Sometimes you meet a person and there’s just something about them that strikes a chord. Maybe it’s the way they thoughtfully answer a colleague’s question, or how they offer sincere encouragement to their students, or even how they rush to hold the door when someone is fumbling with their heavy load.
With the advent of social media and the internet, some people we get to know and love are folks that we’ve never actually met face to face. Social media is so inter-connected that you can become friends with someone through Twitter, Facebook, DailyMile, and the blogosphere. This is how I met Joe Marruchella.
I came across Joe’s blog by way of a comment he left on ChicRunner.com, a blog we both visit regularly. Struck by the thoughtful way he commented on a post, I clicked on his name, landed on his site, and started reading. After I finished reading the entry I got up to walk around and clear my head, then came back to read it again.
The premise of his blog is simple; Joe’s dear friend Dom was recently diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer. To raise money and awareness for Dom, Joe is running two marathons in thirteen days. He had already qualified for the Boston Marathon when Dom was diagnosed with cancer last summer, so Boston is the first of his two marathons. Dom lives in Pittsburgh, the place where Joe met his future wife who also happens to be a close friend of Dom’s. So it made sense for Joe to choose to run the Pittsburgh Marathon. All signs point to Dom being at the finish line in Pittsburgh this Spring.
A lot of people get cancer. Every person that is affected by this brutal disease has a compelling story. The first thing about Joe’s blog that stood out was the title; “Joe is Running for Dom”. His name on Twitter and DailyMile is Joe_runfordom. He has linked his online identity to Dom’s as a way of raising awareness and funds for his friend’s cancer treatment. I’ve seen this from parents whose child is seriously ill, but never from a friend.
Over the past two months I’ve been a faithful reader of Joe’s blog, following both his marathon training and Dom’s progress and set-backs. With Joe’s first marathon only six weeks away, I approached him and asked if he’d be willing to do an interview with me. He graciously accepted, and now I’m honored to share the content of the interview with the world at large. It is my hope that a few people will be as moved as I have been by this story and will sponsor a mile or two, for Dom.
Due to the length of the interview, this will be posted as a two-part story.
Lara: Joe, you surprised me when you said that you weren’t always a runner, and that there was a period in your life where you called yourself “Fat Joe”. How did you turn from “Fat Joe” into the amazing runner that you are now?
Joe: Well, “Fat Joe” made an appearance when I turned 34 (I’m 42 now). I was traveling for work about 35-40% of the time, eating late meals, not exercising and the food quality was not the greatest… lots of big meals, desserts and the like. I’m 5′ 8″ and at one point weighed 176 lbs. Not good! The worse part was I just didn’t feel healthy. I was always an athlete growing up, playing baseball, basketball, football – but never running. I didn’t even know how to start. But I was determined to do something about my weight and lose a few pounds before going on a vacation to the Outer Banks in 2005. I started walking on my lunch hour which gradually morphed into running 1/2 mile, walking 1/2 mile… by that fall I was running three miles about 4 times a week. I changed my diet (which included swearing off all fast food, which I am proud to say I have not had a single fast food meal in about 5 years). I stopped drinking Coca-Cola, cut a few other things from my diet, and the pounds came flying off. Now, my race weight is about 137 pounds and my body fat percentage is about 6.3 percent.
Lara: You sound incredibly healthy! You dropped 39 pounds and a lot of body fat; when did you decide to start racing?
“If you want big rewards you have to take big risks.”
Joe: Great question! I was on the road traveling with the CEO of my company, who is a great mentor and friend. He caught me coming into the hotel from my morning run in NYC and asked how my run went. I told him it was “okay”. He then asked why it was “only okay”; didn’t I enjoy it? I told him not really, I was only running because we had eaten a big dinner the night before and I needed to burn some calories. He said that the reason I didn’t enjoy running was because to me running was punitive. I needed to run for a reason OTHER than burning calories. That I should in fact run a race, and not any old race, a big race – a MARATHON! I honestly thought he was crazy. But when he talked about the experience that he had – it started to sound not only possible, but truly amazing. I flew back to Texas the next day and during the flight home I decided that I was going to train for a marathon. The second I walked in the door I told my wife what I was going to do, and dove headfirst into trying to figure out the first steps; how to train, who to listen to, etc. I remember my run that Saturday morning (my next run) – which in a lot of ways was really my “first run”. I had a purpose, I had a goal and I absolutely loved it. It was only 4-miles, but it honestly changed me from “a guy who runs” to “a runner”. I am so grateful that my CEO took the time to talk with me that day.
Lara: So you’re saying that it took a literal “Reason to Run” to make a difference in how you approached the thing that you did for your health.
