Six-Time Cancer Survivor Runs a Marathon on Every Continent

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re capable of. That’s for you to determine.”

For the last mile of the Antarctica Marathon, Jonathan Acott played one song on repeat. Trudging through snow and icy winds on the edge of the world, the runner from Surrey, United Kingdom, listened to Tim McGraw’s hit, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It was a fitting anthem for the six-time cancer survivor in his pursuit to run a marathon on all seven continents. 

With 500 yards remaining in the race, Acott took his headphones out. He wanted to be fully present for the homestretch of the seventh marathon. Running downhill toward a small tent with a timer next to the Russian research station, the 48-year-old made his way to the finish line area, where a group of volunteers and fellow competitors cheered him on. 

His legs sore from the descent, Acott took a moment to compose himself before stepping across the finish line, completing a challenge that seemed unimaginable five years ago. “The photographers are there and they say, ‘Put your arms up!’ But I don’t want to put my arms up. That’s not how I want to celebrate,” Acott said. “I needed to stop at that moment. There’ll be other mountains, but right now I just want to stop.”

Amid the devastation caused by multiple cancers and the arduous healing process that followed, Acott transformed his life, becoming a motivational speaker, coach, and avid runner intent on chasing epic goals. For Acott, becoming a member of the Seven Continents Club—645 men and 358 women who have completed 26.2 on all seven continents—is the latest example of the runner choosing to embrace every moment.

‘If I’m moving, I’m not dead.’ 

Acott’s cancer journey began 20 years ago. In 2004, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at 29 years old. His first relapse occurred in 2007 when doctors discovered a tumor in his chest. He relapsed again in 2013 and 2016 and underwent back-to-back retroperitoneal lymph node dissections, a surgery to remove the lymph nodes in the back of the abdomen. In 2017, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. The following year, doctors discovered he relapsed again. His final surgery in 2018 involved removing his kidney and spleen. The spleen ruptured during the procedure, which required an emergency blood transfusion on top of chemotherapy post-operation. 

In a span of 14 years, Acott underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy (he estimates about seven months total) and six surgeries that left his body riddled with lifelong side effects, including permanent nerve damage and hearing loss. The experience also took a heavy toll on his mental health. At his lowest, Acott suffered from suicidal ideation. Working with a psychiatrist helped him cope and reframe his perspective. 

“Life is unfair to everybody. This just happens to be it,” Acott said. “And I can do two things. I can sit there and wallow about how miserable life is, or I can accept that life is difficult and hard and challenging, and you can make the most of it.”

Since 2018, Acott has been cancer free. After the last bout of the disease, his doctors encouraged him to start walking in the recovery process. He also lost his job after being unable to work during treatment. Walking not only gave him time to process his emotions, it also gave him something to work towards. In a few months, Acott was walking up to three hours at a time. 

After spending months building up to long distances, Acott decided he wanted to be more efficient by running. “I push because if I’m moving, I’m not dead,” Acott said. “If I’m moving further each day, I am getting healthier.”

Because Acott is immunocompromised and his body takes longer to heal now, he trains every other day. He’s also battling pain most of the time from scars and neuropathy in his feet, among other ailments, and needs to run a conservative pace most of the time. “My body has been through a lot, but it’s still capable of doing so much," he said. 

Choosing to live in optimism

In the fall of 2019—15 months after his last surgery—Acott raced the Berlin Marathon as a way to celebrate his comeback. He finished his first 26.2 in 4:58:38. Shortly after, he set out to complete the seven continents challenge. 

“I chose to apply myself to making the most of my time because I don’t know how much time I have,” Acott said. “It’s a choice about how you live. You can live in fear, and I am always scared, or I can live in optimism that I’m going to have the best life I possibly can.”

The following year, he ran the Africa leg at the 2020 Marrakech Marathon in 4:45:48. In 2020, he also took up motivational speaking on top of his full-time job as the head of guest experience at a business complex. 

After COVID restrictions were lifted, he finished the 2022 Austin Marathon in 5:15:28. The same year, he completed the South America portion by finishing the Curaçao Marathon in 5:09:16, trudging through flood waters on the course. 

He ran the Asia leg with a 5:15:33 at the 2023 Dubai Marathon along a desert roadway. Last fall, he covered Australia at the 2023 Perth Marathon with a finishing time of 5:01:40. On March 21, he completed the Antarctica Marathon in 5:38:16. 

Looking back on the experience, Acott remembered his surgeon’s warning after the last procedure. The doctor told him he wouldn’t be able to complete the same physical feats he used to do before cancer. Less than two months after completing the global marathon challenge, he’s already training for his next goal—breaking four hours in the marathon. 

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re capable of,” Acott said. “That’s for you to determine. Find what the best version of you looks like, and make it happen.”


posted Sunday June 9th
by Runner’s World