Ultrarunning has lost one its great characters. Mark Thornberry has died, aged 59, following a long battle with liver cancer. 'Thorners', who raised more than £100,000 to fund liver cancer research, was a stalwart of the ultrarunning scene in the South East and a multiple finisher of the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race. In his later years, he co-founded Canary Trail Events with his great friend and fellow ultrarunner Allan Rumbles.
Not even his incredibly gruelling cancer treatment could stop Mark from pursuing his passion for long-distance running. In 2017, he finished the Grand Union Canal Race in stages – and the outpouring of support he received in doing so spoke volumes about the esteem in which Mark was held.
I was fortunate enough to meet him back in 2018 when he came on the Runner’s World podcast. We kept in touch and when I told him I was planning to run the North Downs Way 100 in 2019, he offered to be part of my crew. Despite being in the advanced stages of cancer treatment, he stayed up all night, following me round the remote corners of Surrey and Kent, offering advice and friendly insults along the way. That was Mark: generous, funny and always happy to go the extra mile.
The following article appeared in Runner’s World in June 2019. Mark had received several health setbacks by this point, but his passion for running and fundraising really shine through. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him – and ultrarunning is a less magical place without him in it.
He runs to beat the odds and save lives
After years of running to support playing team sports, Mark ‘retired from bashing into back row forwards’ at 50 and began enjoying running for its own sake, going further and further into the Surrey Hills around his home. While training for the 2012 Paris Marathon he came across some people running the North Downs Way. ‘I liked the sound of it and from there I got hooked on ultrarunning,’ he says. ‘I enjoy my own company so I’m happy to pack a backpack and go off for eight hours, and you also meet a lot of very interesting and eclectic people in ultrarunning.’
Even then he was battling against more than the distances, having been diagnosed with liver disease in 2005. Then in May 2017, at the age of 56, he got the call that is the stuff of all our nightmares.
‘Because of the cirrhosis I knew my chances of getting liver cancer were much higher than average,’ says Mark. ‘But those chances were still something like the equivalent of Leicester wining the Premier League, and you’d take those all day, right?
‘So it was a real shock when my hepatologist called me after a routine ultrasound to tell me he was 99 per cent sure I had cancer. I went numb. Your thought process goes straight to the image of you in the box in the church and the weeping wife.’
A scan confirmed Hepatocellular Carcinoma and Mark was told he needed a treatment immediately. ‘It was a week before the Grand Union Canal Ultra which really pi**ed me off!’ says Mark. ‘I’d trained for this 145-mile race and I was feeling pretty good, not knowing that my liver was addled with cancer. I had to DNS that one.’
Mark did his best to remain upbeat but unfortunately there was worse to come: ‘I was thinking that the treatment would work, I’d get a transplant, which I’d cope with because I’m fit, then I’d go and run in the transplant games. But unfortunately the results showed the tumour had grown and got more aggressive, and they could see evidence of secondary invasion.’
The prognosis was devastating. ‘I was told to put my affairs in order and given six to nine months to live,’ says Mark ‘There was one more treatment, and if that didn’t work there was nothing else they could do. That was on June 26, six weeks after the original cancer diagnosis.
‘So I thought I can do one of two things… I can moan and sulk or, what do I really like doing? Running. And let’s see if I can raise a few bob for charity while I’m at it.’
A couple of Mark’s running mates suggested he run the route of the Grand Union Canal Race he had been forced to DNS, but dealing with the after-effects of the treatment he didn’t think he could cope with the distance continuously, so they hatched the plan to run from Saturday morning to Monday night, roughly 50 miles a day.
‘I mentioned it to a few mates and they said “We’re coming with you”,’ says Mark. ‘Then I went public on Facebook saying basically: ‘I’ve got cancer, my prognosis is terminal and I’m going to do this. If you want to come and run with me that would be brilliant and if you want to put in a few bob, that’s brilliant too.’
Mark also spoke to King’s College about maximising the impact of his fund-raising. ‘I said I don’t know who much I’m going to raise but whatever it is, I don’t want to buy the chairs in the waiting room,’ says Mark. ‘I want it to go towards research, because liver cancer is very poorly researched.’
‘I had this amazing outpouring of support and I ran the canal in September 2017 after going through the last chance saloon treatment which involved dropping radioactive isotopes onto my tumour site,’ says Mark. ‘At least it had given my wife a break as she couldn’t share a bed with me for five days!’
It seems incredible that Mark could even contemplate a multiple ultra-marathon weekend in the wake of his treatment but it was running hat had, at least in part, made it possible. ‘The surgeon told me I’d had the best possible outcome because my fitness gave me the ability to tolerate the invasive treatment,’ says Mark. ‘I’m a bit of an outlier – they don’t treat many guys who run 100+ milers.’
His running has helped him more than physically. ‘I don’t think running is the panacea for everything it's sometimes painted as, but it definitely helps,’ he says. ‘Having cancer and an uncertain future is one of the most mentally oppressive things you can go through so I channel that, I stick my kit and head out and it allows you to process what’s going on in your life. On my blog I talk about staying out of a dark room and running definitely helps me stay out of those dark rooms.’
The miles and especially the ultras are also a powerful expression of the fact that he’s still here, and still fighting. ‘For me, running is a sign that I’m winning, or at least I’m still in the game,’ he says. ‘In the Javelina Jundred I felt rubbish but I said to myself, “come on you can beat this”. ‘It becomes like a metaphor – if you can beat this you can beat your cancer. That’s a very strong thing for me.
‘Everybody feels great when they finish a race, whether it’s a parkrun or a 300-miler, but the feeling I get when I finish now compared with pre-cancer is just so heightened. It’s very emotional. I weep buckets. And I think that if I can do it then other people can. There’s nothing special about me. There may seem to be insurmountable challenges, but you can overcome them.’
It’s not just about personal challenge though, having already raised over £100K to fund a research project at King’s College which will help to make better treatment pathways available for people like him, he feels there’s still much more to do. ‘Research isn’t finite,’ says Mark. ‘Six thousand people die from liver cancer every year and while I’m really pleased I’ve been able to provide what I have it doesn’t stop here, I need to get back out there and do my thing.’
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