Joe: Absolutely; having a reason really provided a great perspective. It was my ATTITUDE toward the activity, not the activity itself that needed to be adjusted. Don’t get me wrong; I like rest days – they are an important part of training and they help you get stronger and stronger as a runner. Without a break every now and then you are only tearing your body down and not giving it a chance to come back stronger. But I LOVE my run days. I could hardly get to sleep last night looking forward to this morning’s 16-miler. I know that sounds a little crazy, but 100% true.
Lara: And now, you’re running for Dom, a friend of yours who has cancer.
Joe: You bet Lara, and I’ll tell you that this one hit me like a ton of bricks. Up until this point I had been pretty fortunate that the people that I am close to are healthy. Other than a scare with my father about five years ago (who is doing great and turned 81 this month – Go Dad!) I have not had a lot of health-related challenges in my life. Last August my wife called me in tears because our friend Dom had just being diagnosed with cancer. He’s 39 years old and has a wife and two little ones at home. I felt like someone put a hundred-pound weight on my chest. I spent the better part of a week trying to make sense of it – but as you can imagine, there really is no sense to make of it. I felt like I had to do something to help Dom and his family as he was in literally the fight for his life. I was on a Sunday long-run of about 10 miles, not training for a race in particular (I had just completed the Pittsburgh Marathon three months before getting the news about Dom). He was actually one of the friends and family members to come to the post-race breakfast in Pittsburgh that day. On my 10-miler I kept thinking about how great it would be to go back to Pittsburgh in 2010 and run Dom’s hometown race. But with it being only 13 days after the Boston Marathon that I had worked so hard to qualify for.. what could I do? I remember the exact spot on the trail that I have run literally hundreds of times when I thought “Why not run them both? Why can’t I run Boston and then Pittsburgh 13 days later?” If you want big rewards you have to take big risks. If I could put myself out there and take on a challenge like that, surely people out there would be interested in hearing about Dom’s battle and support me in honoring him. That’s how Run for Dom started; on an August morning in Austin at Brushy Creek Park, down by the lake.
Lara: What kind of cancer does Dom have?
Joe: Dom has linitis plastica which is a rare, invasive cancer that attacks the organs. Dom’s stomach and spleen were affected the most. His initial diagnosis was very bleak; 100% mortality rate and not a long life expectancy. After visiting several specialists he found his doctor at Pittsburgh Medical who is a pioneer with this type of cancer. In December Dom underwent successful surgery that was quite invasive. His stomach and spleen were removed, along with parts of his intestine and parts of a few other adjoining organs. He had a Hot Chemotherapy Bath that bathed all of the areas affected, and is now approaching the second of three chemotherapy treatments and that will mark the end of his treatment course. His PET Scan three weeks ago was 100% clean. His doctor is extremely happy with the results from the surgery, but Dom is really struggling with nutrition now. He has a lot of pain and nausea when he eats and/or drinks, so since his surgery in December, he gets most of his nutrition through a feeding tube. It takes him about eight hours to take in 2,000 calories. After my 16 mile run this morning, I ate almost that much at breakfast… unbelievable.
Lara: I have to pause here because this is hitting me pretty hard. It’s incredibly difficult for a healthy person to imagine the intensity of this disease. Dom is 39 years old and is supposed to be in the prime of his life.
Joe: I know Lara; it makes me so thankful to be healthy and able to do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. What the hell was I doing eating McDonald’s Double Cheese-burgers and lying around the house. FAIL!
Lara: So this is a wake-up call of sorts; health can be pretty fleeting. When you go out on your training runs for the purpose of running two marathons in 13 days, is it possible that you’re giving yourself the health and exercise that Dom can’t have? If you BOTH can’t have it, at least one of you is living the healthy life?
Joe: That’s an interesting point Lara; I’ll tell you one thing that has changed about my training runs that I attribute to training for Dom. There is a hill along one of the routes I run, it is a really good hill to train on because it forces you to practice running downhill for almost a full kilometer with not a single flat place. It’s steep enough that you have to lengthen your stride, but not too steep that you have to “brake” the entire way down. It’s perfect practice for the start of the Boston Marathon where the early portions of that race can really destroy the quadriceps over the first few downhill miles. Up until I started training for RFD (Run For Dom) I had run up that hill exactly one time. It seemed unfair. Too steep, too long, no breaks, no recovery. Since I started my 16-week to Boston, 18-week to Pittsburgh training schedule I run up that hill every Sunday and I place it in the last 1/4 of whatever distance I am going. I run that hill now and think only about Dom. How if, given the chance, wouldn’t he relish that hill? Would he celebrate it? Run up it and at the top, laugh to himself at just how easy that was compared to the other things he is going through? So that’s what I do now once a week. That hill gets shorter and shorter, flatter and flatter every time I go up it. Heartbreak Hill in Boston at mile 21? I’ll have a little something for that one when the time comes.
To be continued…