Sally Hurst has written a beautiful piece dedicated to her friend Liz Clarke-Saul, who passed away in July from adamantinoma. In her own words, Sally pays tribute to her friend and former teammate.
Liz Clarke-Saul died in July this year from bone cancer. She was 31. Here’s my tribute to this extraordinary woman I’m proud to have called my friend:
In any sports team, each athlete has a nickname, and Liz’s was Lady Shard. It began on a training camp in Snowdonia, after an arduous ride up Pen-y-Pass: Liz was expertly fixing a puncture, running her fingers along the inside of the tyre when she announced, “Ah! There it is – a shard of glass!” To which Steve, our Welsh mechanic, fell about laughing repeating “Shaard of glaarse” over and over in a faux posh accent. So Lady Shard stuck; a name with which, I think, Liz was quietly pleased.
She wasn’t really posh, but she was the absolute queen of roommates. On training camps and competitions, we settled into a routine: neither of us would attempt conversation until at least 30 minutes after our 6am alarm calls; both of us had similar TV viewing preferences in the evening (Masterchef to drool over the desserts we were forbidden to eat and Luther/The Fall for murdery escapism). It’s just possible that I wasn’t such a dream roommate: I left various bits of kits drip-drying on the shower head and door handles, when Liz’s shoes and gloves were always paired neatly and placed under a chair. She did mildly mention my snoring once; at the next camp, she brought ear plugs. She claimed they were for the road noise outside our Holiday Inn Express.
It was such solace to connect with someone who had the same disability. You don’t often meet other one-legged young women who’ve been through bone cancer treatment and who share your sense of gallows humour over being an amputee. We could moan to each other about sores on stumps and tip sweat out of sockets without grossing the other out. It was refreshing.
Racing is emotionally, as well as physically exhausting; you’re repeatedly pushing your body to its limits whilst fighting to prove yourself, desperate to keep your place on the team. But being around Liz on race day was calming. We’d meticulously double-check our kit, blend spinach and blueberries in a Nutribullet, force down porridge for fuel, then take turns for nervous wees in the bathroom before getting in the van with our bikes and helmets. We’d pin numbers on each other’s backs, warm up on turbos, attach bespoke cycling prosthetics to shaking limbs and wait as the seconds ticked by until our start times. That flight-or-fight adrenaline-rush wait for the start gate is the worst part of racing, and Liz wasn’t immune to the nerves, but she had a steely determination at her core which was always reassuring.
I would break down in tears fairly often after races – through frustration or just being dog-tired; Liz was always more composed. But in South Africa, we were so exhausted and emotional after finishing a tough road race that we threw our prosthetic limbs onto the ground and collapsed in a heap, ending up in a sobbing tumble of arms and missing legs. Someone took a photo, and it’s one that I keep on my dressing table. Every morning I look at it and smile at the ridiculousness, remembering my beautiful friend.
But my favourite ride with Liz was in Italy, around Lake Como. We were a couple of days out from an international road race and it was a gloriously warm day so a few of us set off around the lake for a spin. I’d had a row with my coach that morning and was in a proper sulk, hanging off the back, too angry to chat. Basically ruining the ride for everyone, like you do when you’re being an immature arsehole. Liz rode alongside me for a couple of miles in silence. Then, in those dulcet tones: “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you seem a little out of sorts.” My bad mood dissolved into giggles, and the rest of the ride was blissful, as we revelled in our good fortune at representing our country in such a stunning location.
Our friendship far outlived my time with squad, and when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, Liz was one of the first people to jump onto a train and visit me, wheeling her bike beside her. It was the week before I started chemo, so we went for a pub lunch followed by wig-shopping, when she somehow managed to turn a grim outing into something hilarious, naming different wigs according to their personalities. I think I went for Pamela in the end – as Liz said, she looked like she’d enjoy a good night out on the tiles.
In 2018, Liz was still pursuing her Paralympic ambitions with the team, and looking forward to marrying her fiancé Jack, when she discovered that her bone cancer was back, 15 years after it had taken her leg. Liz and Jack got married right away. There was no time to waste. Their second wedding – the one they’d originally planned on the Dorset coast – was a truly wonderful day, attended by all their family and friends, wrapping our arms around them as if we could ward off the devastation. But of course we couldn’t.
Coronavirus meant I was unable to visit in person, so our friendship over the past few months became a flurry of ever-more expletive-ridden WhatsApp messages, as I commiserated with her as her health deteriorated. There were FaceTime calls too, when I quietly noted how pale she had become, even whilst her laugh was exactly the same.
But it was still an horrendous shock to get the call that she had died. She was 31: hard to believe that someone so vibrant should be floored in her prime. But, of course, that’s how cancer works: it doesn’t discriminate, and treatments don’t always work, especially when you have a rare version of the disease.
And that’s where Liz leaves a legacy. She set up a fund to pay for research into her type of cancer, because as Liz put it “Funding research into adamantinoma is unlikely to save my life but it may well change someone else’s.” She smashed her first fundraising target of £20,000 before she died – enough to pay for an ideas grant. The current total stands at more than £37,000, and Jack and her family intend to keep that going.
It’s breath-takingly painful to think of the loss suffered by those closest to Liz – to Jack, her parents Lesley and Jeremy and siblings Caroline and Andrew. But when I think of her, I like to imagine her chasing away, just out of reach (I never could hold her wheel) around a beautiful calm lake with the breeze in her hair and the sun on her face. Lady Shard. What a woman.