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Photo credit: Kevin Webber.

Running with terminal cancer: Q&A with the inspirational Kevin Webber

09-May-17

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Alice Morrison

Kevin Webber has just come back from the desert having completed his second Marathon des Sables. He has the usual tales of surviving the terrible heat, the endless dunes and the leg-burning jebels. But his story has a difference, because Kevin has terminal cancer. Here he tells us about his race but also about how he finds the strength to continue and how running is supporting him on his journey.

Q. Who is Kevin Webber? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A. I am just a regular kind of guy, never really excelled at anything apart from determination! I am married with kids aged 19, 17 and 12. I worked for RBS for 36 years as a Relationship Manager. I live in Epsom. I support AFC Wimbledon and played rugby for Sutton & Epsom RFC in my 20’s. I still go and watch the 1st team. I always loved sport either playing or watching.

Q. How long have you been running and what are your running preferences? How would you describe yourself as a runner?

A. At school I was the mile champion in my final year but never did more than that. At my rugby club there used to be a half marathon so I entered it aged 20 without any training at all and finished in 1-59-54. I got the bug and then started running more and did loads of 10kms and half marathons. My best half marathon time is 1:27. I never ran more than a half until about five years ago as I spent my 30s and most of my 40s getting injured if I tried to run more than 30 minutes. I decided to do a marathon and trained badly as I didn’t understand strategy or fuel intake.

I did the Orpington marathon. There were only 80 in it for two 13 mile loops in suburbia. I did the first half in 1:45 and then died as I had no gels or food. I struggled on the second lap and finished in 4:18, which was ok for my first one but it taught me a valuable lesson to train properly on strategy not just running.

I have run a bunch of marathons since, including Brighton and London three times each. In 2014 I did my best ever time of 3:48. I did realise that my body did not like being fast but didn’t mind going on longer so then I did 100km London to Brighton, again getting my strategy wrong but a valuable lesson, this time about spending too long in rest stops. I guess I am a plodder who likes the mental and physical challenge of never giving up. I love the people I meet on ultras, they are different from marathon runners. I think, to generalise, that they have a joy for life and just being out there. I love just going out into the country and run/walking for 4 or so hours.

Q. Kevin, we know that you have continued running even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, can you tell us more about that?

A. In August 2014, I started going for a wee a lot at night plus a few other changes below the waist and went to the doctor’s. Three months later I was formally diagnosed with effectively terminal prostate cancer. I was told that I should live for two years, anything more than that was based on hope. I since sadly know of many men who have died within six months of diagnosis. I started chemo in Jan 2015 and had already entered the Brighton Marathon. My oncologist said that I couldn’t run a marathon on chemo but said if I can train for it I can do it. I could not find anyone else on the web who had done a marathon on my type of chemo. Training was pretty hard but on week 13 of chemo, I did Brighton in 4:38. I then got a last minute place in London two weeks later and did that in 4:26. That was week 15 of chemo. Words can not describe how good I felt crossing both finishing lines.

In my head I realised that in all probability there are many things that will never be for me now: kids getting married, being a granddad, enjoying a long retirement. At first that was hard to come to terms with, but running made me realise that I can set short term goals and do those. That is good for my health as I stay fitter and eat more healthily. The alternative would be sinking into the pit of despair and feeling depressed and probably turning to drink. I have seen others do that. It is a real shame as there is so much life to live if only you can get your head round it. The drugs I am on now will not last forever and when they fail the next lot are pretty grim in terms of side effects so it’s a case of make hay when the sun shines.

Q. The Marathon des Sables is a great race –  how was it this year? Talk us through your race.

A. Last year day one was brutal. I think the organisers realised that it was probably too hard so this year day one was not that bad. After that however the race just got harder and harder. I knew what to expect and I just kept my head together. I had a strategy of run when its runnable and walk when its not. It worked well. My main issue this year was fatigue as I find that I get tired more easily. The big jebels (hills) were a real struggle as I ended up having to stop regularly on the way up to get my breath back. 

