John Ball takes Team Parkinson to Norway - 06/18/2009

I was invited to visit Norway by Roar Eikenes, who has represented Team Parkinson in marathons around the world.  The invitation was for the two of us to run the Norwegian Mountain Half-Marathon together. Well, I ‘d like to report that my half-marathon was a success, completed in 2:01:15, which is a pretty good time for me, but that's not really the full story. In fact, it’s kind of minor compared to the rest of the trip. To borrow a line from Clint Eastwood, there’s a “good, bad and ugly” aspect to this story.  The “ugly” would certainly refer to the air travel portions. It took more than 24 hours both to get there and to get back - tedious to say the least - with long delays in Philadelphia due to both broken airplanes and bad weather, in addition to long lines and inefficient processes in the security sections of both LAX and Philadelphia airports, as well as an uncomfortable night spent trying to sleep across two cramped coach seats with my legs hanging out in the aisle, being bumped by every service cart they could find in the airplane. The “bad” would unfortunately refer to the fact that the goal of this trip, that Roar and I would be running a half-marathon together, did not work out.  But I‘ll get to that later. The “good” was just about everything else!  In spite of the airlines and TSA and the weather, I did eventually get to Norway, and there was my good friend Roar, waiting for me with a smile on his face.  He had spent several months arranging this trip, setting up meetings and interviews, and learning opportunities with the Parkinson’s disease community throughout Norway.

Roar was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about ten years ago, and it came as quite a shock to the athletic young man in his mid-40’s.  He was a lifelong runner and had finished more than 40 marathons.  His goal had been to complete 50 full marathons by the time he was 50 years old.  But that seemed impossible as his condition deteriorated due to both Parkinson’s and depression.  After nearly five years of this descending spiral toward oblivion, he decided to take charge of the situation and began training once again.  Although the struggle was an enormous challenge, he was able to work his way out of the depths and began training seriously for another marathon.  It was then he went looking on the web for information on both running and PD and found Team Parkinson.  He sent us an e-mail in the summer of 2006, and Edna, my wife and co-chair of Team Parkinson, suggested he join us in the San Francisco Marathon. He did, and has since represented Team Parkinson in seven additional marathons, including New York City, London, Moscow, Beijing’s “Wall of China”, Rio de Janeiro, and Los Angeles twice, completing his 50th in Los Angeles in March of 2008. Roar has become a celebrity in the Norwegian Parkinson’s community for his efforts, and is trying to bring a positive message to his fellow Parkinson’s patients and health care professionals in Norway. His efforts on behalf of Team Parkinson certainly deserve to be supported, and I found the idea of running together in Norway very appealing, so I was happy to be there in Norway for only the second time in my life. The first was more than 35 years ago so I can barely remember it. After an afternoon touring Norway’s capital Oslo, we set off for Roar’s home town in the southwest of Norway, the city of Larvik. 

Larvik is a city of about 40,000 in a nation of 4.5 million. It’s a picturesque port city facing southwest to the North Sea and Denmark.  In a few weeks the place will be deluged with Norwegian vacationers as they begin their summer holidays.  I was booked into a very modern new hotel right in the harbor and even though I was exhausted by the long trip to get there, I was still too excited to think about sleeping, so we paid a brief visit to Roar’s home.  His wife, Turid, is very gracious, but doesn’t speak much English, and needless to say, I don’t speak a word of Norwegian. I always feel like something of a dolt when, no matter where I go, I force everyone who wants to talk to me to do it in English. Three years in graduate school and all I can say in most languages is hello.  Ah well, maybe I’ll do better in my next life.

Back in the hotel for the very short night, no more than two or three hours of semi-darkness, I did finally get some sleep. I woke early, but after a lingering shower and a tasty breakfast, Roar arrived and we set out to visit a rehabilitation center.  This is a concept we don’t make much use of in the USA, but I could see immediately that in the case of Parkinson’s disease it has some significant value.  People in the local community are brought into the center to learn the life skills needed to live more successfully with chronic conditions like PD, or to help them recover from acute conditions such as injury, strokes or heart attacks. For PD, they spend three weeks in an intensive curriculum, learning how to cope with the many challenges of daily living the disease presents.  They are coached on diet and fitness and how to maintain relationships, as well as learning more about the disease and the treatments available.  Their trainers and coaches are a team of neurologists, nurses, physical therapists, psychologists and general practitioners, all working together to create a better quality of life that the patient can sustain once they return home.  These skills all need to be learned for a PD patient to survive this disease, but we in the USA usually have to pick them up piecemeal in support groups or at conferences, or in seminars held by local hospitals.  There isn’t a single-point of service like the Norwegian rehabilitation center.

As we drove to our next appointment, Roar filled me in on the local history and some of the current economy of this thriving region. Norway, in general, is very prosperous considering today’s global economic crisis, largely due to its large North Sea oil reserves. The country is extremely clean and all the farms and villages appear well run and productive. Larvik benefits from its location on the sea coast and southern exposure and so is a favorite vacation spot for Norwegians during the summer, but also has some long-standing industries based on the geography itself.  Larvik is famous for its mineral waters and its stone. Farris is the brand name of Norway’s most popular mineral water, and the bottling facility is right in the heart of town. Larvikitt is the stone quarried from the enormous granite deposits surrounding the city. It comes in either light or dark and is used in buildings around the world.  My hotel made use of it on walls, counter tops and floors. I particularly liked the dark version, as it contained very bright mica and schist fragments. It had an almost transparent quality to it.

