TO HALF OR NOT HALF!
There I was, minding my own business while on vacation in Mexico City during Thanksgiving week - November 2009. While visiting the Aztec city of Teotihuacan, I walked down the ancient main street known as Avenida de Los Muertos or Avenue of the Dead. I climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and shortly thereafter suffered a life-changing heart attack. After 96 marathons, this came as a total surprise to my doctor and to me. I flew home, against medical advice, went immediately to the hospital some 48 hours after the event, and had the first of two surgeries, the latter being a quadruple by-pass the day after Thanksgiving.
The recovery process was long and arduous while not running for OVER seven months. I fought my way back, remaining positive, walking marathon after marathon, and finally completed my 100th marathon in Athens, Greece on October 31, 2010, eleven months after the by-pass surgery. Both 2010 and 2011 were challenging, as the running was not coming back as expected, but had taken a spiraling downward turn. Being diabetic did not help either, as it slowed the healing process. At one point I almost walked away from running and walking altogether after 32 years of pounding the pavement regularly.
I came to terms with myself and decided that the only way to continue walking and running was to set a long-term goal. I had hit bottom and it was not a pretty picture, so…I boldly declared to my family, friends and fellow runners that I was going to run 100 half marathons, which was not small task. I started 2012 with only 24 half marathons over a 32 year period, so 76 more half’s was a far reach, but I was determined to stay focused and see it through, at all cost. I am happy to say that on March 15, 2015, I will accomplish that task at the Shamrock'n Half Marathon. I have a sign in my office that reads: “HELL & BACK - 26.2 MILES - WEEKENDS”.
Michael Brandt is 72 years old and is a veteran marathoner having completed 108 marathons on all Seven Continents, and fifteen countries. Michael is an “extremophile” and if there’s an adventure lurking in some distant part of the world, Michael is usually up for the challenge.
Just listening to Cari Prater over the phone you know she’s full of life and very energetic. She talks fast, hardly pausing to take a breath. When she talks about her own two boys Trenton and Ronin and her husband and her students she is so filled with love and passion.
Cari had just turned 37 on Dec. 22, 2014 she was working full time as an 8th grade math teacher at Cooley Middle School in Roseville, she was working on her masters and wrapping up her Administrative credential at Sacramento State. But something just wasn’t right. She was tired -but who wouldn’t be with two young boys and her schedule? She would run out of breath when she sat down at night with her son Trenton to read a story. She also had lumps in her neck. She describes finishing the paper for her administrative credential and turning it in and then sleeping from Saturday to Wednesday morning, too exhausted to get up.
It wasn’t long after January 15, 2014 (her mom’s 70th birthday) that she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a blood cancer in her lymph nodes. She didn’t think she had anything serious so she took the call from her doctor at 8:58 am that morning in her classroom before the students arrived. After she hung up the phone she still taught all day although in a daze. In a way she said she was almost relieved that she’d been diagnosed because her cancer was treatable and she could get on with her life and get better.
On January 28, 2014 (her dad’s 78th birthday) she started her first chemo appointment. She received chemo every two weeks for six months during which she took a leave of absence from teaching.
Although she’d been married for 12 years and her husband was with her, she clung to her mom on her first day of treatment, admitting how scared she was. She has an amazing father in-law and he drove her to many of the treatments that followed because she was too “loopy” to drive, she said.
Like many chemo patients she had side effects. She explained how nauseous she was for six months. She couldn’t eat. She took steroids to combat the nausea but that didn’t help and to add insult to injury she gained 20 pounds.
Cari cut her hair off around day 17 of her treatment. Her doctor told her not to shave it, so she’d keep finding it all over the house. Her son joked once that she had a bald spot on the back of her head like “Poppy”. During chemo her hair became curly. Today her kids cuddle up to her and pet her new healthy straight hair.
Her illness took a toll on her young sons. While she was receiving treatment she enrolled her boys in an art therapy session for kids at Sutter. It was at their last art therapy session that someone told her about Triumph Fitness, a program for cancer survivors to help them regain their strength and stamina following cancer treatment. The program was offered at no cost to survivors through the Triumph Cancer Foundation. Cari applied and was accepted into the program along with 6 other survivors. She describes her two instructors Joe and Diane as amazing! They met every Monday and Wednesday from 5:30 pm to 7 pm. for twelve weeks. Although she’d finished her chemotherapy and had gone back to work part time in August of 2014 she was still really tired. She’d teach from 9-Noon and go home and sleep until 5pm.
In her first session at Triumph Fitness she remembers just raising her arms. Her trainers helped her focus on “Wednesday Wins”-where she described accomplishments as her fitness progressed like sitting and reading to her son for 45 minutes and not getting out of breath. Another “Wednesday Win” for Cari was around Halloween when she and her son were at the grocery store choosing a pumpkin. He chose one that was about the size of a beach ball. It was too big for him to carry but she plucked up with one arm and carried it to the check-out stand. By the end of the twelve weeks she could hold a plank and do mountain climbers.
