After watching her sister, then brother, die of cystic fibrosis (CF), Francesca Eyres, 44, was determined to find a natural remedy when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2010.
2008 and 2009 had been tough years for Francesca. “My brother Nick had been very ill after suffering from CF since birth. While he was waiting for a heart and lung transplant he passed away in March 2009. Our business partner was also very ill and died with me by her side in December 2009. Then the banking crisis hit and we were in a tough financial position with our business.” Francesca runs a ski chalet hotel in the French Alps with her husband, Paul.
Francesca’s body broke down. “I started suffering chronic back pain – I couldn’t even put on my trousers in the morning. Then a growth was found on my thyroid, which had to be treated with radioactive treatment, and finally I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2010.
“I left the clinic that day and have never been back. I looked into a more natural approach to coping with my diagnosis, as I didn’t want to go on medication. As a result, I changed my diet. I stopped drinking alcohol, came off gluten and dairy and stopped eating inflammatory foods such as potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines. I cut out meat and eliminated caffeine.”
“I had started running ten years ago, when my youngest child, Jamie, was a baby. With three children and a hotel to run, I needed some headspace. To make sure I trained I entered a 10K race; I had never done any competitive sports prior to this and I was amazed at the buzz and camaraderie at the race.”
The other massive change Francesca’s diagnosis brought about was deciding to live life to the full and do as much sport as she could, while she could. “I needed to add more challenges into my life,” she says. “Running helped my stress levels but hurt my joints too much, so I started trail running. There is nothing more beautiful or more humbling than reaching a summit.”
During the winter it’s impossible to run in the Alps, so Francesca took up ski touring, where you use skis to run up a mountain. “The first ski randonée race I ever did was the Montée du Crot: an 800m run up the mountain over a 4K distance from just outside our house to the centre of Avoriaz. It took the world champion 24 minutes and me nearly an hour.
“I decided I wanted my next big challenge to be the 70K Classic Quarter Cornish Coastal Trail (endurancelife.com), which took place in June last year. Even though I had never run a marathon, I smiled the whole way round; the scenery, the people and the terrain were incredible, and when I reached the finish line as the ninth woman I knew that I had to challenge myself to something even tougher and harder!”
Francesca’s motto is “I do because I can”. Feeling fit after her first ultra, she wanted to find a race that would give her two points towards the three you need to enter the CCC race (part of UTMB trail race that takes place in Chamonix in August). “To gain your three points you have to run in at least two ultra marathons. I scoured the Internet and found the Manaslu Trail Race in Nepal (manaslutrailrace.org).”
“It was really hard to find the time to train but a race organiser suggested little and often,” says Francesca. “I tried to run at least 40-80K per week, which doesn’t sound like a lot but 10K over the mountains takes me an hour and a half, depending on the vertical ascent. I entered into a couple of 22K trail races and also did a small amount of road cycling to cross-train and avoid injury.
“As a woman, mother and someone who has her own business, I put so much pressure on myself during training and I have to remind myself that I’m doing this out of choice. You have to not pressure yourself into thinking that you are a highly tuned athlete!”
Francesca insists she is just a mum of three with a competitive spirit, who runs the best she can. “I have very good endurance, as opposed to speed, so if the views are beautiful around me, I am very happy to keep on plodding. I always look around and appreciate how beautiful everything is. I also realised that it is impossible to run the whole distance and that most ultra runners walk up the hills.”
Be very afraid
During the briefing for the race Francesca got to meet the other runners, including many elite athletes. “We all stood up to give a short talk about ourselves and the races we had competed in; I told everyone that I was absolutely petrified and wondered what on earth I was doing entering a race like this! I’m 44 and have a business and three kids – what was I thinking?!”
Yet Francesca went on to finish fourth female, and 17th overall (behind Holly Rush in second, in 20:52:48, who represents Great Britain and ran in the Commonwealth Games) in a time of 26:26:08. “Through this adventure I raised £6,204 for cystic fibrosis,” she says very proudly. “Next up is the UTB (ultratour-beaufortain.fr) in June: a 104K race with 6,400m of ascent. Am I completely and utterly nuts?”
We can say with confidence that Francesca is an inspiring mum of three, who simply runs the best she can ― which happens to be very good indeed.