Sonya: The memory of my dad will keep me going through these six marathons
Cool FM presenter Sonya Mac will be hitting the ground running in the New Year as she sets herself the colossal challenge of running six marathons in six weeks in six counties.
The popular radio star is organising the mammoth feat – which she is calling the 'Mac-athon' – for next June in aid of Cancer Research UK as a tribute to her dad, James, who died earlier this year from cancer of the stomach at the age of just 65.
As listeners to Sonya's radio shows will know, she is no stranger to running marathons for charity – but even by her own impressive track record, the challenge she has set herself next year is pretty awesome.
"I just hope I'm not crawling towards the end of it all," she confesses, adding: "When you see what dad went through and what other families are going through, you have to take a step back and realise that its only six weeks and once I'm through it, that it's over."
It was only six weeks from when Sonya's dad was diagnosed with cancer last April until they lost him in 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.
James had just retired from his job as a long-distance lorry driver and he and Sonya's mum Rosemary had moved to a new home in preparation for the start of their retirement together.
An only child, Sonya was the apple of her dad's eye and he was her greatest supporter, helping at her charity events and proudly telling everyone about his daughter the DJ.
"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," says Sonya.
"He kept my autograph card on the window screen 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."
Organising her mammoth fundraiser for cancer research in James's memory has helped Sonya to cope in the past months as she struggles to get used to life without her "larger than life" dad.
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 moment 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 and he had just retired a few months when he was diagnosed," says Sonya.
"He and mum had moved house and 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 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 and he just didn't get out of hospital again."
Sonya and her mum had no idea that the end was so close. On June 2 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 was to be his last outing ever.
Fittingly, her first marathon will be held on the same day as Race for Life 2014, setting off after the race at Stormont at 3pm.
"We didn't know how ill he was at that stage and neither did he," she says. "Because the race is all-female, Dad joked that next year he would wear a blonde wig and come back and take part in it.
"A couple of days later he started to go downhill very quickly and at that point we hadn't been told how advanced it was.
"I talked to a consultant who said he probably had a year, but as he deteriorated that week I asked again and they said it was most likely days rather than months.
"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."
Fittingly Sonya plans her marathons to start the weekend after next year's Race for Life. She plans to run one after the other on six consecutive weekends and it has taken a lot of careful planning as each is being marked with a community fun day.
Sonya also hopes local people along all six routes will come out and join in and run or walk part, if not all, of one of the marathons, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. Registration opens online on January 1.
Throwing herself into organising the marathons has kept her mind off her terrible loss, but there is no escaping the huge void left by her dad.
"It's all the firsts, like my birthday, his birthday and our first Christmas without him that are tough," she says.
"Little things like 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, and that takes a wee 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 now this winter I'm ensuring Mum has coal and that she keeps warm.
"I'm finding it difficult not having him at the end of the phone."
Understandably, Christmas was something neither Sonya nor her mum were looking forward to this year. Traditionally, the three of them spent it together every year and as a treat for her dad Sonya always made his favourite Pavlova and vegetable soup. This year she can't bring herself to cook them.
"He looked forward more to my soup and the Pavlova than he did the turkey. This year there was no soup or Pavlova at Christmas."
It's her charity challenge next year that is getting her through. 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 she has 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 to get out of doing any cross-country running at school.
"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 you can't go on any more you just think of the everyone who has donated and who is supporting you, and that keeps you going."
She hasn't set herself a fundraising target for her six marathons in six weeks challenge but hopes to raise as much as possible towards research into finding a cure for cancer.
And as if six marathons back to back aren't enough, Sonya aims to do eight in total next year.
"As well as the six marathons in memory of dad I am planning to run the London Marathon in April to launch my appeal and will finish with the New York Marathon in November," she says.
"My friend John Amos is going to do them all with me and I have other friends also joining us for some of them.
"I just hope the public will get behind us too. It's all about raising as much awareness of the need for research as possible and funds.
"We will have researchers at each fun day to talk to people, and bouncy castles and face-painting and just lots of fun events to get people out and supporting it.
"I haven't finalised all the details but everything will be on my website and we hope to have different coloured T-shirts for each marathon and medals for the winners."
Sonya confesses to feeling nervous about the challenge she is setting herself, but says all she has to do is think of her dad and it keeps her focused.
"It scares me a lot and I have had people at work asking 'Why are you doing that to yourself?' It is keeping me busy rather than giving me time to think which kind of helps.
"Research is so important, and if I can put a tiny link in the chain that will hopefully try and find a cure to this awful thing, then it will be worthwhile.
"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.
"My dad was a very jolly man who was the life and soul of the party and was always telling jokes.
"I am doing it for Dad."
* June 1, Co Antrim – Start: Stormont Estate at 3pm (after Race for Life) finishing with a fun day at Carrickfergus Castle.
* June 6, Co Londonderry – Start: Limavady at 10am, finish in at Brunswick Bowl, Londonderry.
* June 14, Co Tyrone – details to be confirmed.
* June 21, Co Armagh – details to be confirmed.
* June 29, Co Fermanagh – Start and finish at Bawnacre Centre, Irvinestown
* July 5, Co Down – Start at 10am and finish at Ards Shopping Centre.
To register and find out more details of dates and routes being taken by Sonya, visit sonyamac.co.uk