North Shore, NY

The Marathon to End All Marathons


It had to be something more than just a marathon—it had to be the hardest marathon.


Her family ravaged by cancer, Emma Saunders, age 35, wanted to do something huge to help conquer the disease. She decided to run in the Great Wall of China Marathon as a fundraiser for the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). The course is tougher than traditional marathons, with lots of stairs, inclines, dips, and even some damaged areas. And Emma was determined to do it.

Her great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, and mother died of cancer. And her sister is facing it now. She wanted the funds to go directly to cancer research. When she saw that CRI devotes more than 85% of its budget to programs, she knew that CRI was the way to go.

Emma ran the Great Wall of China Marathon on Saturday, May 1, 2014, and raised more than $8,000 for CRI. CRI talked with Emma about the marathon, her history with cancer, and how achieving your dreams is easier than one might realize.



CRI: What experience have you had with cancer?
Emma: My grandmother died of pancreatic cancer when she was 50. And then my great-grandmother, her mother, died at the age of 88, also with pancreatic cancer. And then my mother just passed in February last year with triple negative breast cancer. And now my sister is going through stage 3 breast cancer. She’s 36. It’s been pretty tragic, like most families who are dealing with cancer. So that’s why I decided to get involved and do something.

CRI: How did you first hear about the Cancer Research Institute?
Emma:  When I decided to fundraise, I did a search online. I spent many hours researching cancer charities, mostly in terms of preventive care. But I also looked at how the charities were rated and whether the majority of the funds actually go to the cause, as opposed to administration and so on. That’s how I came across Cancer Research Institute. I wanted the money to go to good use.

CRI: What resonates with you about CRI’s mission?
Emma: For me, it’s the immunotherapy that you focus on. That caught my attention. You are concentrating on an area that few other research foundations are doing. I hear more about cancer immunotherapy now than ever before. I thought that’s probably the way to go.

CRI: What made you want to do the Great Wall of China marathon?
Emma: I figured if I was going to do something for charity, it had to be something pretty big. And most people who know me, probably know that I like to do things a little bit differently, a little bit of an adventure. I’d always wanted to go to China so I thought, “How can I go to China and incorporate this into doing something for somebody else.” Then I found the Great Wall of China Marathon. I thought if people are going to donate, they’re going to want to donate to something that’s a good cause, but also something that’s going to be challenging for me. This isn’t my first marathon and it’s probably not going to be my last, but it is definitely the hardest. So it had to be something more than just a marathon—it had to be the hardest marathon.

CRI: What was the hardest part about the marathon?
Emma: Oh my god, the whole thing. [Laughs] Words cannot express how grueling the marathon was. I’ve done a lot of flat marathons; I’ve done a marathon in Switzerland up the top of a mountain. And nothing, no amount of training, could ever prepare me for the Great Wall. It’s basically 20,500 steps up and down, some of which are so destroyed and just rubble where there’s a huge element of risk involved. There was definitely an element of danger, and also fear as well.

I think one of the towers that we had to run up was called Stairway to Heaven, which should have been named Stairway to Hell because it was so steep. You’re actually on your hands and knees climbing up the stairs and then coming down. You’re basically like a baby climbing down stairs. It was grueling. There was no easy part of it. The only amazing thing about that race was the scenery. Words can’t express how breathtaking it was.

The camaraderie among the runners was also uplifting. Everybody was supporting each other because of the intensity of the marathon itself. And everybody was from overseas. There were so many people of every nationality there, and it was just really nice to see everybody come together and help each other. We made a lot of friends when we were there.

CRI: Anything else you want to share with others about your story?
Emma:  I think people forget to live and it’s so important that people go after their dreams and aspirations. It’s so easy for people to say, “One day I’ll do this, one day I’ll do that.” But it’s here and now. And they shouldn’t say they can’t do something, because they can. I never thought I would do the China marathon, but I did. And I’m not an athletic person. I don’t work out five days a week. I’ll be lucky if I make to the gym once a week. But I mentally prepared and committed and did it. So hopefully other people will follow through and bring good to the world and fundraise for a charity that they deem important to themselves.

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