Team Parkinson at the Suzuki Rock and Roll Marathon, San Diego - 06/01/2003

John Ball, Team Parkinson Co-chair, shares his experience from the Suzuki Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego, CA:

Well, it’s been a week since our Team Parkinson event in San Diego, and I just returned from my first run since the race. I just felt like taking the week off…not really sure why, but maybe it was because there was so little response to the event. To be honest, I put a lot of work into getting ready to run my second marathon of this year, and due to injuries and schedule changes, I ended up running the marathon by myself. My usual training partners were either broken down from over-training or away on business trips. We had compressed a lot of running into the last two weeks before the event, including a 20 mile work out with just two weeks to go, and a half-marathon race on Memorial Day, just six days before the marathon. Then Saturday, the day before the marathon, Mark and Doug took Mike out for a run and ran him into the ground. They had nothing to lose because they were both on their way to Japan the next morning. Mike had planned to run the second half of Sunday’s race with me, but became quite ill after the hard Saturday workout. So I ran a solo marathon for the first time since we started Team Parkinson four years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t alone on the course, not by any stretch of imagination. In fact, I was surrounded by hundreds, or even thousands of runners at all times - most of them wearing the colors of Team-in-Training (or TNT as they now call themselves.) Nearly half of the 20,000 people who signed up for the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon were members of Team-in-Training from chapters all over the country. They are a non-profit charity like Team Parkinson, and use the marathon to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma. The difference between their organization and ours is more than simply scale, however, as they commit each runner who trains with them to a fixed target for fund-raising. In return, TNT provides an excellent training program, including coaching, travel arrangements and entry into a key big-city marathon like San Diego. It takes a huge staff of professionals and volunteers to accomplish this, and I’m sure that must consume a considerable chunk of overhead expenses. Team Parkinson has been an all-volunteer effort so far, with no permanent staff. We try to minimize our overhead expenses in order to maximize the value of the money we raise for research. We want all of it to reach the people working on a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Our "Carbo-load dinner" on Saturday night before the race was a small affair, almost like having dinner with my own personal rooting section. There was my wife (and Team P co-chair) Edna, and my parents who happen to live in San Diego County, along with Carol Walton (our mentor, and Executive Director of The Parkinson Alliance) and my former high school track coach, Dick Sweet. Imagine the novelty of coming home to run a marathon in my hometown 41 years after graduating from high school, and still being able to enjoy the company of your high school coach! As far as I can determine, I’m the only one from our team still running regularly, or at least competing in marathons. I don’t know if I should say that I run in spite of living with Parkinson’s disease for more than half my life, or because I live with the disease.

As Carol and Edna and I walked from our hotel down to dinner in Old Town, we were stopped by two men on the street, one of whom had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about a year ago. They were coming from the restaurant to which we were headed, and had overheard much discussion about tomorrow’s marathon. They recognized our Team Parkinson T-shirts and were curious about the connection between Parkinson’s and the marathon. We talked briefly about our mission, gave them one of our business cards, and the man with PD promised to get in touch. He seemed genuinely interested in starting a running program to improve his fitness level, and wanted to join us at our next event. Fortunately, he has already followed up with an email to Team Parkinson.

Dinner was excellent, the company was superb, and before long, I was ready for bed. Unlike Los Angeles, the San Diego Marathon gets off to a very early start, which is probably a little tough for its primary entertainment. Most of the rock and roll bands that line the course probably didn’t go to bed between their Saturday nightclub gigs and their Sunday morning street engagements. A couple of them sounded a little ragged as a result, but they were out there on the street, playing as early as 6 am. I got up about 5 am and Edna took me over to the start area, or as near as we could get in the car. San Diego was in a perpetual traffic jam from 5 am to well past noon from the marathon. I kissed Edna goodbye at the bottom of Laurel Street and walked up the hill to Sixth, up near the entrance to Balboa Park. As a kid, that was one of my favorite places to go in San Diego, particularly the Zoo.

As race time drew near, I lined up well back of the starting line in my pace group, back with the slowpokes. I go with the five-hour guys now; not the four-hour guys like a few years back. After the gun finally sounded, it took me eight minutes to get to the start line. It was a very different feeling from the Los Angeles Marathon, very laid-back, almost unemotional, and yet I could see that even back among the five-hour hopefuls, there were many well-trained runners. The weather was perfect, overcast and cool for June, and the bits of conversation I heard were usually about the hard work most everyone had put in to get ready. People seemed amazingly focused and confident. Even the obvious neophytes seemed certain they would finish. Although it didn’t have the celebrity air that surrounds the LA Marathon, I did see Bill Walton standing among - and above - the crowd near the starting line. He is a local product, and attended the same high school my older brother did. I must say he looks a little weathered for someone who graduated from high school five years after I did.

I ran the first several miles in a comfortable pace, not wanting to push myself too hard early, but I found that without Mark alongside with his constant attention to the clock, I just let the walk and run intervals happen as they might. I did notice that my tendency was to shorten the walk and lengthen the run. By mile 10 I was running constant 10-minute miles and probably getting a little ahead of myself. Then I saw Dick Sweet alongside the road cheering for me and I wanted to go even faster. The crowd wasn’t as big as LA, but in some cases the entertainment was better. On the other hand, there were sections of the race along stretches of the freeway, which were isolated from the spectators and the bands, and just plain dull to run. Once past the halfway mark, we had circled back toward Mission Bay and more residential communities, and the crowd picked back up.

But while the crowd was picking up enthusiasm, I was starting to unwind a little. It kept getting harder and harder to stay on or near the pace I’d planned, and then it struck me that I hadn’t yet taken my mid-morning dose of medications. I was at mile 14 when I finally stopped to take my Sinemet, Permax and Comtan. I think that’s the farthest I have run on one dose in the last five years. Unfortunately, it meant that I was behind the curve and it took the next five miles for the medication level to get back up to full effectiveness…those were five tough miles to get through and I lost about 10 minutes off my goal. But when I hit the 20-mile marker, I could feel the truth to the adage "the race doesn’t start till mile 20." My medications were working well once more, and I felt like running, while many people all around me were running into "the wall." I must have passed a couple thousand runners in the next three to four miles. Even without trying to calculate my revised pace in my head, I knew I could finish in less than five hours, and it was a good feeling. As good as I felt at mile 20, I suspected that there was still a "wall" waiting for me somewhere before the finish. Just to be on the safe side, I backed off my pace from mile 24 on to the end, but I still finished in 4 hours, 54 minute, and felt good about the accomplishment.

The marathon finished on the parade ground of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, which just happens to be where I worked that summer of 1962 before I left San Diego to go to college. It was a very nice homecoming. Overall, it was a great day for me personally, but I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t quite as much of a success for Team Parkinson. We raised less money than we had hoped for, and had less of a presence in the race than we had planned. In this case, I think that both of our goals suffered from our own success at LA. The San Diego race is too close -both geographically and on the calendar- to Los Angeles.

Team Parkinson may have achieved less than we had hoped for, but I certainly wouldn’t call the weekend’s effort a failure, because we learned a lot from the experience, and we got to spend time with family, old friends, and our mentor, Carol Walton. Her normal visits are such a whirlwind of activity that there is little time to relax and talk and enjoy each other’s company. On this trip we had time to talk about the present nature of Team Parkinson, and plan for the future. We learned something new about what will and won’t work in the future, and we learned more about the commitment required in the local community to make out of town events successful. The only real failure in such a weekend would be the failure to learn anything from it. And that certainly didn’t happen! Besides, I got to run a fun race in the city I grew up in.

John Ball, Team Parkinson Co-chair

I would like to thank Barbara Huntington and Viktoria Nikolova for helping with arrangements in San Diego. Thanks too, to Dave Hodges of Poway, California, and Angela Bolger of Spring Valley, California who signed up to run for Team Parkinson. Although we didn’t get a chance to meet them during the weekend, they both finished the event. Angela was a few minutes ahead of me and Dave a few behind. Perhaps it was most valuable as a learning experience, giving us a better idea of what will and won’t work as we expand our concept of Team Parkinson.