GREAT CRANBERRY ISLAND, Maine — Michael Westphal’s most recent experience at the Boston Marathon left him with some unfinished business.
The year was 1993, and his body just wasn’t willing that day.
“I pulled a muscle at mile 9,” Westphal, who in 1979 finished the historic race in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 16 seconds, recalled. “I kept running until mile 13, then I dropped out because I figured at that point — the way it was going — it wasn’t worth tearing something.”
More than two decades later, the 58-year-old carpenter is taking a more defiant approach to the messages his body sends him.
Diagnosed in 2006 with Parkinson’s disease — a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects the body’s movement — the Mount Desert Island High School and University of Maine alumnus, who was one of the state’s top distance runners during the 1970s and 1980s, is about to challenge the 26.2-mile marathon distance again.
He’ll be among more than 100 participants Saturday in The Great Run, a combination marathon, six-hour ultramarathon and six-hour team relay along the 2-mile road that spans this island with a year-round population of 36.
Westphal doesn’t expect to approach the personal-best time of 2:29:32 he clocked among the 12 marathons he’s completed; but with nearly a year of training since he resumed running competitively, he hopes to traverse the distance at eight minutes per mile.
That would translate to a 3:29:36 marathon time, which would qualify him for the 2016 Boston Marathon — qualifying time for his age group is 3:40.
“I’d like to run Boston next year,” Westphal said. “I’m going to try to run that eight-minute pace and see how it goes. That seems to be a good speed for me. But the main goal is just to finish, because I’ve got a lot of people looking for me to finish.”
Westphal also is using the race to raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
From an original goal of $4,000, Westphal has raised pledges of more than $30,000 through his link on the Fox Foundation site.
“What Mike is doing is on the verge of being a miracle,” said Gary Allen, a fellow GCI native and schoolmate of Westphal who also is one of his frequent running partners and is race director of The Great Run. “I don’t like to use that word lightly, but miraculous is the only word that comes to mind when you see Mike start running and his Parkinson’s symptoms almost disappear in his wake.
“As far as fund raising for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, he literally is in the race for his life, and the almost $31,000 he has raised so far is indicative of the rampant support he has generated through his courage.”
Facing a familial disorder
Parkinson’s disease is not considered foremost a hereditary disorder, but literature on the subject suggests having a close relative with the disease increases the odds of a person developing it.
“It’s a small percentage — about 5 to 10 percent that they can trace genetically,” Westphal said. “But with most of the people, it’s kind of random, as far as I know.”
Except it’s not random with the Westphal family: A sister, two cousins — one deceased — and a deceased aunt all were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“I watched a PBS special, ‘My Father, My Brother and I,’ and they all had Parkinson’s. They traced their genetics back to ancestors who lived in western Norway and found there was a genetic link to the Norwegians,” he said.
“My mother’s side of our family, where all the Parkinson’s is, can trace their heritage back to western Norway, too.”
Westphal first experienced symptoms in 2003, nearly after a decade after he scaled back his running to focus more on coaching his kids through their youth sports days.
He originally sought the aid of physical therapists for what he thought was a left shoulder injury, but the problem eventually was found to be neurological.
Once Westphal was treated in 2006 with Carbidopa-Levodopa — a drug combination used to treat Parkinson’s — his symptoms abated and the diagnosis was confirmed.
There is no known cure for Parkinson’s, but Westphal’s symptoms are managed through a medical regimen featuring dopamine, a neurotransmitter that among other things helps regulate movement.
He does experience dyskinesia — involuntary muscle movements — but since resuming distance running has added strength, that has helped minimize that side effect to the dopamine.
“A lot of Parkinson’s patients sit around too much with their aches and pains, and I think the movement gets rid of those aches and pains because it strengthens the different parts of your body you use,” Westphal said.
Westphal returned to competitive running at a 2013 race in Northeast Harbor.
“I only trained for a month and a half at 4 miles a day for that race,” he said. “But then I decided to go running again, so I started last June and ran all summer and into the fall about 5 miles a day.”
Westphal not only began feeling the adrenaline rush known as “runner’s high,” but he experienced a direct correlation between that activity and his ability to cope with Parkinson’s.
“I always feel good when I’m running,” he said. “I feel much more normal when I’m running, whereas before I always felt kind of lousy so I think it’s helped my Parkinson’s symptoms. I have those days now when I feel good all day compared to before, when I’d pretty much always have at least one slow period every day.”
Regaining a fluid running form required more patience.
“When Mike first returned to running, it was hard to see him struggle after being one of the best runners in Maine,” Allen said. “As the miles accumulated, you could see the fire returning — almost like his body knew exactly what to do, regardless of the ravages of this awful disease.”
Perhaps the last involuntary muscle movement evident in Westphal’s gait was a head bob. But the intensity of his recent training — he ran as many as 55 miles per week before tapering in the final weeks before The Great Run — has had a side effect of its own.
“Back in March or early April I still had quite a head bob,” Westphal said. “Since then, I’ve gotten a lot stronger, and I think I’ve eliminated it. And once my form got better, I started running a lot faster.
“Now it’s pretty efficient, and I’m proud of the fact I’m actually running with good form now.”
More endurance than speed
A simple discovery led Westphal to pursue running a marathon for the first time since finishing sixth at the 1992 Sugarloaf Marathon in 2:48:41.
“When I figured out I had more endurance than speed, I decided I was going to run a marathon,” Westphal, a 4:19 miler as a senior at UMaine, said. “So after taking a two-month break over the winter, I started doing heavy distance in February.”
Westphal’s longest training run was 19 miles. He joined Allen and several other runners for the 9 miles from Thompson Island along the causeway near the entrance to Mount Desert Island to downtown Ellsworth, where they ran the city’s Memorial Day Mile before running back to Thompson Island.
“We were all experienced runners, and Mike pushed the pace the whole way up and back, and then runs a 5:32 mile, too,” Allen said. “When I looked at all the other runners that day, we all had smiles on our faces as we covered mile after mile — in most cases chasing Mike.”
While Westphal also has run 17 miles at a 7:32 pace in preparation for Saturday’s race, he admits a measure of uncertainty about his return to the marathon.
“It’s just a matter of how I feel that day, because I have some days when I feel really strong and other days my legs feel really leaden and really tired,” he said.
Westphal will have to manage his medication schedule around the marathon and take dopamine, which he takes every three hours, during the race.
“That’s basically the transmitter of the information from my brain to my muscles,” he said. “The muscles are there; but if I lose the connection, they don’t get the signal from the brain to fire.”
This may not be a singular return to the marathon for Westphal, even if he doesn’t qualify for Boston at The Great Run.
“If I don’t qualify with this race, I’ll try at the MDI Marathon this fall,” Westphal said. “I think I’m going to run it anyways. But for this one, I’m just going to try to finish. If I think I’m going to have a good day I’ll try to run between 3:20 and 3:30 to beat the qualifying time by 10 minutes.”
Indeed, the competitor in Michael Westphal has returned, Parkinson’s disease and all.
“I think people should see him as a shining example of what everyone can do if you only set your mind to it,” Allen said. “I don’t want to put any pressure on Mike, but I would not be surprised at all to see him run fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon — and maybe more.”