
Anyone who reads ‘Run for Your Life’ cannot fail to be inspired by Jenny’s remarkable story and positive attitude throughout her entire cancer experience. Full of insight and relevant to runners of all standards as well as to women with breast cancer, their family and friends, it shows how Jenny is choosing to live hopefully and keep on running.
“Run in the rain, in the shade, in the sun. Run through parks, along canals, beside roads, on trails. Run for your life, and your life will thank you for it.” (Run for your life, 22nd June 2015).