Human Race: ‘Running helped me face the world again’

Photo: Tom Miles

Thousands of the runners who take part in the London Marathon have very personal tales to tell, and we usually know about them by what’s written on their vests. But for Cath Kirk, it’s her face that tells her story.

Cath, who ran in last year’s race, underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour in 2007 and endured years of painstaking surgery to rebuild her face. ‘During the marathon, nobody commented on my face, probably because everyone’s face looked pretty contorted,’ says Cath, 30, who has been a runner for as long as she can remember. ‘I’ve always found that running stops me feeling like an outsider. It doesn’t matter how you look; if you run, then you’re a runner, and people accept you.’

Cath, a physiotherapist and a keen dancer and stage performer, was living in her native South Africa when she first became aware that something was wrong. ‘I noticed a cold, numb spot on my tongue,’ she remembers. ‘Then I lost hearing in my right ear and began falling over when putting my trousers on.’

An MRI scan revealed a tumour known as an acoustic neuroma. It’s a benign growth, but in Cath’s case the tumour was pressing on the part of the brain that controlled her balance and hearing.

‘Although I was shocked, I was also slightly relieved because I feared it might be multiple sclerosis, which would be with me for life,’ says Cath.

The squash ball-sized tumour was cut out, but Cath’s facial nerves were badly affected by the surgery, leaving the right side of her face paralysed.

As well as recovering from surgery, Cath had to get used to the strange looks she now encountered. ‘I knew people were looking at me because my face was lopsided. When I spoke, my mouth didn’t work normally and when I raised my eyebrows, only the left one would go up.’

She was particularly upset at losing her distinctive beaming smile. ‘I had no feeling or control on that side of my face,’ she says. Cath says she never minded telling people her story. ‘It was easier if they asked what had happened rather than just stared,’ she explains.

Although running meant being outside and encountering more curious looks, Cath found it a great comfort. ‘I ran a few weeks after the surgery,’ she says. ‘I was nervous that I might damage myself because I still had a hole in my head from the operation. But it felt good to be out running again. It gave me something to focus on and was a positive force in my life. It acted as a natural antidepressant.’

Cath’s friends from her running club were keen to get her out again and quickly accepted that her face now looked different. ‘I was so keen to be part of that world again that I even walked our Christmas race just to feel involved,’ she says.

‘I never felt as self-conscious when I was running,’ she continues. ‘It made me feel like there was still stuff in my life where my face made no difference. Everyone has sweaty, red faces when they’re running, so not being beautiful doesn’t matter.’

Cath moved to the UK in 2009 and underwent extensive facial surgery over the next few years. In 2012 she had an intricate operation in which a nerve from her calf and, later, a muscle from her armpit were inserted under her chin. This restored some of the movement on her right side and made her face more symmetrical.

Her experience brought her into contact with Changing Faces, the UK charity that supports people with facial disfigurement. ‘The Changing Faces message is that we should acknowledge that how we look does matter, but it shouldn’t determine how we’re treated,’ says Cath, who now lives in Surrey. ‘I strongly believe that too.’ That’s why she pledged to run last year’s London Marathon in aid of the charity.

‘By then my face looked more normal,’ she says. ‘I could even run without my make-up on first thing in the morning, which was a big step.’

However, Cath’s preparation for the event was interrupted when a routine MRI scan detected a second, pea-sized tumour on her brain. It was successfully removed last January, but left her only weeks to train. ‘I got back to running as soon as I could, but it wasn’t nearly enough,’ she says. However, she was determined to get round, and finished the race in five hours.

‘Running has been a constant in my life,’ says Cath. ‘Wherever I’ve gone I’ve always found a ready-made community of fellow runners to link up with.’

Cath met a new partner, David, last year. ‘I’m lucky to be a bubbly, extrovert person,’ she says. ‘I’m now more comfortable accepting I’ve got facial palsy, and I live with it. But running has played a big part in helping me gain the confidence to face the world.’