Sole Survivor

When Leslie Innes found out he’d been accepted into the 2014 New York City Marathon shortly after he turned 60, he was ecstatic. “I’d been dreaming about running New York for so long,” he says. “I’d been running for 20 years and I’d done 10 marathons in Australia, but New York was the ultimate. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.”

So when his doctor told him that she wanted him to have a biopsy on his prostate three days later, he wasn’t concerned. “My levels of PSA [prostate-specific antigen, which can be elevated in men with prostate cancer or other non-cancerous conditions] had been going up progressively for the past three or four years,” says Leslie. “My doctor thought it was time to have it checked out by a specialist, but I wasn’t worried because I’d always been fit and healthy.”

When the results of the biopsy came back positive for prostate cancer, Leslie refused to believe the diagnosis. “I had every scan in the world – nuclear scans, bone scans, CT scans, MRIs, I had everything,” he says. “I just didn’t believe I had cancer.”

Once he’d finally come to terms with his illness, he had to wait eight weeks to have surgery. “I chose robotic surgery because it was the quickest way out of the bed,” he laughs. “It saved me about two weeks of training time. And I also chose my surgeon because he could get me in a week earlier than the others.”

The day of Leslie’s operation finally arrived and he went in a fighting attitude. But what his doctors hadn’t anticipated was that he’d wake up with the same dogged determination. “I had the surgery at 9:00am and by 6:00am the next morning, I said, ‘I’m going home,’” he says. “It took a bit of a fight for them to let me out because my surgery was quite invasive – it’s the equivalent to a hysterectomy in a woman. But I didn’t want to be stuck in hospital. I had such a fixation on getting better so I could get onto the road and start training for the New York Marathon. It was like an obsession.”

Unfortunately, Leslie had a rare reaction to the surgery which left him in constant pain and unable to sit for several months. “I tried so many different medications and injections and saw countless specialists, but nobody could figure out what the problem was,” he says. “I couldn’t walk for quite a while, but I eventually started walking and then alternating walking and jogging. As the months went by, the pain finally started to subside by itself.”

Four months after his operation, Leslie was finally back in the swing of things and training for the big race. He began experiencing some chest pains during his long runs, but he put it down to one of those annoying niggles that so often plague long-distance runners.

Then one morning in September last year, he was a few kilometres into a 28K run along a popular stretch of Beach Road in Black Rock, Melbourne, when he had to stop because the pain in his chest was too intense. He felt a bit better after a while and tried to run again, but after a few more kilometres he suddenly collapsed. “I knew something was really wrong then,” he says. “I lay on the ground for about 20 minutes until I was able to get up and start walking home. It took me four or five hours to get there.”

Blood tests at his doctor’s office confirmed that he’d had a heart attack, so his doctor ordered him to go straight to hospital. But when he arrived at the local hospital in Sandringham, it was packed with Saturday night emergencies and car crash casualties. “They were monitoring me, but they didn’t have time to attend to me, so I walked out and went home,” says Leslie. “I came back at 6:00 the next morning and they weren’t too happy. They had a medical team waiting for me and they transferred me to a private hospital where they operated on me immediately.”

A few days later, Leslie’s best mate since childhood, Nev, came to see him in hospital. “He told me that he’d been ringing and writing to the organisers of New York Marathon to explain my situation and ask them to please let me go next year instead,” says Leslie. “And they agreed. It’s one of the loveliest things anyone has ever done for me – it was such a gift.”

After several months of recovery post-surgery, Les was finally able to start training again. Now, he’s feeling readier than ever to pound the pavement in New York in November. “My cancer is gone and my heart is in good nick, so I’m ready to go,” he says. “I’m going to be at that starting line no matter what and I’m even looking for a top 100 place in my age group. I believe you can do anything if you really want to.”

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