Zia Chaney (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

With a December 2019 personal best of 3:47:34, Zia Chaney has the eligibility to participate in the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon. Hers isn’t the regular running story. It is one of overcoming setbacks, not just once but thrice, all of them the physically and mentally draining sort.

Zia Chaney was used to the physically active life.

Born into a family settled in Pune for decades and growing up in the city, she had been into sports right from her school days. She was focused on the sprints – 100 and 200 meters – and hockey. Following studies, she moved to Mumbai and worked with Sony Music India as a product manager. Unable to pursue the sports she was already into, she turned to visiting the gym for alternative. She was committed to fitness; committed enough to make time for it despite busy work schedule. “ I found time to hit the gym during work hours,’’ she said, a pleasant winter afternoon in Pune.

Her love for the physically active life gained momentum after she moved to Chicago following her marriage in 2000. “ My husband Vishal Jain is a fitness enthusiast. I joined a gym in Chicago. We were there for five years. After I returned to Pune, I joined a local gym,” she said. We were on the balcony of her apartment, tucked into a quiet road in Pune. Unusually for the city located at an elevation of 1837 feet on the Deccan Plateau, the winter of 2019-2020 felt mild.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2010, Zia was detected with first stage breast cancer. She had to undergo mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Both these types of treatment can be physically exhausting. To rebuild her strength, she tried running on the treadmill. “ A friend suggested I run outside instead of indoors,” Zia said. Thus began her journey in running.  She started running in 2011 and a year later was training with a group of runners in Pune informally organized under Pune Marathoner’s Club. “ We were around 30 people in that group. Michael Francis, who was overall leader, encouraged us to train and enroll for the full marathon at the 2013 edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. He ensured that we covered every facet of marathon training – hill repeats, short runs, long runs, strength training,” she said. Michael Francis – he is no more – was a name one came across in the story of some good amateur runners from Pune, among them Kavitha Reddy. Zia crossed the finish line of her first marathon – the 2013 edition of SCMM (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) – in four hours, 40 minutes and one second. “ It was a great feeling to finish that first major run,” she said. Running became an integral part of her life.

Wikipedia describes cancer as a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. According to the website of the US based-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 100 types of cancers affect humans, among them – breast and ovarian cancer. About five to 10 per cent of breast and 10-15 per cent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. It means cancer runs in your family and may be caused by change in certain genes that you inherited from your parents. A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. It acts as instruction and contains information to build and maintain cells. A gene is made of DNA; it tells the body what traits will be passed on from parent to child. As per the Human Genome Project information archive, the current consensus is that humans have between 20,000-25,000 genes. But the number has fluctuated a lot since the project began. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor-suppressor genes critical to fighting cancer. “ When they work normally, these genes help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. Sometimes a change or mutation occurs in the BRCA genes that prevent them from working normally. This raises a person’s risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers,’’ the CDC website said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2013, not long after Zia completed her first marathon in Mumbai, medical tests provided discouraging news. She tested positive for anomalies in the BRCA gene. “ It turned out my father was a passive carrier,’’ Zia said. It put her earlier encounter with cancer as product of condition likely built-in and capable of return. She underwent her second cancer related-surgery in August 2013; this time her ovaries were removed as precaution. The test result and subsequent medical procedures affected Zia, who had begun enjoying running and had just completed her first marathon. Needing time to recover, she was forced to miss the 2014 edition of SCMM. But she refused to succumb to her predicament. There was a new fascination growing, one that also sought to harness the power of two other sports she liked – swimming and cycling; the triathlon. According to Zia, she likes activities that are goal oriented. It is known that training for the triathlon and getting down to actually doing one, entails discipline and adherence to goals. By the end of 2014 Zia attempted her first Olympic distance triathlon in Hyderabad. “ It went off very well,’’ she said. She secured a podium finish in her age category.

In 2015, a rejuvenated Zia was back at the start line of SCMM. The goal now was to progressively improve her timing. She finished the 2015 race in 4:05:52. She continued her appearance at SCMM the next year and in 2017 secured second place in her age group of 45-49 years, covering the 42.2 kilometer-distance in 4:05:05. Same year, she signed up for a workshop on running conducted by Bengaluru based-coach and mentor, Ashok Nath. Soon after that workshop, Zia left for Berlin to attempt the marathon there.  In September 2017, she ran the Berlin Marathon crossing the finish line in three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds. Her determination was paying off. The progress was clear – from four hours, 40 minutes and one second at 2013 SCMM to three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds at 2017 Berlin. Then cancer struck again.

