It could be said that Ann Elliot got a late start to running. After all, the 51-year-old resident of Waterman, Illinois, only took up the sport in 2015. As a longtime walker, she had never felt compelled to run until the company she had been with for eight years eliminated her position, leaving Elliot unemployed and particularly stressed.
Like many runners before her, though, she wasted no time falling in love with the sport. She began with shorter intervals, working her way up to longer distances and eventually signed up for local races.
“I was so proud the first time I ran a 5K race without walking,” recalls Elliot. “Since then, I’ve participated in many 5Ks, 8Ks and 10Ks, along with one half marathon.”
Elliot was regularly running 3–5 days a week for a total of 15–20 miles. She even signed up to run two more half marathons. But then, everything changed.
Right before her 50th birthday, doctors discovered a 25-centimeter mass in her colon. Tests later determined the illness had spread to her liver, and she was diagnosed with stage 4a colon cancer.
What happened next was remarkable: In a sport where a simple pulled hamstring can sideline many athletes for months, Elliot simply kept moving. Though her pace slowed, her distances shortened and she added walking intervals, she never stopped running, despite her diagnosis.
“I have had to completely change my mindset,” she says. “I was always focused on trying to improve my pace or run longer distances. Now, my focus is on a healthy lifestyle. Running is still a part of that, but I’ve had to accept I have limitations for the time being.”
One way she stays motivated is through MapMyRun’s You VS the Year Challenge, which encourages runners to log 1,019km — or about 633 miles — in the 2019 calendar year. Elliot first joined the challenge in 2017, before her diagnosis, and though she didn’t “beat” that year, she was happy with how far she had taken her running. In 2018, she was more determined than ever, but her unexpected hospitalizations and resulting recovery threw a wrench in her plans.
Still, Elliot joined the challenge again in 2019 after her oncologist told her people who exercise regularly often respond better to chemotherapy than those who are sedentary.
“I always remember those words when I don’t want to exercise,” she says. “I am determined to give myself the best shot at survival, and that means I need to stay active.”
Aside from the challenge itself, the You VS the Year community has been integral to Elliot’s recovery and perseverance, and she connects regularly with the community through the challenge’s dedicated Facebook group.
“I’ve ‘met’ a group of people that face incredible struggles including health issues, divorce, loss of children and unemployment, but they still find the energy and desire to run,” she says. “One of the greatest things about this running community is how much support you get when facing tough situations.”
Elliot says the group’s members are always cheering her progress and checking in on her treatments. When she started chemotherapy, one person in the community even sent her a box of comforting items and handwritten notes.
“I read a couple of cards before each chemo treatment, and they really give me comfort when I need it most,” Elliot says. “I am so grateful for this surprising source of support, and it truly means so much to me.”
She also loves how diverse the group is in terms of goals. Some people are rigorously training to place first in an upcoming race, but the majority of participants, she says, are just like her.
“They will never win a race, but they celebrate any person, including themselves, that works hard and achieves their personal goals.”
As for Elliot, she recently passed the 300-kilometer mark — or 186 miles — for this year. She says her most victorious moment, though, came when she was able to run one mile without walking. She dreams of one day competing in another half marathon, and though her training has, at times, been difficult and frustrating, she makes a conscious effort to stay positive.
“A cancer diagnosis is one of the scariest things you can hear, but it is not the end of your life,” explains Elliot. “Don’t ever stop living and dreaming of your future.”
She now encourages others to learn their family history and keep up with routine screenings. If anyone finds themselves in a similar boat one day, Elliot advises them to work closely with their doctors to set up an exercise program, focus on proper nutrition and have people in their life they can turn to — just like she has in the You VS the Year community.
“Although you will have some moments of doubt and fear, don’t let that overshadow all of the good in your life,” she says. “Surround yourself with supportive people who are in this fight with you.”