On the long day, 17 hours in, I fell asleep whilst walking and fell over. I bashed my hand, head, knee and ribs. There was blood everywhere. I managed to get to the next checkpoint and got sorted out but decided to push on so I could finish in the dark. I am ok now, although I have painful, bruised ribs, they will heal soon I am sure. On the last day, with 5km, it was generally downhill but I had no gas left in the tank so I walked it all. I think the year before I could have run that so I put that down to the drugs I am on. It does not matter though as just being there is an emotional experience.

Q. What was your highlight? And what was your lowlight?

A. The highlight was just to be there. The MDS was the only thing on my cancer bucket list so when I did it in 2016 that was emotional. I genuinely thought I would be dead by now so just to be there again was enough. As for lowlight, I got my friends to give me kids football shirts that their kids had grown out of. I took about 20 out with me and I gave away a couple to kids when we stopped for lunch on the way to the desert as their clothes were in rags. I carried one on the race and hair bands for the girls I met.

On day four I met a boy and two girls with nothing and gave them the shirt and hairbands. I wish I had carried more but my pack was 11kg without any shirts. I then gave the rest away back at the hotel when I went out into the streets and found two really poor women with kids strapped to their backs. I gave them the shirts as I think they would be able to sell them for food. The smiles on their faces were priceless. My lowlight was that I wish I had taken more with me as it would have made a difference to a few other families. Next time I will take more with me by starting my collecting here in the UK at the end of the summer, as that’s when kids buy the new shirts and so can give me their old ones.

Q. Why did you want to do it again?

A. As I said, I thought I would be dead. It has become something of a symbol of life for me. I will keep doing the MDS until I either run out of money (as it costs over £4k a year including kit) to enter or am physically unable to do it.

Q. So what is so special about the MDS for you?

A. I read about the MDS when I bought “Todays Runner” in 1985 as it was the first one. It became the Everest of running for me. There are, I am sure, tougher races out there but in my head it will always be the premier multi day ultra.

Q. We know you have only just come back from the desert, but when you have rested up, what are your next goals?

A. Well I am walking 15 marathons in 15 days with Jeff Stelling from Sky Sports for prostate cancer in June. I have encouraged many from RBS to sign up for a day of it and I think as many as 200 will have by the day. What’s emotional is that 60 guys from London who could not make the dates due to logistics wanted to support Prostate Cancer UK because of me so have arranged their own marathon walk on the 18th May. So far, they have already raised over £10k with a month to go.

After that I am running in Al Andalus which is a 230km race in Spain in July and then Fire and Ice in August. 

It’s a long way off but I have allowed myself to think of a medium term goal so have entered the Yukon 6633 next March and then will do the MDS again within a month of returning. I am calling it 100 degrees of separation as the Yukon gets to -50c and the MDS +50c. It is a mega challenge for anyone, but for me it will be all the more harder. Bring it on!

I have personally raised over £65k since I was diagnosed for the charity, I want to make that £100k. My colleagues at work could make it another £100k this year and that would make me so proud. It’s too late for me to be cured but mine and everyone else’s kids will benefit if they find a cure in the next ten years. I know I won’t be here to see that but I hope that I will make my wife and kids proud of what I am trying to do for them.

Q. All ultra runners have to push through difficulties but you are pushing through the ultimate challenge, do you have any advice for us given all you must have learnt about yourself and life since your diagnosis?

A. My experiences have made me realise that life is so valuable and it’s there to be lived to the full. I say to people “please don’t wait until something bad happens to inspire you to do something important as that day may stop you chasing your dream”. So life is about chasing dreams, never giving up, making good things happen for others, helping others chase their dreams and creating the best memories for my family and friends. Finally, smile don’t scowl. If you smile you and all those around you will have a better day so why would you not want to do that?

If you have been inspired by Kevin’s amazing story and would like to help him reach that £100k, then his page is here

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