Until October 2015 Donna Dunn had not run in a race since taking part in the 800m at school – in 1985. But 30 years later, there she was, on the start line of the Cardiff Half Marathon, thanks to her 18-year-old daughter, Emily. Now she doesn’t know where she’d be without running.
‘Emily had intended to run Cardiff herself,’ says Donna, from Cwmbran in south-east Wales. ‘It was on her bucket list. But still in hospital following a bone marrow transplant, she was too poorly to train. She said, “You know what? I’m going to transfer the place to you!”’
At first, Donna, 43, was doubtful. But when some other mums at Emily’s school said they’d train for it alongside her, they downloaded a Couch to 5K programme. ‘Week one was walk five minutes, run one minute,’ she recalls. ‘After 43 seconds I thought I was going to die. But it’s amazing how quickly you progress.’
While Donna didn’t enjoy the physical side of running, she soon appreciated the breathing space it offered: ‘With Emily in hospital and three other kids to look after, it was often my only contact with the outside world,’ she says. ‘I’d get up at 5am, we’d meet at 6am to run, then I’d shower, get the kids off to school and travel to the hospital in Cardiff to be with Emily. Her first question when I walked into the ward was always, “How far today, Mum?” It was so nice to see the pride on her face.’
Emily had been diagnosed with Burkitt Lymphoma, an aggressive form of blood cancer, in December 2013. She was given just weeks to live, but after four months of chemotherapy, she went into remission. The jubilant teenager made a list of all the organisations that had helped her get to that point and launched an initiative – Remission Possible – to help improve the chances of remission for all. ‘She threw her passion, humour and positivity into Remission Possible and she began writing about it on her blog,’ says Donna.
But the cancer returned in November 2014. It was decided that Emily needed a bone marrow transplant. Always practical, she wrote to newspapers, gave interviews and spread the word as widely as she could about the importance of signing up to the bone marrow register. ‘She succeeded in getting thousands of people in Wales to sign up, which has resulted in 11 successful matches that we know of,’ says Donna proudly.
A match was found for Emily and she had the transplant in January 2015. It was successful, but complications followed and she was in hospital for most of the year. When the half marathon came around in October, she wasn’t well enough to go along and cheer her mum on.
Her duty fulfilled, Donna hung up her running shoes with some relief. Then, unexpectedly – devastatingly – Emily passed away on March 12 2016. ‘There have been tears every day since we lost her, but we intend to continue her legacy,’ says Donna. ‘Emily used to say, “It’s no good saying how inspirational I am unless you are motivated and inspired to do something.”
One such motivated person is ultra runner Jeff Smith. He was moved when he met Emily and after her death he contacted Donna and said he wanted to put together a team to run the 2016 Cardiff Half in aid of Remission Possible. ‘He had T-shirts made with Running for Emily on them and when I said I’d like one he said, “Of course – if you run the race.”’
As more and more people signed up to run for Emily, Donna’s ‘never again’ wavered, and finally toppled. ‘I’ve actually found running to be a cathartic part of the grieving process,’ she says. Emily’s brother Evan, 12, has started running too. ‘It’s really helping him with his grief,’ says Donna. ‘He can see that even though Emily has gone, she is still having such a positive effect on people.’
Running groups have sprung up all over Wales as a result of the publicity surrounding Running for Emily – more than 120 people turn up for the monthly training sessions at Cardiff Bay.
‘It’s strange, the things running can do,’ says Donna. ‘People find all sorts of benefits. It’s an important outlet for me.’
When the kids were young, Donna and her husband, Andrew, used to take them to a local Santa Run. Last Christmas, in a fit of nostalgia, Emily suggested they all go along to it. It turned out it wasn’t held any more. ‘We’ll just plan our own one,’ she decided. They did just that, with the help of a local charity and running club, Griffithstown Harriers. Emily wasn’t able to run it, but she started off the 132 runners, and cheered them all home. As a fitting tribute, the run will now be held in memory of Emily every Christmas.
Remission Possible is now raising funds for a new bone marrow transplant ward for the Cardiff and Vale Health Charity; justgiving.com/fundraising/remissionpossible