How the death of her father inspired the Cool FM presenter to do a mammoth charity challenge.
Super-fit DJ Sonya Mac has been pushing herself to the limit to ensure success for her mammoth Mac'athon challenge this summer in aid of Cancer Research UK. Since she launched her incredible fundraiser last November, Sonya has been living and breathing the details 24-7 as she undertakes what must be the most ambitious single charity event ever undertaken by an individual in Northern Ireland.
The popular Cool Fm personality aims to complete 10 marathons this year to raise money in memory of her late dad James who passed away last year from cancer of the stomach.
Included in this are six marathons in all six counties on the sixth month which she hopes will see hundreds of people across the province don their running shoes to support her in June.
Sonya kicked off her special fundraising year by beating her own personal best in the London Marathon on April 13.
She went on to do the same in the Belfast Marathon and plans to also run the Berlin and New York marathons as well as the six she is currently organising in Northern Ireland.
Not only does it involve a physically punishing training schedule but the logistics of organising six one-off marathons – all of which will culminate in fantastic family fun days – has consumed her every waking hour.
"I have had moments when I have thought I am crazy to be doing this," she confesses.
"Organising Mac'athon has taken over my life in the past six months. It really has been 24-7.
"So far people have been amazing in their support and it is shaping up to be quite special.
“We have some great entertainment and family fun with live music and dancing and bouncy castles and lots of other activities in the towns where each of the marathons will finish.
“I've been doing a lot of arm twisting and anyone who knows me will have found themselves roped in.
“We've organised cycle teams to go alongside the runners with supplies of water and juice and we have minibuses to take people back to the start of each route.
“Lots of sponsors are also coming on board.
“We have also just got our medals which look amazing. All I need now are necks to hang them round.
“We've had some teams and individuals sign up but I really hope people along all our routes will take part.
“For those who don't think they can do a whole marathon then why not get a group of friends together and do a relay.”
The first of the six marathons kicks off at Stormont on June 1 at 3pm after the Race for Life which is staged annually, also to raise funds for Cancer Research.
It will be a poignant moment for Sonya who chose the annual Race for Life because it was the last time she spent time with her dad out of hospital before he died.
“We took him out of the hospital in a wheelchair to the race last year and he joked that he would be putting on a wig to join the women runners next year,” she says.
“We had no idea at the time how ill dad was and we lost him shortly after that.”
So, it’s her dad who is inspiring Sonya in her herculean challenge.
“I just hope I'm not crawling towards the end of it all.
“When I think of what dad went through and what other families are going through I have to take a step back and realise that it's only six weeks and once I'm through it, that it's over,” she says.
It was only six weeks from Sonya's dad was diagnosed with cancer in April 2013 until she lost him later that June.
His diagnosis and death were all the more shocking because he had no symptoms and the disease was only picked up through routine blood tests by his GP.
Sonya's dad had just retired from his job as a long-distance lorry driver and he and her mum Rosemary had moved to a new home in preparation for the start of their retirement together.
Initially the family were led to believe that he had a chance of fighting the disease so when he was admitted to hospital for a routine procedure, no one thought for a second that he would never come home again.
“Dad was a real worker and I had tried to get him to retire earlier, but he wouldn't so he had just retired a few months when he
was diagnosed,” says Sonya.
“When he and mum had moved they had to register with a new GP who did some routine tests on dad which showed something in his blood.
“They did further tests and on April 26 when I was in London I got a call from dad to say that the tests had shown he had cancer in his upper stomach which had spread into his liver.
“He hadn't been ill or feeling ill, there were no signs at all. Strangely though once he found out, he started to suddenly go downhill and he lost a lot of weight and looked very drawn.
“At first they thought he could fight it and he had his first chemo in June.
“He then started to have trouble swallowing and was admitted to the Ulster Hospital to have a stent put in his throat.”
On June 2 last year as she prepared to do the Race For Life for Cancer Research, Sonya decided to give her dad a break from hospital and take him to watch the race at Stormont.
She had no idea that those few precious hours as he watched the charity run from his wheelchair were to be his last outing ever.
“Dad went downhill very quickly after that,” says Sonya.
“He lost consciousness a week later on the Saturday and he died on June 10, eight days after being at Race for Life and two weeks after being taken into hospital for what should have been a routine operation.
“It was a big shock but we knew in the end it was better for him to go rather than suffer.” An only child, Sonya was the apple of her dad's eye and he was a great support to her, especially at her charity runs where he could be found shaking a tin to help raise funds.
“Dad was so proud of me and when he went into shops doing his deliveries he would ask people what radio show they listened to,” adds Sonya.
“He kept my autograph card on the windscreen of his lorry.
“We shared the same interest in cars and motorbikes and he was always there for me at the end of the phone if I needed him.
“He would have come to my charity runs and helped raise money and when I ran my first marathon in New York he and mum were both there.”
Throwing herself into organising the marathons has kept her mind off the terrible loss of her “larger than life” dad who was such a huge part of everything she has done.
“It is keeping me busy rather than giving me time to think which kind of helps,” she says.
“There is so much I miss and it's the little things that hit home, such as buying a car.
“Mum changed her car and we didn't have dad there to see what he would suggest.
“All the little jobs dad would have done which we now do ourselves or have to get a tradesman to do all takes a bit of getting used to.
“Usually in the winter I would see dad walking past my window carrying a bag of coal for me and last winter I was the one ensuring mum had coal and that she kept warm.
“Not having him at the end of the phone is difficult.”
Sonya was bitten by the running bug when she did the New York Marathon in 2010 and helped raise £20,000 for Cool FM's Cash for Kids charity appeal.
Since then and until this year she had completed seven marathons and numerous half marathons and helped raise an incredible £53,500 for charity.
“I couldn't run the length of myself when I decided to do my first marathon,” she says.
“I was the type who had to have a note from mum at school to get out of doing any cross-country running.
“I usually walk part of it as well as run it, just as long as I finish. When you do one you always say
at the end ‘never again' but then find yourself up for another one.
“When you hit the wall and think you can't go on any more you just think of everyone who has donated and who is supporting you and that keeps you going.”
Her Mac'athon is not just about raising money but also raising awareness of the need for research, and cancer researchers from the charity will be mingling with the public, handing out information at each of her six fun days.
She desperately needs the public to get behind her to ensure Mac'athon is a success — both as runners and as volunteers on the ground.
“Research is so important and if I can put a tiny chink in the chain which will hopefully try and find a cure to this awful thing then it will be worthwhile,” she says.
“People in Northern Ireland are very generous and have been for the three years since I started running for charity.
“They always get behind me and I'm really hoping they will this time.”
When is marathon in your county?
- June 1, Co Antrim — Start: TV and radio personalities will be at the Stormont Estate to encourage runners at the beginning of the race at 3pm. Race finishes with a fun day at Carrickfergus Castle.
- June 6, Co Londonderry — Start: Tesco in Limavady at 10am, finish at Brunswick Bowl, Derry.
- June 14 — Co Tyrone: starting at 10am in Cookstown (precise location to be confirmed) and finishing with a huge family community event at Hanover House Hotel in Coagh.
- June 21 — Co Armagh: 10am start from The Mall, where the race will also finish with another huge celebration.
- June 29 — Co Fermanagh: 11.30am start from the Bawnacre Centre, where it will also finish with a fun day.
- July 5 — Co Down: 10am start from Ards Shopping Centre, which will host a huge celebration to mark the finish of the race.
- To support Sonya or register for a marathon in your area, go to www.sonyamac.co.uk