An overly indulgent weekend of cheese and wine with a group of friends in the UK had a profound effect on Zoë. Banging her fist on the kitchen table she exclaimed, “That’s it! I’m going to run the London Marathon.” The protestations from her boyfriend and friends that not only was a marathon a huge deal, but it was also extremely difficult to secure a spot on the London Marathon, only strengthened her resolve and after much research she was eventually offered a place by Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre.
A bombshell is dropped
Six months later the flight attendant’s world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She was only 26. “What I thought was an innocent bout of Optic Neuritis, something I had experienced at the age of 19, was an indicator of something more sinister,” says Zoë. “I was devastated. I went to the gym regularly, was teased by my friends for my penchant for superfoods like baby spinach and blueberries and tried to be a version of what I thought a healthy girl in her 20s should be. With my job I was travelling to all kinds of exotic destinations and it all looked like everything was going to come to a screaming halt.”
Initially in a state of denial, Zoë jokes she did her best Elizabeth Taylor impression, propped up in the hospital bed with a full face of make-up. “I refused to speak to the MS nurse. I wouldn’t read the literature or talk about it and tried to continue as if nothing was wrong. But I was having daily injections of Interferon which made me feel as if I was in a constant state of the flu.”
Thankfully a neurologist in Australia would soon change everything for her. “Instead of pandering to my insolence he told it to me straight: ‘Get on with your life, you will live, there is nothing to stop you from doing whatever you want to do’.”
This approach was what she needed. Apart from a daily Copaxone injection, life continued healthily and happily.
Then, four years after Zoë first made up her mind to run the London Marathon, her sister Georgia visited her in Dubai and spied the application form. It transpired she was keen to sign up too. “I wrote a email to Abby, the coordinator of MSRC,” recalls Zoë. “MSRC focus on the human aspect of the condition and support the families affected by the disease. I explained that four years ago I didn’t think my life could be as normal as it was, I was in good shape and hoped to inspire other MS sufferers out there.”
Back on track
Her letter did the trick and Zoë and Georgia were swiftly signed up with exactly eight months to go until D-Day. “I set-off at 8am – what I thought to be a reasonable time! Within 15 minutes I was out of breath and had a pain in my side. I slowed down to a fast walk and continued for another two kilometres. Not the best start but hey ho…” she says of her first run.
The following month, inspired by Hal Higdon’s training programmes and his promise of ‘18 weeks to glory’, she manages a steady 10km without stopping. Her determination firms when her sister calls her on her 30th birthday and tells her she’s joined a club in Edinburgh and done a 10km race. Zoë ups her game to regular 10km by running a route near her house at a consistent pace of 6kmp/h.
She then bites the bullet and joins Dubai Creek Striders. “I get up at 5.30am on a Friday and join the slower group. I have an amazing time; it’s still dark when we set off and we’re running through souks, past mosques and along the Creek as the sun rises gently,” she reminisces. “I am so in awe of seeing a new side to Dubai that I don’t realise we’ve run 24km!”
Training aside, Zoë also has to raise Dhs8,800 for MSRC. Telling people why she chose that particular charity turns out to be cathartic. “Rather than get the imagined looks of pity, I see amazement and admiration,” she enthuses.
While her sister’s training is put on hold due to painful shin splints, Zoë’s is put to the test by her first ever half marathon in RAK which she finishes in an impressive 1 hour and 48 minutes. By February, she’s not only running regularly at the club she’s also arriving an hour early to do an extra 10km. This takes her runs up to 28km to 32km. “By the last few kilometres I always lag behind and I’m almost doing a survival shuffle, but six months ago I’d never have imagined I’d be covering such distances.”
With two weeks to go Zoë is dealt two massive blows. Her painful leg forces her to cut down on her training and her sister tells her she has to pull out of the marathon because her injury is so acute. Zoë doesn’t let either of these curveballs bring her down.
With a huge support system including her aunt and uncle in the UK, and her mother, boyfriend and two sisters who have all flown over to support her, Zoë is all set for the 42km. The carb-loading, the nerves as well as the realisation of the enormity of what lies ahead have made her emotional and grumpy, but her family take it in their stride!
“Literally thousands of people are in the field dressed as fairies, astronauts, bears and rhinoceros’! Before I know it I am queuing up at the start line saying to myself, ‘just get to mile 20 and then you can think about it.’
I run at a steady pace and experience a sensory overload: the streets are lined with people screaming, children hold out orange segments and live bands are every kilometre or so and over the screaming I hear my sisters yelling my name – they find me at four points along the way.”
The end is in sight
Hitting mile 20 Zoë breaks into a huge smile. “I don’t feel too bad and know I’ll be able to finish.” But at mile 23 her body decides it’s time to stop. “The mental anguish other runners have told me about starts. I think about why I am running, all the bad times, the dark moments I faced since being diagnosed and keep running against it. My legs and knees hurt and I start to cramp. Every step is agony. But I run because I know I owe it to myself to finish the race.”
Crossing the finishing line is a surreal experience with everyone, including herself, crying. “Every ounce of energy is drained. I hobble to meet my family and more tears are shed. We then head to the MSRC stand where I’m met with rapturous applause,” she concludes triumphantly.