By Kim Constantinesco
One might assume that fighting brain cancer for 13 years would drain every ounce of energy in one’s body. Not for BethAnn Telford, who actually has an increase in stamina because of her battle. Case in point: She just ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Yes, that’s 183 miles in 168 hours despite cancer cells still residing in her body, occasional seizures, and needing a catheter to expel urine.
The 47-year-old who works in the U.S. Government Publishing Office in Washington D.C. took on the World Marathon Challenge, which offered 33 participants the chance to complete marathons from Antarctica to Australia and places in between with a chartered plane carrying them all over the world.
Telford, the only American female in the 2017 event, took on the massive challenge to raise money for Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that’s on the cutting-edge of research and treatment for brain cancers and brain tumors.
Since her 2005 diagnosis, she has used endurance sports to raise over $900,000 to help find a cure for brain cancer.
“The World Marathon Challenge was not my finish line by any means,” Telford said. “My finish line isn’t until we find a cure for cancer. Until that’s found, I’m still going to do these epic events.”
It’s Not About The Race Clock
Telford was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA. She was a dedicated athlete who skied, mountain biked, and played organized sports like soccer and softball. She was even one of the captains of her field hockey team in high school.
“I was so competitive and always about winning and being the fastest, so when I signed up for my first marathon after I moved to Washington D.C., all I could think about was being fast enough to qualify for Boston.”
That quickly changed. During the Marine Corps Marathon in 2004, Telford felt a “pop” in her head 19 miles into the race.
After months of testing, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. However, she didn’t tell her family right away because she wanted to protect them, particularly her mother.
Her mom was an alcoholic until Telford was almost 30. She drank Monday through Friday starting early in the morning until she passed out at night.
“After my oldest sister’s son was born, my mother was threatened that she wouldn’t see her grandson, so she went out on her own and she went dry. She didn’t do AA or anything,” Telford said. “You try to keep things from an alcoholic for fear of putting them over the edge, and when I got my diagnosis of brain cancer, the first thing that went through my head was, I can’t tell my mom because she’s going to start drinking again. I didn’t want that to happen because I needed her.”
Telford’s family suspected something was up, so she eventually sat her parents and sisters down to deliver the grisly news.
“My dad handled it a lot worse than my mom,” Telford said. “My mom is like our rock in our family now.”
So, as a family, they proceeded with treatment. After Telford’s first brain surgery, she had to relearn how to walk and talk. Even after going through all of that, she began running and competed in her first 5K race six weeks after surgery with clearance from her doctor. Later that year, she ran the Marine Corps Marathon again.
“It wasn’t that I was more competitive,” Telford said. “I just had the will to get out there, and let others know that it could be done. I wanted to encourage others not to give up hope.”
After that, she had a second brain surgery and a bladder augmentation, the former resulting in seizures and a loss of vision in her left eye. Thus, she hasn’t driven a car in 12 years. However, she hasn’t curbed her running. She has completed the Boston Marathon five times, the Marine Corps Marathon 14 times, the Lake Placid IRONMAN twice, and she has raced across the Grand Canyon. She even crossed the finish line at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona in 2012.
Running The World
With an impressive racing resume, Telford was more than excited when she found out she was accepted into the World Marathon Challenge along with recently retired long-distance runner Ryan Hall, who holds the world record in the half marathon.
“This was more or less going around the world and spreading the news about brain cancer on a global level,” Telford said. “I thought it was a great platform to meet other people in other countries who suffer from this disease.”
She even rotated pairs of New Balance shoes, which were custom-designed to honor 14 brain cancer survivors living in different parts of the world. She also used the opportunity to direct money to Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, an organization started in 2002 by AOL co-founder Steve Case after his brother, Dan, passed away from brain cancer at 44.
Telford met Steve and his wife, Jean, many years ago at a Race for Hope 5K in Washington D.C., and the interaction left a lasting impact.
“They were telling me how they channel their money to different institutions and hospitals and researchers, and every penny goes to research,” Telford said. “They help fund some of the smaller groups, too, and they treated me and my parents like family.”
So, with the world waiting and the money being funneled directly toward finding a cure, Telford set off on January 23 on Union Glacier in Antarctica. She was running in snow drifts up to her knees, but finished in six hours, 21 minutes.
“Just the beauty of the continent and running on a glacier was stunning,” she said.
From there, the team hopped on their plane, refueled, and got a little shuteye. The next stop was Punta Arenas, Chile. Then it was Miami, Madrid, Marrakesh, Dubai, and Sydney.
Her body held up well throughout.
“The only thing that hurt on me was going from Antarctica, where it was so cold, to Dubai, where it was 95 degrees. My lips and the inside of my mouth got extremely blistered and chapped,” Telford explained. “I’ve been gargling with salt water and dealing with sores on my mouth and in my mouth. Other than that, I had really bad blisters on my two tiny toes on each foot, but some of the other runners had it a lot worse.”
As for managing hydration, that was the tricky part.
“I’m unable to hold more than a shot glass of fluid in my bladder at a time, and I also have to self-catheter, and will have to for the rest of my life,” Telford said. It was tough to keep me hydrated for seven days with the amount of stress my body was under. We’d keep track of the amount of fluid I was taking in. I know my body, so I can tell when I need to take a moment and catheter.”
According to Telford, the running was great, but the camaraderie was even better. It didn’t matter if you ran a 2:54 marathon (the fastest recorded on the trip) or an eight-hour marathon. Everyone was in it together.
And she was one of the biggest cheerleaders. In fact, she ended up winning a sportsmanship award, which was voted on by the competitors, and received a $5,000 cash donation to the charity of her choice.
Keep Pressing Forward
Immediately, upon returning from the trip, she got an email from her doctor, Dr. Henry Brimm, at Johns Hopkins.
“He was reminding me that I owed him a visit and to get my MRI re-checked,” she said. “Two weeks before I left, I had visited with him and all my other doctors just to get their final approval.”
The adventures, although not set in stone at the moment, will continue. She’s considering a trek on El Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes across Europe.
“I’ve always wanted to do Everest of Kilimanjaro, but my doctors won’t allow me to do it because of the pressure on the brain,” Telford said. “So, I’m always looking for something new.”
For as much as Telford has accomplished, she still experiences low moments and has trouble getting out of bed to face the day. But, she takes her own advice often.
“We’re going to have setbacks in life, but we can move forward from them whether it’s cancer, a divorce, or the loss of a loved one,” she said. “The key is not to give up, and to find something in your heart that you truly want to go after. If it’s in your heart, you’re going to want to pursue it, and eventually your dreams will come true.”
That is the true definition of endurance.