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.
“I’ve had every bad side effect,” she laughs, adding that her 5-foot-2 frame now carries an extra 75 pounds, thanks to side effects from medications.
“Doctors have said over and over there is nothing they can do,” she said. “When I was initially diagnosed they said I would probably die within a year.”
She made peace with that fate, but she didn’t stop living. Nor did she ask her family to stop living, which is why she defied her doctor when he said she shouldn’t send her oldest son on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Paris.
“He said, ‘Does he understand that he will never see you again?’” she recalled. “And then he told me, ‘I just don’t understand why he won’t put that off.’ But I had a tremendous sense of peace about it. It was a bit of a tearful goodbye, but low and behold I was able to go and pick him up.”
She also watched him get married and sent a second son on a mission to Santiago, Chile, whom she also picked up.
“I kind of like living,” she said, pointing out she now takes an experimental drug that destroys blood vessels and is the reason for her high blood pressure and doctors’ request that she give up running. “I would like to live as long as I can.”
And she was content to live without the sport until that day last June when she saw the runners in Midway. She talked to them and found out the race went through Avon Pass, where her grandfather once owned a farm.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the race, so she discussed it with her family. Once they agreed, she began to spread the word to their extended family as they needed 12 people to fill a team for the race.
The result was unexpected and overwhelming — 84 people committed to fill seven teams, with dozens more committing to work as volunteers during the race. They will all run under the name “Funny Farm,” and each team is a different animal.
“That’s the most inspiring part of our story to me,” said Firth, who giggles when she admits her team is the pigs. “The race is kind of expensive to run, and many people have to travel to Utah. We have to bring whole families, rent vehicles (and) some are staying in hotels. But it has just been an absolute delight.”
The only time Firth’s emotions overwhelm her are when she talks about the love and support she’s received from her family and friends as she tries to make this one last dream a reality. The Wasatch Back is celebrating its 10th Anniversary and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has designated Saturday "Ragnar Day" in Utah.
“To have my family out there doing all of this, to me is just a lesson in courage and inspiration,” she said. “We live every day with the knowledge that it could be the last day, or the last day I can remember because the tumor is in the frontal lobe. I could just lose my memory or my personality, the things that make you who you are.” She said just listening to doctors describe what could be her decline was among her most difficult moments.
“It’s very hard to watch someone die, so we kind of live in the moment, which is absolutely great,” she said. “The week of partying starts Monday before the race and won’t end until Sunday.”
Firth admits she hasn’t felt well, so training has been minimal, even on good days. But she said the time she spends running are when she feels most alive.
“For myself, I just feel when I’m running like a new person,” she said. “I don’t run as well as I used to, but it’s the time I feel the most normal, I guess — if it’s possible to be normal.”
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