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A New Week of Running

David Yon, June 12, 2017 rev June 20

Life moves on quickly, anxious to leave the troubles and the joys behind just to wander.  So, Google tells me the Earth spins at about 1,000 miles per hour around the equator.  The sun and the earth “mill around” the Galaxy at 43,000 mph.  I think I am starting to understand why I feel like I can never catch up. Well, that seemed impressive until I read a little further and found out the earth travels at 66,000 miles an hour around the sun to make its annual orbit. Of course, if you really want to watch them fly, check them out as they whip around the Milky Way at 483,000 m.p.h.  No wonder I can never catch up.

Sometimes that speed is good – like when it comes to Parkinson’s research where there is a lot going on. While this particular story is not about research per se, it did arrive, in part, in the Fox Focus, a publication produced by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which raises a lot of money for research for Parkinson’s. The Spring/Summer edition arrived recently and it included another excellent reason to continue my hero worship of Joan Benoit Samuelson. (You know, that woman who won the first Olympic Marathon gold medal for women in 1984.

It also included an inspiring example of how best to deal with Parkinson’s Disease by Michael Westphal.  Of course, I am reminded of a quote I have heard often, including from my own doctor: “If you have seen one person with Parkinson’s, you have seen one person with Parkinson’s.”  While my own experience certainly suggest that every case is different, one message keeps coming through loud and clear and applies to everyone. Exercise, especially vigorous exercise, is a major tool for maintaining the best quality of life possible with the disease.  It doesn’t have to be running, but that became Westphal’s choice.

Michael Westphal was a very talented runner from Maine with a personal best marathon time of 2:29:50. He grew up near Joan Benoit and his sister often raced against Joan in high school.  In 1979, they both ran the Boston Marathon with Samuelson winning the event in an American Record time of 2:35:15 and Westphal finishing in around 2:30 minutes. Westphal stopped serious competitive running in 1994, however, and focused on making a living.  In 2006, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. His first efforts to run after his diagnosis did not go so well.

At first, Westphal simply had a sore left shoulder. Then the left side of his body felt achy and tight and his movements started to change. That was his first experience with the symptoms of Parkinson's. "It was so sore and so tight that my arm swing was very awkward, and I just didn't look right running," he told an ESPN analyst. "I couldn't bear to do it." And so, he didn’t.

But the symptoms just kept getting worse.  Still, it wasn’t until sometime in 2012 (the year I was diagnosed) that he was inspired by a friend to start running again.  He started slowly and gradually pushed further and faster and found many of the symptoms of his Parkinson’s would disappear while he was running.  He became “fluid” while he ran and began producing some very “fluid times.” Soon enough he decided to the Great Run Marathon in Cranberry Island, Maine, his home town race. The course was out and back on a 4-mile loop, perfect for his needs. He started well, but then slowly began running out of gas.  He hit the proverbial wall at 20 miles and shortly after doing so took a dose of carbidopa-levodopa, a synthetic dopamine-replacement medication.

Westphal told Runners World: “I think the one and only low point [of the race] was having to slow down and walk a few times because of the low dopamine levels in my body.  I think [the medication] didn’t kick in because of the large volume of fluids I was drinking.” Still, he made his way toward the finish line and, despite falling twice near the end, ran a 3:32:56 marathon.  He ran a couple more marathons, one a 3:40, before connecting with Samuelson again.  Samuelson had never run a marathon in her home state of Maine and Westphal had his eye set on the 2017 Sugarloaf Marathon.  Both runners turned 60 this past May.   And so, it came to be that on May 21, 2017, he and Joan Samuelson completed the Sugarloaf Marathon in times of 3:12:33 and 3:12:27, respectfully.   I don’t know how hard Samuelson had to work to finish in 3:12:27, but I bet she will run a good bit faster in the near future.  Sub 3 at 60 years old?  It would not surprise me.

Well, it is another week of craziness ahead.  My hamstring is not well, but it sure is feeling a lot better.  I remember finishing that first marathon after my Parkinson’s diagnosis, Vermont City Marathon, the same morning as a friend lost a battle with ALS.  I finished in a little over 3:25:00, a time that once would have made me quite unhappy, but thrilled me that day. 

Whether viewed from 43,000 m.p.h., 483,000 m.p.h., or a 3:12 marathon pace, it is hard to predict where this world will take us.  For now, maybe I will see if I can follow that inspiring trail that Ms. Samuelson and Mr. Westphal recently took.