Don Wright was about 20 miles into December’s Honolulu Marathon when he had to slow down.
The 26.2-mile race had all but exhausted the 72-year-old; he was content with taking a breather.
“Then here’s this old guy,” said Wright, of Lake Elmo. “I said something to him in English, he responded in Japanese. So we’re not talking. He held out his palm, he drew the figure eight and the figure six. He was 86 years old. And he was passing me, uphill.”
When Wright crossed the finish line, he also broke the tape on his goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. In June, it will be 10 years since he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer with no cure that often manifests itself in bone or back pain.
His fight with cancer isn’t over — and neither is his inspiration to run.
“That guy … he’s my hero,” Wright said of his Japanese cohort. “More people have climbed Mt. Everest than have completed a marathon in all 50. Some take a lifetime to do it.”
It took Wright less than 10 years.
Since being diagnosed in June 2003, Wright has logged 1,835 miles in 70 marathons across 50 states — with an additional 10,000-plus miles in shorter races and fun runs. Wright’s motivation in each step, aside from his wife, Ardis, and his daughter, Sarah, who run with him during most events, is to help others by raising money for cancer patients to help pay their medical bills.
Each race, which includes upcoming marathons on Cape Cod and in Virginia, Wright runs for Team Continuum, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to help cover daily living expenses for cancer victims and their families who are tied to medical bills.
Wright also runs for Tacklecancerfoundation.org, a nonprofit with similar goals.
“A lot of people put on headphones and kind of zone out, but I enjoy the running,” he said. “I like the feeling of drifting across the landscape, floating by the houses or woods. I feel like I’m sticking my finger in the eye of that cancer. And I like that.”
Multiple myeloma is a blood disease in which plasma cells grow out of control in bone marrow and often form tumors in areas of solid bone that lead to bone or back pain. The cancer strikes 22,000 Americans each year, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths.
Wright wouldn’t have likely beaten those odds if it weren’t for the recently FDA-approved drug pomalidomide — a once-daily pill that Wright takes instead of undergoing the traditional chemotherapy treatments, which could have halted his running lifestyle.
Dr. Martha Lacy, Wright’s physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, said Wright’s attitude combined with the drug have created a winning combination.
“He’s consistently upbeat and positive,” Lacy said. “I think that’s why the treatments have worked so well for him. He’s been lucky enough to get a good drug, too.”
Wright took part in a 225-person study in March 2008 that allowed him to try the then-experimental drug. Now that it’s approved, Wright and Lacy are unsure of his future with the drug.
Wright, surrounded by space heaters and a few yoga mats, plopped a catalog on the table in his Lake Elmo home. A picture of him, sporting a track suit, graced the cover of the 2011 annual report for Celgene — the company that makes Wright’s “miracle drug,” as he called it.
Wright isn’t eligible to be prescribed pomalidomide because of his treatment history; he’s only eligible to take it when he’s a part of the study.
“They’re happy I’m running marathons,” Wright said, pointing at the cover. “I suppose they’d like to keep me happy.”
Since starting the treatment almost five years ago, Wright has completed 43 marathons in 36 states.
“Actually, running is pretty good for bone density,” Lacy said. “Luckily his bones are in good shape.”
Wright gives hope to doctors like Lacy, who say her staff is “tickled” to be able to prescribe the drug to more cancer patients in the hopes of giving them a normal lifestyle.
If Wright can’t continue taking pomalidomide, he said he’s fine with moving onto the next treatment — just as he moves onto his next running ambition.
“My goal, this is an aspirational goal, first you have to live this long,” he said. “But I’d love to run a 5k at age 100.”
Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.