Runner's World (UK)
Sara Crosland on returning to running after a brain tumour
‘I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN GOALDRIVEN AND I WANTED TO PROVE PEOPLE WRONG’
A brain tumour couldn’t stop Sara Crosland from living her best life
SARA CROSLAND, A TEACHING ASSISTANT
from Ellesmere Port, near Chester, was an active person – running 10Ks and half marathons, as well as cycling and hiking – until December 2017, when her body started to malfunction.
‘I began to experience a lot of fatigue, I developed a rash and then this incredible joint pain,’ she says. ‘Starting in my hips, then my knees, my ankles; every moveable joint in my body was excruciatingly painful.’
The joint pain subsided somewhat, but it was replaced by a tingling feeling in Sara’s face. Doctors first suspected the parvovirus, then Lyme disease, and it was only when she was referred for an MRI scan that they discovered an acoustic neuroma brain tumour the size of a golf ball.
‘I felt detached, numb, like you’re sat there watching it happen to somebody else,’ says 45-year-old Sara. ‘And then I was quite angry about it. You have got all these things that you haven’t done, but that you still want to do. I thought, “I’ve always looked after myself and here I am, incapacitated with a brain tumour.”’
A date was set for surgery to remove it in April 2018. Fearful of what could happen, Sara wrote farewell letters to her family. Three weeks before the operation, her condition deteriorated when she had a haemorrhage. She spent time in three hospitals to deal with that acute problem, and her operation went ahead on schedule.
She was home six days later ‘out of sheer bloody-mindedness’, but a new set of problems arose.
Sara lost her hearing and her sense of balance on her left side, and then developed loud tinnitus. She couldn’t move without feeling like everything was spinning, and she was violently sick. She was told she had a high risk of permanent facial paralysis and could have problems swallowing.
But three weeks later, she was out riding her bike. They say you never forget, but this was different. She had to put her saddle as low as it would go, to be closer to the ground, and began by pushing herself along the patio with her feet, like a toddler. She then took it out on the lane near her house, but because of her balance, had a tendency to veer towards the hedge. It was the same with running, which she had to keep up – two weeks after her diagnosis she had entered a Race for Life; it was something to aim for.
‘I could have thought, “Stuff this,
I’ll just sit and knit.” That was the easy option, but I’ve always been goaldriven and I wanted to prove people wrong,’ she says. ‘I met so many people who said, “You’ll get used to your new normal.” That really irritated me because I didn’t want a new normal. I like who I am, thank you very much.’ (left) Sara conquers Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in
North Africa ; (above) the face of determination
Since then, Sara has progressed to taking on the types of challenge that even someone in peak form might think twice about. There was the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, a 24-mile journey in the Pennine Range between the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough that is intended to be completed in under 12 hours. While Sara says that having no balance is ‘a really horrible feeling, like being drunk and hungover at the same time’, she insists that her biggest problem that weekend was fading because of hunger.
Then she climbed the highest point in North Africa, the 4,167m peak of Jebel Toubkal in the High Atlas Range of Morocco. ‘There were so many uncertainties: “What if I’m tired?
What if I can’t keep up? What if I fall because of my balance?” I think if anyone had offered me an escape route on the day we left, I might have taken it,’ Sara admits. ‘But there was also, “What if I can do it?” and that’s what kept me going.’
Next up, coronavirus permitting, is the Lake District Ultra Challenge, a 100km walk in June, which she’s planning to with Danielle Gibbons, a former footballer for Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers ladies’ teams. They’ll be raising money for the British Acoustic Neuroma Association (BANA) and Brain Tumour Research. Longer term, she dreams of climbing one of the ‘smaller’ peaks near Everest.
Sara is still far from being as healthy as she once was, so the most important thing now is maintaining a positive attitude. Conversations with friends in the military helped in the early days. ‘They’ve been trained to deal with difficult situations, so being able to apply what they’ve told me to my own context has helped enormously,’ she says. ‘Rather than looking at the date of my surgery as if it was the end, I thought of it as day one. From that point, I knew what I was dealing with and could take one step at a time from there. It is possible, with the right mindset, to overcome big obstacles.’