Zia (far right) with from left: Ashok Nath, Gitanjali Lenka and Tanmaya Karmarkar (This photo was downloaded from Zia’s Facebook page and is being used here with her permission)

On her return to Pune, Zia went for her annual check-up. “ I had noticed lumps on my breast over the preceding few months but thought nothing of it. During the check-up, I pointed them out to the doctor. He too thought it would be nothing. Nevertheless, we scheduled a biopsy and my worst fears were confirmed,” Zia said. The relapse meant several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, this time more in number and with greater intensity than the treatment she had endured before. According to the website of American Cancer Society, radiation therapy uses high energy particles or waves such as X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons to destroy or damage cancer cells. Cancer cells grow and divide faster than normal cells. Radiation makes small breaks in the DNA inside cells preventing them from growing and dividing and causing them to die. Advances in radiation physics and computer technology during the last quarter of the 20th century have made it possible to aim radiation precisely. Radiation therapy however carries a risk. There is a small chance that it may cause another cancer. Consequently, use of radiation is a well thought out decision. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, employs powerful chemicals to destroy fast-growing cells in the body. It can have side effects during the treatment phase and for some time afterward. “ The first time cancer struck, I had to do four rounds of chemotherapy. The second time around, I had to do 16 rounds of chemotherapy and then follow that up with doses of radiation,” Zia said.

Between chemotherapy and radiation, Zia felt, the latter was more energy-sapping. She drove herself to the radiation sessions but was usually fatigued by the time a round of treatment got over. She persevered. The chemotherapy sessions started in January 2018 and continued till May. She lost all her hair. “ I needed to be strong to take the impact of chemotherapy and radiation,’’ she said. So in between, the chemotherapy and radiation, Zia worked out at the gym in her apartment complex. It was an abject challenge because each time the illness struck and treatment protocols kicked in, her fitness dropped drastically requiring her to work her way back from scratch. “ When your base line fitness falls steeply even a few minutes of running on a treadmill becomes a struggle,’’ she said. Zia found huge support from her family – husband, two daughters and her parents – and her friends. “ I never felt emotionally weak. Children don’t allow you that luxury. In fact, they helped me focus. My elder daughter took care of me during my relapse,” she said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

There were no races for Zia in 2018. Following her treatment, she spent a brief while with her husband and children in the US, convalescing. There she restarted her running. Then in August 2018, after she got back to Pune, Zia commenced training under Ashok Nath. He put her on a plan building basic fitness. She also continued with her swimming sessions; they worked as cross training compatible with her interest in running. At the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Zia decided to opt for the half marathon. She secured second place in her age category of 45-49 years, completing the run in one hour 53 seconds. Training under Ashok Nath was helping her improve her running economy. That year at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), Zia bettered her half marathon timing to 1:48:34. The performance boosted her confidence. Could she aspire for a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time, which makes runner eligible to participate in the iconic Boston Marathon?

In history, 1848 is sometimes called the Year of Revolution for the spate of political upheavals that swept across Europe. Across the Atlantic however, that year opened on a slightly different note. On January 24, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator, discovered gold at Coloma on the South Fork of the American River sparking the California Gold Rush. According to information on the Internet, the resultant rush of miners pursuing fortune, produced some 750,000 pounds of gold worth an estimated 14 billion dollars in 2014 but also left behind deep environmental scars. The river at its center – American River – is 30 miles long, stretching from origin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the Sacramento Valley. Music lovers would remember it for Folsom Dam, in turn linked by name to the town of Folsom and Folsom Prison, inspiration for Johnny Cash’s hit song from the 1950s: Folsom Prison Blues. Today, the river is the main source of drinking water for Sacramento, capital of California and the seat of Sacramento County. Every year, the Sacramento Runners Association organizes the California International Marathon. According to Wikipedia, its course “ follows a historic gold miners’ round beginning at Folsom Dam, passing through suburban Sacramento and ending at the State Capitol.’’ The race starts at an elevation of 366 feet and concludes at 26 feet.

Photo: courtesy Zia

Zia decided to attempt her BQ time at the 2019 California International Marathon. “ Although the marathon’s course is net downhill, it has a lot of rolling hills,” Zia said of the race in December 2019. The weather was in the range of 8-9 degrees Celsius and route passed through picturesque countryside. “ The crowd support was very good,” she said. Sole cause for concern was her knee, which started hurting over the final 10 kilometers. Zia finished the run in 3:47:34. It was a BQ in her age group. Not to mention – a personal best for her. At the time of writing, she planned to register for the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon.

Given the emergent knee injury and requirement to rest the joint, Zia opted to stay out of the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon. At the door to her apartment, a lemon yellow Cannondale hybrid bicycle was parked. It seemed well used and well looked after, a stance of readiness to move in the machine betraying the attributes. The bike and swimming appeared her training for now and potential way out of knee injury. In fact against the backdrop of the knee issue, the triathlon appeared more sustainable to Zia. “ I will continue to do triathlons. But my heart is in running. The feeling after a run is amazing. I feel strong after running. It balances me completely,” Zia said, adding, “ as regards physical activity, there is no giving that up.’’

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

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