The bitter wind seared the skin on Kevin Webber’s face as he dragged his sledge towards the Arctic circle. In temperatures of minus 50, he had to keep scanning the horizon for wolves and polar bears before he reached the finish line of the world’s toughest self-sufficiency race, the 6633 Arctic Ultra.
He came second in the 120-mile slog – a truly amazing result for anyone.
But it was even more so for Kevin who, four years earlier, was diagnosed with stage IV terminal prostate cancer.
The senior banker was 49 when he was told he probably had just two years to live.
But Kevin had other plans. Not only has he defied medical expectations, but he has raised more than £250,000 for other cancer sufferers by running 15,000 miles across the world’s toughest terrain.
And, even more remarkably, the inspirational father-of-three views his terminal diagnosis as “a gift”.
He says: “I started to come to terms with living like that – with the executioner waiting in the wings – and it made me stronger.
“Bear in mind the doctor’s target. You can then view all the things I’ve done after that as a total bonus.
“Every day I now see as a gift and, if you have a gift, it would be rude to leave it unwrapped in a dark corner of the cupboard.
“I like to think I have ripped the paper off that gift, smiled the biggest smile and used it in the best way possible.”
In 2020 Kevin was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to people with cancer.
And this week his book, Dead Man Running: One Man’s Story Of Running To Stay Alive, is published.
It details his determination to look for the positive in every situation and to live each day as if it is his last.
He says: “I have done more in the past seven years – be it having fun, achieving goals, creating memories and raising funds and awareness for Prostate Cancer UK – than I could have imagined.
“Life is to be lived and I feel lucky to be here and to understand that.”
Keven admits his world tilted on its axis when he was told in 2014 he could be dead by the end of 2016. He says: “For two days, I cried. What made me saddest is my family.
“My beautiful wife, Sarah, married me to enjoy growing old disgracefully, not to worry about prostate cancer.And at the time of the diagnosis our son – my youngest child – was only nine years old.”
Days of darkness followed as he battled with the knowledge of all that he would miss in his life with Sarah and his children, Hayley, Ben and Oliver.
But that insight into his own mortality led to a complete reappraisal of his life – and a much more philosophical approach to it.
“You only have two lives and the second one starts the moment you realise you only have one,” he says. “We should all live every day with a do-good, feel-good mentality.
“Pay it forward. Let a car pull out in front of you at a junction. Smile. Use someone’s name. Say, ‘Thank you.’ Do the household chores without mentioning it. Give eye contact in a Zoom call. Think, ‘What can I do to make someone else’s day better?’
“If you look out of the window in the morning and it’s raining, you can either feel miserable or you can celebrate a chance to wear your new rain jacket. If you smile, everyone around you has a better day. We all have a choice whether to scowl or smile.
“I’m actively enjoying the simple things in life. I never felt this way before.”
Kevin in the Arctic
Kevin’s banking life used to consist of catching the 6:10am train and the last train home at night after spending the evening networking. After his diagnosis, he found himself determined to do things differently.
“My priorities changed completely,” he says. “Suddenly family was everything.”
His reaction to his first chemotherapy session was equally positive: He went for a run.
Kevin says: “The day after chemo I felt absolutely rubbish. I looked out of the window and thought, ‘I can be a victim and drink a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every day, waiting to die – or I can try to live.’
“It was unbelievably tough but then I started to visualise what it would be like to cross the finish line with my wife there.”
That single act of defiance led to a way of thinking that has seen Kevin tackle some of the most gruelling endurance races in the world. One is the Marathon des Sables – a six-day, 260-kilometre race in the Sahara desert in temperatures that can kill a camel.
Kevin has run that marathon a mere four times. And last year, when it was cancelled because of Covid he ran it at home instead. The feat involved 2,600 laps of his back garden to make up the 260 kilometres.
“I Facebooked while I was doing it; encouraged everyone to set a target to help others; phone a friend who might be on h h their own. It was amazing,” he says. Kevin had not had a single day off sick in 10 years but he took a year off work while he had chemo. Afterwards he wrote an article for his bank’s internal newspaper about his first Marathon Des Sables.
He recalls: “The CEO phoned me up after he read it. We chatted about the race and then he asked what I wanted from work.
“I said I wanted to be informally seconded to Prostate Cancer UK. Now I work in sustainable banking and as a do-good-feel-good ambassador for the bank. There are 25 of us in the team covering everything from green issues, to modern-day slavery and teaching children about money sense.”
Kevin is also determined to carry on running, even though he knows he is on borrowed time.
He says: “I’m on drugs at the moment that block testosterone. They are designed to extend life. Usually they only work for a year, but I’ve been on them for six years, so I know my days are numbered in that regard.”
But he is still going strong. Just three weeks ago, he competed in a 250-kilometre race in Wales which involved running 29,000 vertical feet.
Kevin Webber with his family
He says: “Twenty runners started. Only 11 finished – and I was one of those who kept going. The advantage I have is I know this is the only chance I’ll have to do this race, so I don’t waste the opportunity.
“My daughter worries I’ll die out there, but my wife says I’ll be happier dying in a race than I would in a hospice.
“I’ve said goodbye to everyone. If I wake up tomorrow and find I’ve been given the gift of another day I’ll be delighted.”
“All my kids see is their dad is a superhero and they almost forget I have cancer, which is great because I certainly don’t want to ruin their childhood by worrying about Dad.
“Oliver is now 16 and when I’m home after a race I am full of beans, with recharged batteries.”
However Kevin is convinced that running is not only helping him to find meaning in life – it is also helping to extend his life in ways that are not yet fully understood.
He says: “All the people I know who were diagnosed at the same time as me are dead, apart from one guy who also runs.
“There was a small study in America that proved vigorous exercise can shrink tumours. Perhaps it’s true.
“I used to say I’d do things when I retire, but at the age of 49 I was told I had a year of treatment followed by a year of going downhill. But all you should worry about is what is in front of you. Don’t worry about what’s around the next bend.”
He has told wife Sarah that when he eventually succumbs to cancer she should embrace life. Kevin explains: “My Dad said that after my mum’s death he would wake up every morning and cry because she wasn’t there. But that’s no way to live. I don’t want anyone to spend their life crying.”
- Dead Man Running: One Man’s Story Of Running To Stay Alive, by Kevin Webber with Mark Church, £19.99, is published by Pitch Publishing. Call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P for orders over £20
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