Marathon runners know that the 26.2-mile races provide plenty of opportunities for humbling moments. For Don Wright, the first occurs when the horn goes off and he crosses the starting line.
For Wright, 70, each race is another step in his battle to ward off multiple myeloma, a cancer that has no cure and often manifests itself through bone or back pain. It's also an opportunity to raise money to help other cancer patients pay their medical bills.
"I get very emotional at the start, almost weepy," said Wright, of Lake Elmo. "As I'm drifting past the scenery, I think about how fortunate I am and how I'm sticking my finger in the eye of the cancer."
Since he was diagnosed with myeloma eight years ago, Wright has logged more than 1,400 miles in completing 57 marathons in 38 states. He's won awards for first-place finishes in his age group and clocked times that allowed him to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon.
It's always a thrill to cross the finish line, Wright said, but his proudest accomplishment has been making life better for others.
In each race -- including the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 30 and his second New York City Marathon on Nov. 6 -- 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 saddled with medical bills. Donations can be made at www.startribune.com/a721.
"Running for a great organization like Team Continuum is a way for me to help others lead better lives with cancer," he said.
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. It strikes about 20,000 Americans each year and leads to nearly 14,000 deaths. Life expectancy for those with the second most-common hematological malignancy is now around seven years, according to the International Myeloma Foundation.
Wright has already beaten those odds, and even though the cancer could sideline him any day, he jokes that his two most immediate concerns are runner's knee and a sports hernia.
Wright has been able to keep myeloma's ill effects at bay by skipping traditional chemotherapy and instead taking the experimental drug Pomalidomide daily. He makes monthly trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for checkups. Running is his best form of physical therapy.
"The weight-bearing actually helps preserve bone density," said Dr. Martha Lacy, Wright's physician at Mayo who has studied the illness for more than 15 years. "He's got lots of stamina and his attitude is amazing. He is focused on being well. He's quite a guy."
Although he ran cross country in high school, Wright only dabbled in running over the next few decades until he rediscovered his "runner's urge" when he was in his early 60s, the age when myeloma is most likely to occur. He ran and completed his first marathon -- Grandma's in Duluth -- in 4:30:11 in 2003. Just days later, he was diagnosed with the cancer.
"I was shocked. I had no symptoms," said Wright, a former innovator at Maplewood's 3M Co. "I thought 'I have to hurry before it's too late to run Boston.'"
He achieved that goal in 2004, clocking in at 4:16:07, which led to the larger goal of completing at least one marathon in all 50 states. He's made it to 41 so far, cheered on by his biggest fans: his wife, Ardis, and daughter, Sarah, who run with him during most of his events.
Wright's remarkable achievements -- physically and medically -- are giving doctors hope that one day there will be a cure for myeloma. While they still do not know what causes it, treatments such as Pomalidomide are allowing victims to live longer and maintain a higher quality of life, Lacy said.
"We have been impressed with the drug," said Lacy, who noted that Wright is among 225 patients who are in a study group which allowed him to be put on the experimental drug. . "It doesn't work for everybody, but there has been a high response," Lacy said.
It's not a cure-all, however, and symptoms could arise at any time. Wright said he has three hot spots in his bones and that makes him a bit nervous.
"There is just no way to know," he said. "I have no intentions of letting that happen, but I've had a good life if that happens."
Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 • Twitter: @timstrib