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Kristen Bence: Running to Celebrate Survivorship

When 32-year-old Kristen Bence crosses the starting line of the TCS New York City Marathon on November 6, she’ll be embarking on a 26.2-mile-long reminder of the colorectal cancer diagnosis she received in 2014, just a few weeks after finishing her first marathon, also New York.

But she’ll also be reminded of the resiliency she learned she had while training for that race—resiliency that gave her the strength to face two surgeries in March and June 2015; months of tests, appointments, and procedures; and a slow and sometimes difficult return to fitness.

“Running has taught me to believe in myself, and that I can do sometimes more than I think I can,” says Bence, who lives in South Setauket, New York, and works as a special education teacher for kindergarten through second graders. “It clears my mind.”

More than that, running gave her an edge after surgery. “My doctor said that my recovery was significantly faster than some other people because I was in such good shape going into the surgery,” she says.

Had her diagnosis come just two years prior, it would have been a different story. Bence, who says she was an active kid, had fallen out of shape during college and after, and only began running in 2013, at age 29.

“The weight crept on, and eventually I’d gained quite a bit of weight and I wasn’t happy with myself,” she says. So she started alternating between walking for 30 seconds and running 30 seconds, and within six months she ran her first 5K, placing third in her age group.

A friend who had encouraged her to run that race next suggested a half-marathon, and Bence didn’t hesitate. “I don’t really back down from challenges,” she says. After a few more 13.1-milers, she decided to go the distance and run the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Fred’s Team, unaware of her own impending cancer diagnosis.

Three days after finishing the race, in 4:53, she started to feel some pain, but attributed it to the physical strain of the marathon. After a few weeks, she knew something wasn’t right and saw a doctor.

Wanting a second opinion, Bence turned to Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she would go on to receive the treatment that saved her life.

Today, Bence is back to running 10-minute miles on her 20-mile training runs. Though she can’t help associating the marathon with her illness, and her return to fitness has been anything but easy, she is determined to conquer the five boroughs for a second time—largely as a thank you to Memorial Sloan Kettering.  

“I wanted to do the marathon again because Sloan [Kettering] is an absolutely amazing place, and the marathon is a way for me to give back to Sloan for the care I got from them,” she says.

But she’s also running for herself, and for what the sport has revealed to her about perseverance in the face of extraordinary hardship. “Running has taught me that you don’t stop when you’re tired,” she says. “You stop when you finish.”

By David Alm

GET YOUR STORIES ON. Read more inspiring stories from runners chronicling their journeys to the TCS New York City Marathon starting line.

TUNE IN. The 2016 TCS New York City Marathon will be televised live on Sunday, November 6, on WABC-TV, Channel 7 in the New York tri-state area from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET, and for the rest of the nation on ESPN2 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET.