Running Against the Odds
Sunday, March 4, a thousand men and women lined up to run the Annapolis Striders’ B&A Trail Marathon. Among them, 71-year-old Minnesotan Don Wright stood poised to begin his 63rd marathon in 44 states.
Only six states stand between Wright and his goal to complete a marathon in all 50 states.
Wright is training, traveling around the country and completing several marathons every year, as he has been for the last eight years — while fighting multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer.
“When I got the disease, it wasn’t hurting me yet, so I was in denial,” Wright says. “I am still in denial, and I plan on staying in denial.”
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells that attacks and destroys bone. There are about 100,000 patients with 20,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. Causes are unknown; however, certain professions involving exposure to nuclear radiation, pesticides and petrochemicals have a higher risk factor.
One State at a Time
Wright started running a decade ago to lose weight. He ran his first marathon about two years later, days before his diagnosis. He kept running, determined to qualify for the coveted Boston Marathon, a goal he achieved in the first race after his diagnosis, Minnesota’s Twin Cities Marathon. Next, Wright headed to Arizona for a downhill marathon in Tucson.
His marathon quest evolved one state at a time.
“We started to pick off other states, never expecting that we’d be able to do 50 states,” Wright says. “It takes time if you want to do a few marathons a year, and I didn’t know how much time I had.”
Eight years ago, Wright’s survival time was estimated at about five years. He attributes his energy and his cancer’s stability to a pill he has taken every night for the last four years. It’s an investigational drug still in the trial stages.
“I’ve met people who are no longer with us because of this disease,” Wright says. “It’s a serious thing, but because of this drug, we’re going all over the country celebrating life and really having a wonderful time.”
We is Wright plus his wife and daughter, who travel with him to each race and run either alongside him or in an accompanying half-marathon.
Cancer isn’t slowing Wright down, but he has suffered from a sports hernia — an abdominal wall strain — since August. His usual schedule of running 30-plus miles each week has been reduced to long walks, often through his local mall in Lake Elmo, just east of Minneapolis-St. Paul, to stay out of the cold winter mornings.
To help heal, Wright has adopted a routine of 30 seconds of running followed by 90 seconds of walking throughout a race. At that pace, he can finish within the race cutoff time (six hours for the B&A Trail Marathon) while avoiding further injury.
On Sunday, Wright finished in 5:32:47. Time, however, matters less to him than the running itself.
“I like to imagine that I’m just floating, that there’s no effort to it at all,” Wright says. “I’m just kind of drifting across the landscape, watching the houses and the trees and the other people go by. That’s one of my favorite things.”
Wright attributes his active lifestyle in helping hold off the cancer. His next marathon is in June in Alaska, followed by races in Vermont, New Hampshire, West Virginia, New Mexico and, in December, Hawaii. That’s 50.
“I think about the people I know who can’t do this,” Wright says, “and how lucky I am to be able to do it.”
Wright’s running raises money for two charities, Team Continuum (www.teamcontinuum.com) and Tackle Cancer (http://tacklecancerfoundation.org). Both help cancer patients and their families pay for living expenses.