The World Transplant Games, supported by the International Olympic Committee, represents the largest organ donor awareness event in the world, featuring 13 sporting events and competitors from 50 countries. On the third day of the competition, Runner’s World speaks to gold medallist and bone marrow transplant survivor Melissa Fehr.
36-year-old Melissa lives in London, where she works at a spoken word audio company and runs her own business designing digital activewear sewing patterns. In 2008, Melissa started to feel unwell and discovered she needed a bone marrow transplant, but nobody could have predicted the events that unfolded following her diagnosis.
'I was quite fit, running 10K three times a week and lifting weights. I was generally very healthy until I started getting burst blood vessels in my eyes and noticed my running was more sluggish than it should be,' Melissa told Runner's World. 'It turned out that my bone marrow was failing and I needed an emergency bone marrow transplant to save my life. Blood transfusions kept me alive for nine months before finally an anonymous matching donor in the States was found and I had my transplant in July 2009.'
Melissa then underwent six months of treatment. 'A bone marrow transplant involves a week of intense chemo, then the donor stem cells are given by IV drip, and then you have three to four boring weeks in germ-free isolation waiting for them to migrate to your bone marrow and start working,' she said. 'After that, you get to go home, but I had numerous complications in the first few months, including a liver infection and meningitis. Finally, at around the six-month mark I could get my first pixie haircut, wear my contact lenses again, and go for my first run! And well, I've never really stopped running since!'
Since her initial diagnosis and treatment, Melissa's running has gone from strength to strength. 'In the six years since my transplant I've beaten all my pre-illness PBs plus gone on to run numerous half marathons, five full marathons (including two Boston Qualifiers) and have won gold medals at the last three British Transplant Games.'
How did she come to compete in the World Transplant Games? 'You need to first have had either an organ or bone marrow transplant from a donor - some BMTs can come from your own cells, and those athletes aren't eligible,' explained Melissa.
'Each country has their own qualifying standards, but in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, you need to compete at a sufficiently high standard in the British Games that you'd have a chance at a medal in the Worlds (there's no set times). As you're competing against others in your same age category (done by decades, so I compete against 30-39 year olds, usually the toughest competition!), it's great because you mix with athletes ranging in age from 16 to 79!'
The World Transplant Games requires months of planning and organisation. 'It's a registered IOC event, occurring every other year, but this is the first time they've ever been held in South America in their 37-year history,' she enthused. 'Since there's very little funding compared to the Olympics, we needed to fundraise to offset our travel, accommodation, competition insurance and training costs, which is probably part of the reason we got our selection letters so long ago. I actually received my notice last September - the same day as I'd just run Berlin marathon, so it was quite the big day!'
This year The Games includes 44 countries with over a thousand athletes. 'The atmosphere in Mar del Plata is just fantastic,' Melissa added. 'For someone who's dreamt of being in the Olympics from a young age, this is serious wish fulfilment stuff! At breakfast each morning I see athletes from places like Finland, Uruguay, Thailand, Chile, South Africa, USA, Nepal, Canada, Iran, Hungary... and the whole city knows about the games and give you a smile when they see your team kit.'
Although she's having the time of her life, Melissa's first love is long distance running. 'I prefer half and full marathons, so I run the longest distances available for competition: the 5K road race, and the next longest are on the track: the 1500m, 800m, and 400m,' she explained. 'But for me, my heart really lies with the 5K and the 1500m. But even the 5K feels brutally short and painful when you're used to settling on in at marathon pace for two hours before the "real race" starts!'
It's only the second day of the Games, but Melissa has already won two gold medals for Team GB. 'Both of them came from the 5K road race, where I won individual gold for my age category and finished as first lady of any age, and 14th overall,' she excalimed, 'But the Team GB ladies placed sufficiently high enough in the overall rankings that we secured the team gold in the race as well! Team GB had a great start to the Games - the road race was the first event and we ended up with seven gold medals (including the first male finisher), three silver, and took both men’s and women's team gold. All before lunchtime on the first day!'
Melissa trained for eight months with a coach leading up to the Games. 'I concentrated on building new sprint skills and working hard on core and leg strength to support the explosive movements required for the track, so I really felt the pressure to perform well since I'd put so much time into my training,' she said. 'I was really pleased that the men and women set off together, as it meant I could use the men both for pacing, but also to pick them off one by one, which I’m sure helped to give me a new PB (19:04).'
'The route was a simple out-and-back along a dual carriageway along the seafront, and the sun came out just before the turnaround point,' she added. 'I remember feeling the sun on my back, the waves crashing to my left, and seeing the town laid out before me during the second half, and through the effort of the pace, I really grasped onto keeping that memory.'
So how did it feel to win gold? 'Crossing the finish line and knowing I’d won gold for Great Britain was just incredible, incredible stuff. I'd had no idea who the competition were or how I’d compare, so I just gave it my all and tried to get a good time,' she said. 'Seeing my mom and husband at 1K to go was just brilliant, too - my mom had flown down from the States and had never watched me race before, so it was even more special to be on the podium, getting the gold medal around my neck knowing she was there to share it.'
Melissa has a few days to rest before the athletics events start later in the week. 'On Friday I’ve got the 1500m and 400m, then on Saturday it's the 800m and 4x400m team relay,' she explained. 'I'm pleased that the 1500m is first as that's the one I most enjoy out of the track events, so I'll be a bit more relaxed once that's out of the way.
'I'd just like to say what incredible, amazing, and inspiring people every single competing athlete is, considering what we've all been through to even get to the starting line. Stuff the Ironman or ultra runners - THESE are the toughest athletes on the planet!'
For more information, head over to the World Transplant Games Federation.