GREAT CRANBERRY ISLAND, Maine — The Great Run was indeed a great run for Michael Westphal.
It also was in many respects life in microcosm for the 58-year-old carpenter, who has battled Parkinson’s disease — a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects the body’s movement — since 2006.
Attempting to complete his first marathon in 23 years, Westphal started strongly but struggled with elements of the disease late in Saturday’s race. He finished in a time of 3 hours, 32 minutes and 56 seconds to qualify for next April’s Boston Marathon with more than 7 minutes to spare.
“I had the whole island cheering me on,” said Westphal, a native of the tiny community off the southern end of Mount Desert Island that is home to 36 year-round residents. “The school kids had been out the day before the race writing my name on the road or writing ‘Go Mike!’ It was just incredible support.
“It was a great day, one of the best days of my life. I’ll never forget that day.”
Westphal also generated pledges of more than $32,500 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research through a page in his name on the foundation’s website. That total far exceeded the $4,000 goal he set for himself in March.
“As if finishing a marathon isn’t difficult enough, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is something many people try to achieve and some never do,” said Gary Allen, a fellow island native and race director of The Great Run, a combination marathon, six-hour ultramarathon and six-hour team relay held entirely on the island’s two-mile main road.
“That Mike did both while battling the obvious effects of Parkinson’s is as extraordinary a thing as I have ever seen. We have run hundreds if not thousands of miles together on that road,, and the miles I spent alongside my friend on Saturday were simply amazing.”
Westphal was a 4:19 miler as a senior at the University of Maine who went on to become one of the more prominent road racers in the region during the 1970s and ’80s. He scaled back his running in the mid-1990s to focus on coaching his children through their youth sports years.
Westphal began experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s in 2003 but originally sought the aid of physical therapists for what he thought was a left shoulder injury.
Once he 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, he has added strength that has helped minimize that side effect to the dopamine.
Westphal competed in one race in 2013, then ran in four events last year before deciding to try to complete his first marathon since clocking 2:48:41 to finish sixth in the 1992 Sugarloaf Marathon.
“There were three reasons I did this,” said Westphal. “One was to build awareness about Parkinson’s, another was to help find a cure, and the third was to try to motivate others with Parkinson’s to keep doing what they love to do.”
Several months of training increased his mileage to as much as 55 miles per week, with 19 miles his longest individual run before Saturday’s race.
Once The Great Run began amid sunny skies and a cooling sea breeze, Westphal settled into a comfortable stride — paced for the first 10.2 miles by son Brendan to a time of 1:21:16.
Allen and Westphal’s brother Rolf then assumed the pacing duties, reaching 22.2 miles in 2:57:10.
“I went at a nice slow pace for the first 10 miles,” he said. “Then we picked it up a little, and I think I could have kept it up.”
But the great unknown as the race began was how Westphal would fare late in the marathon given that he hadn’t run the full 26.2-mile distance in a single day since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He took his prescribed dose of dopamine during the race — he must take the drug every three hours — but as he approached the final laps after reaching 20 miles at a low-3:20 marathon pace, he hit a different type of runner’s wall.
“I think my dopamine level was a little low the last few miles because when I tried to get my legs going, at times I’d tell my legs to move and they wouldn’t move,” he said. “It was new territory for me. I had only trained to 19 miles, so I really didn’t know what would happen if I ran out of medication.
“This was a different feeling from past marathons when I was just tired. This was more a feeling of not getting that connection through the dopamine from my brain to my legs. I think I had so much fluid in my system that it diluted it. It just didn’t kick in.”
Westphal briefly slowed to a walk several times during the final lap, then fell twice within sight of the finish line but quickly rose both times to place second among the competing marathoners.
“The courage and grit he displayed was beyond anything I have ever personally witnessed,” said Allen. “At one point, he said he was losing the connection between his brain and his muscles, yet he still found an inner strength that I can’t fully comprehend.”
Westphal said he felt fine just 10 minutes after completing his 13th career marathon, and his schedule Monday included a return to the roads for a 5-mile run.
“I recovered quickly and I’m not that sore now, that’s why I think I probably could have done even a little better,” said Westphal, who plans to run the MDI Marathon in October. “I can’t really say that for sure, but I felt really great the whole race except for those last laps.
“One of these times I’ll hit a marathon when the dopamine levels are right up there, and I think I’ll crack 3:20.”
As for the inspirational value of Westphal’s effort, a video of his finish at The Great Run that was published on Facebook had attracted more than 13,500 views as of Monday afternoon.
“Somebody on Facebook called me a hero for doing this,” said Westphal. “I’m not a hero. I’m just another runner going through a tough part of the course.”