Later that day we paid a visit to a patient-led support group.  Roar was the speaker for the evening, complete with computer-based presentation, and I was a sort of prop for show and tell. I felt a little like I was in a cartoon I saw once, of a dog listening to his master talking at length and only recognizing his own name occasionally. But I had the feeling that the meeting was somehow rigged in my favor when the raffle which ended the event kept turning up my numbers.  I had brought several Team Parkinson t-shirts and ball caps to Norway which I planned to leave behind and therefore travel home a little lighter, but they kept loading me up with raffle prizes until I thought I’d have to buy another suitcase to get home.  These were wonderful people who obviously loved and admired Roar and if he thought I was interesting enough to pay attention to, they wanted to be part of the action.

The next morning we set off for the mountains and the half-marathon. We stayed at the Eikenes family cabin near the finish of the marathon.  The cabin belongs to Roar’s brother, Birger, and he was there to welcome us.  We spent the rest of the day at the race expo, manning a sort of extemporaneous Team Parkinson booth.  It was a joy to talk to other runners and anyone who happened to stop by. We also got to meet another runner who competes in spite of Parkinson’s, Jostain Strand.  He was diagnosed recently and runs in the 50-54 age-group. Last fall he ran for Team Parkinson in a relay race in Bislett stadium, Oslo’s famous track and field venue. He would be in the half-marathon with us on the following day.  There is always a certain camaraderie among runners, and these Norwegians expressed their admiration for what Roar and I were doing with Team Parkinson quite openly.  After a pleasant dinner finishing up with a banana-split, we went back to the cabin for the night. The next morning was bright and clear with temperatures just above freezing.  About 9 AM we took a bus-ride out to the half-marathon starting point and then we huddled in a small roadside facility nearby until nearly race time.

After a brief warm-up in the bright but cold sunshine, we lined up for the start of the 13.1 mile (21 kilometer) race.  The start was timed so that we would join the marathon runners who had started two hours and thirteen miles earlier. The faster marathon runners, after having climbed nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain, had to fight their way through the eager crowd waiting to start the half.  What a scene!

We got underway finally and the runners took off at a furious pace. Well, most of them anyway. Unfortunately, Roar's medications simply did not kick in properly and we spent several minutes after the start trying to get him going. His gait was totally out of control and he was pounding the pavement with really heavy strides, trying to force his body forward on will power alone.  I didn't want to leave him, but he insisted that if I didn't go he would consider his efforts to get me to Norway a failure.  What could I do with logic like that? So I took off - trying to catch the field.

There was a lot of downhill after the first couple of kilometers and I pushed hard without taking any breaks and gradually sucked up the tail-end-Charlies.  But I certainly didn't make any real progress on the bulk of the pack.  This was a very fit field of runners. During a long uphill drive I did resort to timed intervals and I began the passing, being passed, and repassing of several runners.  It seemed to annoy some of them. I could hear the changes in their breathing as I would once again pull up behind them, then alongside, and then slowly move past until I walked again.  I'm afraid these runners haven't heard of Jeff Galloway.

At any rate, I finished in just over two hours and was 17th out of 20 in the 65-69 age-group.  The bulk of the times for the group were between 1:33 and 1:43...these are some serious kick-butt old guys.  I have never worked so hard to get beaten so badly.

I was very happy to find that Jostain Strand had finished in a very creditable 1:43. I do hope that running will do for him over the next few years what is has done for me and for Roar – keep the progress of his PD symptoms to a minimum.

We spent the next two days on an intense sight-seeing drive through some of Norway’s most beautiful countryside, including fjords, mountains, lakes and snow fields, as well as Norway’s 1994 Olympic city – Lillehammer, where we checked out a park full of recreations of Norway’s earliest architecture - the log cabin. There were nearly one hundred of these buildings, many with intricate carvings and details that must have taken years to reproduce. We left Lillehammer the next morning and stopped at another rehabilitation center, this one a private - rather than government-sponsored - facility. They were very professional and staffed with a very broad team of doctors and therapists.  I was quite impressed with their up-to-date knowledge of what’s happening in the Parkinson’s care community throughout the world. When we were visiting a movement class that morning, I asked if they knew of John Argue’s book, “The Art of Moving” and the director’s response was, “Yes, I have stolen much from it, as you can see.  I try to steal all the good ideas.” Finally, we paid a visit to the headquarters of the Norwegian National Parkinson’s association in Oslo before heading to the airport hotel for one last night and a final run with Roar before departing for home.  The airline flight home was pretty much a re-run of the same delays and problems as the out-bound trip – broken airplanes, crowded terminals and insufficient communication. Yet it was a terrific trip overall, and I must thank Roar Eikenes for all he did to put it together. When he asked if I would come back next year and bring Edna, the look on his face was so genuine, I couldn’t say no.  We’ll just have to find a way to make it happen.

I'm ready for a run this weekend, as long as it doesn't interfere with Laker watching.

John Ball

View photos from John's trip to Norway.