By Steve Coulter
To some, running is all about putting one foot in front of the other — a seemingly simple, repetitive task.
But to others, like Medway, Mass. mother Davina McNaney, the exercise represents something else entirely.
Persistence. Dedication. Inspiration. Survival.
Those are the four pillars of McNaney’s running mantra that carried her during a 467-mile journey from Pinckney, Mich. to Sodus Point, N.Y. last summer.
“For the final three miles, the road was closed down with a fire department escort and a big parade waiting for me, which was pretty cool,” said McNaney about her hometown’s celebration of her 15-day tour of the midwest and the mid-atlantic regions of the United States.
“I’m not really a fast runner so I thought I’d be falling over on that last day but I kept going right through the finish line — I was really hauling butt,” she added.
Crossing the finish line in her hometown surrounded by family and friends, McNaney’s endurance wasn’t the only characteristic that had been challenged along the way.
The mother of two went in for her first mammogram in November 2012 and was blindsided a few months later when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In September, I had ran a 40-mile race for my 40th birthday, so I was coming off this great high — I didn’t believe it could be true,” she said. “I got a second option, but it came back with the same result.”
The denial quickly turned into something that didn’t resemble the standard reactions for such devastatingly emotional news.
Instead of fear and sadness, McNaney could only feel anger.
“You go through life wearing different hats and I wasn’t expecting this at all,” she said. “It’s not a hat I wanted to wear.
“I was derailed for a little while — the diagnosis definitely took the wind out of my sails,” she added. “I’m a strong, independent and stubborn person and the cancer took that control away from me.
“That was the most difficult part for me: having no control over it and having to ask for help.”
A natural-born fighter, McNaney didn’t waste much time. She received a double mastectomy in Feb. 2013. During that same operation, she had reconstructive surgery.
“I had no intention of messing around,” she said. “Because of the research that’s been done, there were so many options for me and I knew surgery was the best thing for me — I didn’t want to go through 35 different radiation treatments.
“I was very happy to have that choice.”
McNaney acknowledges that she “had it easy” compared to other breast cancer survivors or those who are still battling the disease today.
“A lot of people don’t have that option,” she said about the double mastectomy. “I know people who are still going through treatment seven years after they were first diagnosed.”
Running for Revenge
If there’s a fifth prong to McNaney’s style of running it would be vengeance.
Three months after her surgery and going through intense physical therapy, the 40-year-old mom was back on the trail running a Memorial Day 5K.
“They cut my major and minor pectoral muscles so I had no arm movement — I couldn’t raise them above my head,” she recalled about the physical therapy. “I couldn’t drive for a long time; I couldn’t even walk down my street, but I was determined to fight back to help others so I decided I would run for research when I fully recovered.
“I wanted to get revenge and this was the only way I knew I could do it,” she explained. “I told myself in rehab, ‘I can run a long distance — that’s how I can make an impact.’”
That’s why during her 2015 cross-country run, from June 19 to July 3, she collected over $23,000 and donated it all to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Her team of doctors, who she said she couldn’t be more grateful for, gave her extra motivation to run for the cause.
“They said you’re going to bounce back very quickly,” McNaney said. “And that’s because during the surgery, they held my pectoral muscles in their hands and told me afterward that it was the biggest they’ve ever seen in a woman. That’s when they told me ‘You’re going to do fine in recovery.’”
Road to Recovery
The road to recovery was paved long before her doctors held her pectoral muscles in their hands in February 2013.
For McNaney, running and recovering became synonymous when she completed her first marathon a decade earlier at the age of 30.
“I ran in elementary school and never liked it,” she explained. “That’s why I played team sports in high school.”
Of course, that first marathon was for a good cause, too. She ran for the American Stroke Association, and, over the next three marathon, helped raise $30,000.
“I never stopped after that and I have no plans to ever stop running,” she confessed.
“I definitely think my running played a major role in getting me back so quickly,” she added. “I was determined to be back out there living a healthy life again.”
Building a Home
Besides running and volunteering, McNaney says she doesn’t have many hobbies other than building a home for her children, Sasha and Nadja.
She said her husband, Steve, played an instrumental supportive role during her recovery, as well as her training last summer.
“I always want them to be my first priority,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a balancing act though; it’s hard training with children because you don’t want it to interfere with their schedules.”
That’s why she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to run 27 miles — 10 on the treadmill and 17 in the woods — in preparation for future marathons and running events.
On April 10, she will run a 50K and will continue to train for two additional ultra marathons that will all take place in the woods later this year.
“You got to keep a tight calendar,” she said.
After working 15 years in children’s mental health industry, she’s glad she never went back after the birth of Sasha eight years ago.
“I want to be with my family as much as I possibly can,” she said. “They’re everything to me.”
Her daughters got a kick out of the press coverage last summer, which included several newscasts on three different Detroit television stations, newspaper coverage in Erie, Penn. as well as a large turnout in Perry, Ohio where firefighters cheered her along as she passed through town.
“There was someone running with me pretty much every day,” McNaney said. “My neighbor in Michigan came with me to start the first 36 miles; then my cousin ran with me in Cleveland.
“People I didn’t even know came out to run aside me,” she added. “The biggest days were the last few days — the Rochester Fleet Feet Crew had 10 runners come out and run with me when I got to upstate New York.”
The riveting journey drew in national media attention.
“The girls would go into store and say I was famous — they were very excited about,” she said. “They loved seeing a picture of their mom in a magazine…
“The CBS piece was my favorite piece of press coverage because it was very cool the way they did it,” she added. “They came out to our house and spent the whole day there in August, which was a nice way to culminate the experience.”
Working toward the finish line, McNaney’s support group continued to grow.
“On the last day, I ran the first eight miles alone,” she said. “It was a 20-mile day.”
“My brother joined me at the 12-mile marker,” she added. “And he doesn’t run so I was shocked and honored to have him finish the run with me.”
Twelve others joined her at the eight-mile market and another group started at the six-mile marker.
“By the time we got to the final three miles, we had about 40 people running with us,” she said. “It was quite the sight.”
Although a fifth generation Sodus Point-native, McNaney said she was surprised by the turnout.
“I didn’t know any of it was happening,” she recalled. “There were more than 200 people waiting for us at the finish line and everyone crossed the finish line with me; it was a great moment.”
Charity and therapy
McNaney said she encourages other people to run by being an active member of a local running club (The Medway Mama Striders), and organizing group runs.
“It is the best type of therapy you can get,” she said. “It really centers you.”
She recommends first-time runners get a good pair of sneakers and try to experience trail runs, where the sounds of nature can envelop newcomers and leave a lasting impression.
A purist at heart, McNaney recommends not wearing headphones wherever you run.
“I didn’t wear them once on my run from Michigan to New York,” she said. “You have to find the enjoyment in being out there by yourself — it’s so enjoyable because you’re truly out there with yourself and you can hear every footstep.”
In addition to being a member of the world’s best therapy club, the mother of two is thankful she can wield her passion to do good for others, whether it’s for breast cancer research, the stroke association, or a local food bank.
“I feel incredibly lucky,” she said. “A lot of people can’t do it, but this is what I have to offer.”