Family agrees to run Wasatch Back to fulfill dying mom's wish

Published: Thursday, June 20 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

Michelle Firth realizes it may sound silly to some that her dying wish is to run one final race.

But she also knows that anyone who's felt the power, freedom and joy of a long-distance race will understand why a woman who never asked for anything special after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor would ask her family to run nearly 200 miles through the Wasatch Mountains with her this weekend before cancer steals her personality, her memories and eventually her life.

“I really want to do this race for some reason,” said the 45-year-old mother of four sons about the Ragnar Wasatch Back relay. “It’s one of the few things that I would like to do before I die because I just feel like I have had a wonderful life. I don’t feel like I need anything more than what I’ve already been given.”

It wasn’t until last June as she was watching Ragnar Relay runners pass her parents’ condo in Midway that she felt a longing to do what doctors told her she would have to do without. When she realized the 2013 Wasatch Back relay ended on her 46th birthday — Saturday, June 22 — she became determined to find a way to run.

“I am always a little bit jealous when I see a race go by,” said Firth, who hasn’t been able to run because of high blood pressure, a side effect of her cancer treatment. “So I went home and sat down with my husband and our sons, who are all involved in sports, but not necessarily runners, and I said, ‘I really want to do this race.’”

Her husband, John Firth, and sons immediately jumped onboard, as did her daughter-in-law, but her doctor was not as easily convinced.

“He said, ‘I don’t think it will be possible,'” she said. “But if you’re still alive then, I think it will be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in your entire life.’”

What doctors didn’t consider is that running isn’t punishment to a woman who has already made peace with the fact that she will never grow old.

“I grew up in a family that ran,” she said. “It was just something our family has always done, very casually, but for the most part, I’ve run almost every day of my whole life. I ran for fun and for peace of mind.”

It wasn’t until the fall of 2008 that she had to learn to navigate life without the benefit of the sport.

John Firth and one of his boys were in Logan visiting the couple’s oldest son, who was attending Utah State. Michelle had just returned home after playing tennis when she received unexpected visitors.

“My brother and his wife stopped by my house, and they don’t ever do that,” she said. “I had a seizure in front of them. Thank heaven they were there.” Firth was taken to the hospital, where doctors told her family she probably wouldn’t live through the night.

“They thought I had an aneurism, but over the next couple of days, they discovered I had a brain tumor,” Firth said. A biopsy revealed the tumor was “very far advanced, and I was told it was in the frontal lobe of my brain — essentially untreatable.”

Any treatment or medications, she was told, wouldn’t extend her life, only maybe maintain the quality.

“I was kind of in shock,” she said. “I never ever had any health problems, and I never thought I would be the one to get sick. But things are not always as we suspect they will be.”

Chemotherapy and radiation actually made the tumor grow faster, something that only happens in 2 percent of cases, she said.

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