Record turnout as City of Oaks Marathon, other races battle cancer

jneff@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2013 

Editor's note: This story incorrectly reported Matt Templeton's employer as C.H. Ferguson. He works for C.H. Robinson.

RALEIGH - In February, Andy Downs had to summon all his strength to stagger down a hallway at Duke University Medical Center. In preparation for a stem-cell transplant, wrenching rounds of chemotherapy had wiped out his white blood cells and left him anemic.

On Sunday, Downs finished the City of Oaks marathon in four hours and a handful of seconds: his best time ever.

Training for a punishing 26-mile race may not be everyone's idea of fun, but it was a lifesaver for Downs, 54. Blood cancer had seized control of his body, hijacked his family and dominated his dreams and waking thoughts.

Downs regained control by running.

“I am very sore and very emotional,” Downs said after the race, his voice cracking and tears mixing with his sweat. “It’s been a long few months.”

Downs and 56 others – cancer survivors, family members and volunteers – ran and raised $75,000 Sunday for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was a glorious day for running in Raleigh, clear, crisp and cloudless.  

Massed on Hillsborough Street by the NC State Belltower, the runners fidgeted, stretched and hopped in the chilly automn air. Upbeat thumpa-thumpa music – “Celebrate,” “YMCA” and “We Are Family” – bounced off the brick buildings lining Hillsborough Street.

At the stroke of 7, the runners sped straight east into the glare of a golden rising sun.

Bryan Morseman, 28, of Addison, NY was first place in the marathon, finishing at 2:27:29 to win the $1,300 prize. Kimberlie Meeker, a 33-year-old from Raleigh, won the women’s race at 2:50:08. She also collected a $1,300 prize.

About 5,500 people registered for the marathon, the Rex Healthcare Half-Marathon, the Old Reliable 10K and the YMCA Marathon Mile for kids. But not all showed: By day’s end, 4,315 pairs of Nikes, Adidas, Vibram Five Toes and other shoes padded the city’s streets and greenways.

Wahula was most impressed by another number: 750, the number of volunteers staffing the race.

Looking closely, one could spy a few changes brought on by the April bombing of the Boston Marathon. There were plain-clothes police in attendance. Backpacks were not accepted at the bag check; all belongings had to be put in clear plastic bags.

Fighting pain, battling disease

Downs didn’t have any outward symptoms when his family doctor noticed irregularities in his blood tests in 2011. A hemotologist subsequently diagnosed myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. After the chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, he started a baby-step regime back to health: Run five steps, walk 50 yards, repeat.

On Sunday, he had two moments where he thought he wouldn’t finish the race. As he struggled up a hill on House Creek Trail, a spectator saw him faltering and shouted out, “Someday, you won’t be able to do this, but today is not that day!”

At Mile 24, his legs were cramping fiercely when he heard his fiancee, Shery Boyles. Her shouts and encouragement pushed him the last two miles.

Matt Templeton of Raleigh ran for his elder child, Lindsay. At 3 she was diagnosed with leukemia. The family spent six months at Brenner’s Children Hospital in Winston-Salem, living in a Ronald McDonald house and running down their savings.

Now 8, Lindsay has been cancer-free for five years.

“My calves are on fire,” Matt Templeton said at race’s end, as his daughter ran up to hug him.

“Daddy!” said Lindsay, before pulling back and wrinkling her nose. “He’s sweaty and stinky!”

It was Templeton’s first marathon, and he finished in a respectable 3 hours and 33 minutes.

Templeton had organized a squad of eight runners from his employer, C.H. Robinson, to run Sunday. Each raised at least $1,000.

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