By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
In a world without motivation, 250-pound men don’t run marathons.
So, when ACU admissions officer William Horn decided to pick up his running shoes last January and trek the 26 long miles also known as a marathon, something must have been driving him.
Her name is Virginia.
One step at a time
Virginia Castro is a 19-year-old sophomore elementary education major from Abilene. When she was 15, Castro was diagnosed with Evan’s Syndrome, a form of leukemia in which the victim’s white blood cell count dips dangerously low.
“I didn’t believe them when they first told me,” said Castro, reflecting on the moment doctors first diagnosed her with cancer. “I didn’t even have any symptoms. I didn’t feel sick or weak or anything.”
But she soon would, and almost a year after the diagnosis, her spleen was removed to stop the spreading disease. Following the operation, a drowsy Castro overheard the nurses talking to her parents, telling them that she might not make it out of the hospital alive.
“At that moment I wasn’t so aware of what was happening,” she recalls, “but thinking about it now… that was kind of scary.”
But scary soon turned into hopeful, and hopeful morphed into safe. Castro left the hospital bed for the last time in December 2001, and started thinking about college soon thereafter.
Enter Horn, the man who helped bring Castro to ACU.
“Another faculty member had let me know she was a potential student,” Horn said. “They had known of her health concerns and wanted to make sure I helped her family through the normal admissions process. She really wanted to come to college, and by working with her, I started inquiring about her condition. We got to talking and developed a friendship, and she told me her whole story.”
Soon, Horn would become a key chapter to her story.
Picking up the pace
Since the Team In Training program began in 1988, participants have raised $430 million for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to find cures for blood cancers-leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma-and help improve the lives of patients and their families. Athletes can choose to participate in either a marathon, bike ride or triathlon to benefit the Society’s mission.
And the money Team In Training has raised hasn’t gone to waste. About 10 years ago, a doctor from Australia began developing a leukemia-fighting drug, Glevac. The medicine is unique because it kills the leukemia cells without harming anything else. A couple years ago, he spoke to Team In Training members and told them he didn’t have the funds to continue his research on Glevac, giving them the motivation to raise the proper funds to support the doctor’s cause.
Stephanie Fletcher, a 2001 ACU graduate who participated in Team In Training’s Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon last year, and whose 12-year-old cousin died of leukemia two years ago, will be running the Walt Disney World Marathon this year. She said she would be running in honor of Joe Canon, a leukemia patient whose life was saved by Glevac. Canon is president of Abilene’s Dodge Jones Foundation.
Horn had heard about Team In Training before; he had just never had a motivating reason to participate.
“I never really had a real-life person to motivate me,” Horn said. “But if she didn’t get the treatment or the research she needed, someone I really knew could suffer. So I had a real face to put this with, to get me out of my comfort zone and go after this goal of running a marathon.”
Horn decided he would run in the Disney Marathon on January 11, and started training and fundraising for the run in August.
“I was very excited when I found out he was going to run,” Castro says. “I was happy that he would do that just for me.”
As part of his motivation, Horn donned a plastic bracelet with Virginia’s name on it.
“It was a constant reminder on my wrist,” Horn said. “There were days I didn’t really want to get up early and train, but when I’d see her name on my wrist I knew I had to get up and run.”
In addition to extensive training, Horn had to begin a lengthy fundraising process with an end goal of $3,600. Seventy-five percent of the money each runner raises goes toward The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, while the other 25 percent goes toward the runner’s personal expenses-airfare to the site, hotel reservations and race entry fee. While some fundraising was done as a group with the rest of the Abilene-area runners (e.g., pumping gas at Albertson’s one afternoon), the primary fundraising foundation was a personal letter-writing campaign to friends, family and colleagues. This turned out to be quite a rewarding experience for Horn.
“Every day I’d go out to my mailbox and there’d be another letter,” he said. “The thing that was most encouraging to me were the notes saying ‘I appreciate you doing this; can you run in honor of my nephew,’ or something like that.”
ACU faculty and staff-some of which Horn had never even met-were quite generous as well, he said.
“That’s what really overwhelmed me,” he said. “There were people here in the ACU family I hadn’t even met that gave me substantial amounts of money. I was very, very overwhelmed at the amount of support the ACU faculty and staff gave.”
At the end of the four months, Horn had raised $4,000-well over his target-and Team In Training raised $9 million.
“That surprised me,” Castro said. “You usually don’t think about the people out there trying to help out. They really raised a lot in a short while.”
GOING THE DISTANCE
The fireworks signaling the start of the Disney Marathon went off at 6 a.m., with the 2,600 Team In Training members and their corresponding purple jerseys blending into the 22,000-strong participant pool. The race starts and begins at Epcot Center and runs through and around every major attraction in Disney World.
The 250-pound Horn hardly has a marathoner’s body, and said running the race-his first-ever marathon-was “physically the hardest thing I ever did,” but he had plenty of distractions to get his mind off of the exhaustion.
“The most awesome experience I had was running this marathon and they have actual leukemia and lymphoma patients lining the sidelines cheering you on from their wheelchairs,” he said. “There was a lot of encouragement there for us.”
Horn had set a goal to finish the race in seven hours in order to earn a Mickey Mouse-shaped medal and use it for future motivation. He did it in 6:53.44. As he came around the final stretch down the path surrounding the Epcot globe, Horn could hear the cheers coming from the bleachers blanketing the finish line.
“I came across the line, and it really was an emotional experience,” he said. As they put the medal around his neck, “tears are welling up in my eyes because I knew exactly what it took to get there but I knew it was more than just me. It was for something bigger than me, and to know that there are people actually benefiting from it, that felt really good.”
When he got back to Abilene, Horn showed Castro the medal and pictures from the run.
“I was really proud of him, that he did that,” she said. “He showed me the map of the course, and it’s a long way. I was very proud that he did that.”
Horn plans on running the Disney Marathon again on Jan. 11, 2004, but this time he’s not going alone: He’s already helped recruit around 23 people who are interested in making the run. Horn is now one of the Abilene area trainers, as is Fletcher, a fitness trainer at Hendrick Health System. On Friday, the two of them-as well as Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Dallas office coordinator Suzanne Patterson-will host a kick-off meeting for Abilene-area runners in the Living Room of the McGlothlin Campus Center. Castro, too, said she would make an appearance.
“It’s designed to solidify those who’ve signed up to run and to sign up people who might be interested,” Horn said.
Fletcher reaffirmed Horn’s notion that anyone of any shape or size is physically able to run the marathon.
“It’s the most surprising thing,” said Fletcher, who ran in the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon last year. “There’s very few in-shape people. My mom and mother-in-law are bothing running the half-marathon this year, and my mom’s never done one thing of exercise in her life.”
Castro has been out of the hospital now for two years, and hasn’t had a blood transfusion in over a year. She’s all but waiting for the doctors to tell her that her cancer is in remission. Were it not for the strength and determination of thousands of runners across the country, the funding might not have been available to see her in her current, healthy state. For anyone riding the fence on whether or not to do the marathon, says Castro, go for it.
“Do it,” she said. “It could help a person that needs the money for special medication. It could save someone’s life.”
All it takes is a little motivation.