It started as something for herself: a time to think, reflect, “stomp out the anger” and cry.
But now Angela Cairns is running for her family.
When she lines up for the start of the Sydney Running Festival’s marathon on Sunday it will be with the aim of not only realising a personal achievement but to also raise awareness of organ donation.
The husband of the Warabrook mother of four and two of her children have heart conditions.
Her 14-year-old daughter Luka-Angel had a heart transplant within the past 18 months.
Eleven-year-old son Jazz and husband Lucas will both need one in the future.
“My husband has Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. He was diagnosed at 17 and he couldn’t do exercise and it meant eventual heart transplant,” Ms Cairns said.
Their eldest child Elijah, 16, was born perfectly healthy, but eight years ago Jazz and Luka-Angel were both diagnosed on the same day with Restrictive Cardiomyopathy.
“Jazz was in and out of hospital with pneumonias and he was just really susceptible with a low immunity,” she said.
“It was just in one of the check-ups that a paediatrician picked up a third and fourth heart sound. Normal sounds are one and two, there’s two heart sounds, so he explained that we needed to go on a list to see a paediatric cardiologist.”
It was at that visit that a third sound was also detected in Luka-Angel’s heart.
“At that stage we hadn’t heard of cardiomyopathy. For them that means a small, stiff heart and no exercise,” Ms Cairns said.
“We could then recognise that they weren’t toddlers that ran. They were very short of breath all the time. Luka-Angel would say she had sore legs so I would carry her everywhere.
“It changed our life, obviously, but I would piggy-back them everywhere so we would still go on bushwalks and I would rotate piggy-backing them. Then when my eldest son got older he would push them along on the scooter.”
Ms Cairns, who along with her husband are youth and children’s co-ordinators with the Salvation Army in Newcastle, had been a keen runner as a child but only took it up again shortly after her children were diagnosed.
“It definitely rocked my world and, really, the way I began to cope was to run,” the 42-year-old said.
“Being alone was very rare, so running became my thing. But I would run and cry, so I’d wear my sunglasses and my hat.
“It became a real therapy for me. It became a time of processing, of dealing with stuff, of praying, reflecting. It became more about mental health in the end.
“Running became my saving grace, just to run and process and stomp out the anger on the beach up in Tweed Heads and the footpath here.”
The Cairns family relocated to Newcastle six years ago.
She continued to run, five to seven kilometres three times a week, and ran a couple of half marathons (21.1km).
“I never thought I would do a marathon [42.2km], not in my wildest dreams,” Ms Cairns said.
“It was probably something tucked away that I would love to do but it wasn’t until a conversation with my son which kicked that off.
“I started to invite Jazz to come on my runs. He would come for a bike ride and I would just push him along while I was running.
“He just said to me one day, ‘I want to live my life the very best I can mum’, then he went on to say, ‘If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?’.”
She replied she had always thought about a marathon but was “too scared”.
“He shot me down straight away. He said, ‘You need to do that mum’,” Ms Cairns said.
“Then he started to think I could win it and I had to say that was not even on my radar. I just want to make it to the end in a reasonable time, so then I started training.”
Her program has not just been about making sure she can make the distance. It has been a personal journey.
“I realised I want to learn more skills in perseverance because I’ve got some pretty tricky stuff ahead,” she said.
“One of the things that has stood out in my training has been to set my eyes firmly on the goal and keep them there, whether the rain is beating against me or the wind is beating against me I can press on.”
It is a lesson she says she is already applying and on race day her motivation will be seeing the smile on her children’s faces at the end.
“I’ve very determined and I’m nervous but I’m really excited,” she said.
“It’s definitely achieving a dream and I really wouldn’t have done it without Jazz’s conversation because I was letting fear of failure get in the way.”
Driving her through the run will also be her mission to spread awareness of organ donation. Emblazoned on the back of her shirt will be the words: “My daughter’s life was saved by a transplant”.
Watching the changes in her daughter since the transplant has been “amazing”.
“She would dance for 30 seconds then would end up with her head down on the lounge while her body recovered,” she said.
“Now she dances repetitively. She can do more than one cartwheel in a row without getting short of breath and that is just amazing to see.”
And so she is “so very grateful to the anonymous family who gave to us in their time of terrible grief and loss”.
It became a real therapy for me. It became a time of processing, of dealing with stuff, of praying, reflecting. It became more about mental health in the end.