Cari describes Triumph Fitness as “meeting you where you are at and giving you lots of options to move forward”. If you didn’t feel up to walking on the elliptical, you could ride on a stationary bike instead. The instructors always found ways to keep the participants motivated, engaged, and moving. Each survivor made an agreement to attend every class - even if they felt too tired. Cari says it was also a bit of life coaching by realizing the small wins. By going through Triumph Fitness, she talks about getting her life back.
Pam Whitehead a cancer survivor herself established Triumph Fitness in 2004, and the nonprofit Triumph Cancer Foundation in 2011. She talks to each group at their initial orientation. She mentioned the Shamrock’n 5k to Cari at her orientation. Remember, Cari could barely lift her arms above her head. She thought Pam was crazy suggesting she could enter a 5k in 7 months.
On March 14th Cari, along with her husband and older son Ronin, are going to participate in the Shamrock’n 5k as part of Team Triumph. Her younger son Trenton and assorted family members will be in the stands to cheer her on as she crosses the finish line. Cari says doing this 5k is a sign that she’s putting her cancer behind her, thanks to Triumph Fitness. To learn more about this amazing program, visit Triumph’s website at www.triumphfound.org.
The beginning of January was a turning point for 26 year old Katie Gonzales. She told herself 2015 was going to be the year she ran her first half marathon and she set her sites on March 15 for the Blue Diamond Almonds Shamrock'n Half. There were several reasons she wanted to run 13.1 miles- she wanted to challenge herself so she chose a long run that she knew would require discipline to train in the months ahead. Like many of us she also trains to clear her head.
Shamrock'n is also special to Haley Gonzales, Katie's older sister. In 2012 she crossed the finish line to complete her first half marathon at Shamrock'n. She is passionate about running and physical fitness. She has gone on to receive her certificate as a personal trainer as of 2014. She even started 2015 as a running coach for Kaia Fit
Both sisters look at physical activity as a gift and never take being able to run for granted. When the girls were just teenagers their uncle Armando was in an accident on Christmas Eve and as a result became paralyzed. Although he only lived six years following his accident his memory lives on and continues to inspire both Katie and Haley to set and achieve goals for themselves.
Although Haley is a seasoned runner and she says humbly faster than her sister Katie she is so excited that on March 15 the two will be starting together. Haley will be encouraging her sister to the finish line.
It's an unusually sunny day for early March and I've come to see first-hand what Project Fit is all about. The 30 young runners with Project Fit at the Aspire Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park all between 8 and 13 are running circles around me. Literally.
Today their coach, Kaitlan Gotfried has something special planned for their 45 minute weekly Project Fit session. She starts them off with a warm-up to get them ready for the 20 minute timed session of laps they are going to do. Each student also receives an index card which they proudly present to her to scribble a hash mark as they reach her to tally their laps. These kids are excited, competitive, and smiling as they complete each new lap. Coach Gotfried keeps things moving too, she's shouting words of encouragement as they round the playground over the pulsing music she's brought out to keep things lively. It's working, these kids have tons of energy!
They share the playground with other kids who are playing basketball in an after-school child care program on the inner circle of the blacktop. There's not a separate running track on a grassy field just a yellow lane painted on the blacktop.
These 30 students with Project Fit are in this free after-school running program for 12 weeks. They have each signed a contract which holds them accountable to participate every Thursday. If they have more than two unexcused absences they no- longer get to participate. As part of this special running group each child receives a Project Fit t-shirt which they wear proudly.
Each week Coach Gotfried plans something for them to keep them motivated. She knows that this may be the only physical activity these kids have outside of their school PE class and she works hard to engage them so they don't get bored and lose interest. There's no chance of that in her Project Fit sessions. Last week, she had them practicing dribbling relays which was linked to their PE class which was all about basketball.
Coach Gotfried has been part of Project Fit for four years. She gets excited talking about how this one hour a week program brings on such positive changes in the kids. They are fully engaged, and work hard at achieving new goals to run just a little farther or faster. This also translates into the classroom where they are more focused and proud of their achievements too. She points out that she also wants the kids to take away that running is a platform for so many things and is incorporated in lots of different activities.
Their 20 minutes are over and these kids have spent most of their energy. They pile into the gymnasium for some much needed water and a healthy snack and cool down exercises. There's still lot's of healthy competition and laughter as they proudly tell each other how many laps they completed. They settle down long enough for a quick group photo and to find out who Coach Gotfried has picked for "giving it all they could" at their practice. This isn't necessarily the fastest runner. There's five additional prizes for the top 5 runners. All get to pick something from a prize box she's put together.
I can see how determined these kids are. Over the next few weeks these kids will be taking their new running skills on the road as they compete in several organized runs like ZooZoom. Coming from a Title One school their run entries are underwritten by Project Fit. When the kids talk about their upcoming trip to run ZooZoom they can hardly contain their excitement. One of the faster students has his sites bent on outrunning the costumed chicken that leads the kids run at ZooZoom. He's never been outrun and he came close to beating him last year. All I can say is-watch out chicken there's going to be a throw down at the Zoo in April!