From the Heart: Michael Westphal fights Parkinson’s disease

Michael Westphal (Photo courtesy of Mount Desert Island Marathon)

Parkinson’s disease affects approximately one million people in the United States. It’s a progressive disease that causes a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that primarily affects the motor systems. Stiff and aching muscles, tremors, difficulty with balance and simple movements most of us take for granted are just a few of the symptoms individuals with this disease must often face. Michael Westphal was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006 and thought that his running days were over, but this inspirational athlete refused to let it stop him. Quite the opposite, he decided to take on a marathon and raise money for the Michael J Fox foundation.

Westphal ran competitively in high school and college, but life and work got in the way and running was squeezed out.  After his diagnosis, he thought running wouldn’t be an option. Then, last summer he questioned that after watching his close friend complete two 500-plus mile adventures of his own. He started running again and discovered it helped him feel stronger and more himself. His family and friends were inspired by his spirit and motivation and his Cranberry Island community came out to support his 26.2 miles and his first attempt at this distance in 20 years.

At 58, Westphal signed up for the Great Run Marathon to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He set a goal of $4,000 and was just hoping to come in under 4 hours for the marathon. Not only did he draw attention to Parkinson’s disease and the need for more research, he more than exceeded his fundraising goal and came in with a Boston qualifying time. He’s raised over $32,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  Founded in 2000, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has invested $450 million dollars to date towards research. These funds go to create better medicine for those living with Parkinson’s disease and ultimately finding a cure.

A marathon is hard to begin with, but the added challenge of running it with a body that doesn’t respond the way it should is especially remarkable. He had friends and family running along his side.  His son joined him for the first 10 miles and his brother and friend joined him for the second 10 miles. He maintained an 8:05 pace for the first 10 miles, which was faster than what he needed for his goal of a sub-four hour marathon. He ran negative splits until he hit the wall at mile 20. Marathoners are familiar with hitting the wall, but for Wetphal , it was more than most of us experience.

By mile 20, his medicine had worn off and he fell to the pavement because his legs were no longer firing properly. He had to slow down and walk at times, but he pushed through and never stopped. At mile 20 he took a dose of carbidopa/levodopa, a medication for Parkinson’s patients that helps their muscles fire. All the water he had consumed along the course prevented it from kicking in before the finish line and Westphal struggled with the final 6.2 miles. With the finish line in view and spectators cheering him on, Westphal pushed to the end, even with his legs giving out. He fell to the ground at times and struggled to balance, but he kept moving forward.

Westphal dreamed big, but had no idea his reality would far surpass those dreams. His fundraising campaign earned over $32,000 instead of the $4,000 he was hoping to raise. He ran well under a 4 hours marathon, with a 3:32:56. He’s planning to run the Boston Marathon in 2016 and hopefully raise more money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Beyond his personal goals, he inspired everyone watching the marathon that day and anyone who has watched it since. Westphal wants to remind people that magic happens with passion and encourages others to make their lives a little more joyful. Everyone can take a lesson from him, if he can still see joy and experience magic with the challenges he’s been dealt, we all can.

Outrunning Parkinson’s from Peter Logue on Vimeo.

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