From medical write-off to mountains and marathons – a healing journey and the joy of stubbornness

I admit it, I’m stubborn. Capricorn characteristics or otherwise, if anyone tells me I can’t do something, I will go out of my way to prove them wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. I was sitting in the doctor’s office, in the spring of 1990, being told that I was incurable. Once the diagnosis had registered, which took a few minutes given my depleted state, I was already halfway out of the door, telling the doctor that I would let him know how I got on.

I was born in a blizzard in January 1963. It was the coldest winter on record in the UK and a time when the world was in upheaval and people were challenging their traditionally held beliefs. As a child and at high school, I was very athletic and regarded as a promising gymnast and sprinter. My academic interests were languages and science. Growing up on the Isle of Wight, there were no decent athletic or gymnastic training programs, so I threw myself into my studies. At the age of 17, I was accepted to study veterinary medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, London, having proven the naysayers wrong (“you won’t get good enough grades, you’re too small, you’re too young, your dad isn’t a vet” and other such nonsense). I qualified in 1985 as the UK’s youngest vet. 

Like many others, I was consuming the typical nutritionally deficient British diet, although I had at least eliminated dairy products at the age of 15, having experimented on myself to conclude that I was allergic to them. As a young veterinarian, believing that I was indestructible, I put in long hours in my stressful profession. Although I was slim, fit and outwardly healthy looking, my 12 to 15 hour workdays with no breaks eventually began to take their toll. By early 1990 my weight had dropped to 90 pounds (44 kilos) and people at work started calling me “The Stick”. Even my boyfriend at the time called me Sticky, progressing to “Ribley” when my ribs became even more prominent. No one really meant any harm, but I was conscious of being visibly emaciated.

I was exhausted, so hauled myself to the doctor. Blood tests showed that I had virtually no white blood cells, and I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue syndrome, with additional advanced muscular degeneration. My immune system had crashed and my health was totally compromised. I was advised to take at least a month off work, which I could not do because of my heavy schedule. Sat in the doctor’s office, I was told that there was no treatment and that I would probably never recover. That was the moment in which my stubborn streak saved my life. 

Fortunately, I knew all about personal responsibility. I realised that I had obviously screwed up badly to get myself into this mess in the first place, so I knew it was my own responsibility to fix myself. The difficulty was, knowing where to start. With no internet to search, I ended up in the supermarket of all places, propped up on my shopping trolley, staring at the magazine rack. “Health and Fitness”. The magazine almost jumped out at me, with its cover picture of an athletic looking woman with muscles like I used to have. I bought the mag. Later that day, whilst flicking through its pages, I noticed a short article that resonated with me. It stated that we need to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables per day to maintain good health. An idea jumped forward. “If that’s what we need to maintain health, I obviously need more than that to regain it.” From that day forward, my diet changed radically. 

As a child, I hated cooked vegetables and I would either eat them raw or not at all. My plan was to eat 10 servings of fruit and 10 servings of raw vegetables every day. I was also keen to rebuild my wasted muscles, so exercise was in order. I forced myself to go to the gym at the local leisure centre. Almost the first day I went, I got chatting to a young man of about the same age. Having observed my thinness, he commented “you must be very healthy”. I had difficulty in not laughing. Why would anyone mistake me for being healthy because I was thin? I never told him that 5 days earlier the medical profession had written me off. 

Exercise was hard. The first time I went for a run, I barely made it to the next lamp post before collapsing. I persevered, refusing to give up. I kept going running, I continued weight training. Gradually my strength and my fitness started to put in a comeback. My wasted muscles began to reappear. I nearly cried with joy the first time I saw my regenerated biceps. After 6 months, I thought I had nailed it, so I entered my first road race. But first, a trip to the doctor. He repeated the blood tests. To my joy and his amazement, the virus was gone and my white blood cell count was back to normal. To say that I was very excited was the understatement of the year, so I started telling the doctor how I had done it. He was disinterested in my recovery process. Sadly, 5 years later he suffered a massive heart attack and could never work again. 

My first road race was a 5 miler, which I completed in 40 minutes. That whetted my appetite; road racing was fun, and I was keen to find out just how much this new body could do. I was eating a high raw, but not totally vegan diet. I still drank alcohol, but not frequently and never in large quantities. By 1992 I was feeling so strong and healthy that I went to New York and ran the New York City marathon. The atmosphere was electric. I had to do more. I set my next running challenge – to complete the London marathon in less than 4 hours. I got myself a running coach. His name was Mike, but everyone called him “The Terminator”. Many people had stopped training with him because he pushed them too hard. I, on the other hand, loved it. He introduced me to hill sprints, for which I am forever grateful. I ran London in 1994, in a time of 3 hours 55 minutes. I could hardly believe that 4 years earlier I had been a medical write off. My recreation became road racing, triathlons, mountain bike racing, rock climbing, skiing, karate – anything active, anything involving fitness and a challenge, I was up for it. 

I was then fortunate to discover the Fresh Network, at that time headed up by Karen Knowler. I joined immediately and started going to all the events that they hosted – David Wolfe, Brian Clement, Gabriel Cousens… I literally ate up the information they gave. I became a 100% living foods vegan in 1998, which was a natural progression from the high raw diet that I had been eating, and that was so instrumental in my recovery. I then tweaked my raw diet. Less fruit. More green juices. The wonders of wheatgrass. That worked better for me. 

My next major challenge was to overcome a severe injury sustained in a skiing accident. I fell 200 feet on ice and ruptured the cruciate ligaments in my left knee. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t work. I was in plaster from my hip to my toes. What now? Attitude and determination, that’s what. And if you don’t like what one doctor says, get a second opinion. I was told that because I was not an international rugby player, I didn’t need surgery. I did say that I had some unfinished business with a karate black belt, but that didn’t seem to sway his opinion. So, in the height of my stubbornness, I sought out the best orthopaedic surgeon in Hampshire. I went to see him privately. Within 5 minutes, we had arranged a date for surgery. 

I knew that the recovery from surgery was going to need a focused mind. I had not only the surgery, but the 6 months of intense physiotherapy and rehabilitation to deal with. The pain was unbelievable. It was probably my own fault for refusing painkillers, but I didn’t want to put them in a nice clean body. Yes, sometimes my stubbornness causes me suffering. I got up every morning at 6am so that I could be in the gym doing my exercises and rehab and still get to work on time. I trained diligently at my exercises, worked out a specific anti-inflammatory raw diet and was juicing like mad. Success! My surgeon has now retired, but he followed me up for 10 years after the operation. The last time I saw him, he said that he has never seen a recovery like mine. I have full function of my left knee, and no degenerative change whatsoever. 

Back to the unfinished business with the black belt. I was close to black belt standard just before the skiing accident; I had passed 2 out of the 3 disciplines, failing just on the fighting section. Two and a half years after the accident, I was finally allowed back to karate training, as long as I wore a huge knee brace made out of aircraft aluminium which my surgeon had specially made for me. He didn’t want me to return to karate. He said it was seriously bad for knees. I, of course, had other ideas.

I had been training for 6 hard months and fighting with my then boyfriend, himself an experienced black belt, nearly every day. I further tweaked my diet. Alcohol was a total no-no. I discovered that nuts make me tired and a lot of fruit does not work well in my system despite my activity levels. I thrive on greens, green juices, sprouts and wheatgrass. In 2001 the big day came; I was called up to fight. My opponent was an intimidating thug of a woman from a tough London club. 45 pounds heavier than me, she enjoyed fighting and the look in her eyes indicated that she couldn’t wait to beat me to a pulp. I didn’t have her brute strength, but I was sharp and fast and won the fight, despite getting a heavy bash in the ribs that almost knocked me over. Just 4 people gained their black belt that day out of about 40 who tried. I was proud to be one of them. 

In 2004 I attended the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida for the first time. I had the time of my life; I thought I knew so much about health before I went, but it was a total eye opener, completely humbling. I enrolled on the Health Educator course the following year, which was a natural progression since I was already teaching classes and giving lectures throughout the UK. I graduated as a Hippocrates Health Educator in 2006. I now teach the Hippocrates lifestyle from my home near Southampton as well as lecturing, presenting seminars and writing books and magazine articles. My clients range from British international athletes to grandparents, and I love helping all of them to go beyond what they currently think is possible. 

I continue to challenge myself both physically and mentally; I can’t encourage other people to do something if I am not prepared to do it myself. In 2012 I climbed Kilimanjaro. In 2015 I ran the Brighton Marathon, and in 2018 I did one of my biggest running challenges to date – the Dragon Double – two tough endurance races within a week of each other, one on the Great Wall of China (I came second in my age group) and then the Thunder Dragon race in the Himalayas in Bhutan, in which I won my age category. I train with former Olympic sprinters just for the heck of it. I can’t keep up with them, but it’s fun trying! I am currently training for the Serpent Trail Ultramarathon in 2022. I run fully barefoot, or in my trusty barefoot shoes because it gives me a better connection to, and feeling for, the earth. And every day, I rejoice in my stubbornness. 

Read my full healing journey and the science behind my recovery in my book The Fatigue Solution.

About Max Tuck

Hippocrates Health Educator. Long term living foods vegan. Athlete, lecturer, author of four books (with the 5th coming soon) and firm advocate of healthy living.
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