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This Mainer is defying odds, disease to run the Boston Marathon

Posted April 14, 2016, at 9:35 p.m.
Last modified April 15, 2016, at 11:16 a.m.

GREAT CRANBERRY ISLAND, Maine — It has been 24 years since Michael Westphal last ran in the Boston Marathon, with a pulled hamstring on Mile 9 thwarting his effort to complete the world’s most famous road race in 1992.

But he also has experienced much better days along the route from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to the finish line on Boylston Street in downtown Boston — such as in 1979, when Westphal finished the historic race in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 16 seconds, or in 1986, when he last completed the 26.2-mile endurance test.

So much has changed since then for the former University of Maine running standout, now a 58-year-old carpenter who still lives in his native community just off the coast of Mount Desert Island.

In particular, he became a grandfather last May to young Maeve Grace Westphal, and he’s also become an inspirational figure nationwide as he pursues his running passion while battling Parkinson’s disease — a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects the body’s movement.

Bolstered by the aid of medicine that keeps his symptoms in control, Westphal will be one of approximately 30,000 runners who will start the 120th Boston Marathon on Monday morning.

“It will be quite something,” he said. “I haven’t finished Boston in 30 years, so there are going to be some different eyes watching, and I’ll be looking at it from a grandfather’s point of view rather than someone five years out of college, so it’s going to mean a lot to me to finish this, especially given what I’ve been through.”

Westphal, who has a sister, two cousins (one deceased) and a deceased aunt who similarly have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, also will be raising funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research through his Boston run.

He raised more than $38,000 in his qualifying race for Boston last June and had generated nearly $12,500 in additional pledges through Thursday afternoon in advance of Monday’s event through his Team Fox Web page on the foundation’s website.

“To see Michael do the thing he loves to do, which is running, is very inspiring,” said Rolf Westphal of Cumberland, who will run with his older brother at Boston and carry the medicine he needs to take during the race. “He was out of running for a while, and then he just decided that he wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines anymore but do what he loves to do.

“He’s just living life the way he wants to live it.”

New health issue

Michael Westphal was a distance runner at Mount Desert Island who went on to become a 4:19 miler as a senior at the University of Maine and then one of the more prominent road racers in the region during the 1970s and ’80s, before scaling back his running regimen in the mid-1990s to focus on coaching his children through their youth sports years.

He first experienced symptoms of Parkinson’s in 2003, and 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 his increased strength has helped minimize that side effect to the dopamine.

“It’s really helped him out a lot,” Rolf said. “It’s helped with his symptoms. It’s helped with his overall outlook on life.

Westphal returned to competitive running in 2013, then ran in four races the next year before beginning his pursuit of a return to Boston.

He qualified for Boston last June with a 3:32:56 effort at The Great Run, a marathon organized by high school classmate and good friend Gary Allen entirely on Great Cranberry Island’s 2-mile main road. Westphal followed that by running in several summer races at shorter distances before turning his attention to last October’s MDI Marathon.

But something happened on the way to the finish line in Southwest Harbor, apparently in the weeks leading up to the race.

“I thought I pulled a muscle and felt it down my right leg, so I took 12 days off before the MDI Marathon trying to get it to heal,” he said. “Three days before the marathon I tried to run 2 miles and couldn’t really do that without a lot of pain. I gave it three more days, but that was a big weekend for me. They inducted Gary Allen and I into the MDI Hall of Fame, and then I had to give the pre-race dinner speech at the marathon.

“At that point I just wanted to get to the starting line.”

Neither what ultimately was diagnosed as a broken pelvis nor his Parkinson’s prevented Westphal from finishing the race.

“He didn’t really talk about it too much,” Rolf, who also ran with his brother at MDI, said. “I knew he had some kind of injury, but he wasn’t sure about it. He was just trying to rest it before the race and during the race he seemed fine. He was running at a great clip, and it was just the last couple of miles where he fell once, I think at Mile 23, but he got up and kept going.”

Road to recovery, and Boston

No surgery was required, just rest. Westphal walked with crutches for the first month after the MDI race, then started walking unassisted again in December before returning to his roadwork with the arrival of the new year.

“I just needed some rest after running so hard all summer,” he said. “It took a month or a month and a half for the pain to go away, but I think it’s healed up nicely now.”

Westphal did notice the effect his time off had on his Parkinson’s symptoms.

“I could feel myself regressing a little when I had to quit running,” he said. “I didn’t feel nearly as good as I had been and I had more of the symptoms during my off period, so that wasn’t good.

“When I started getting in shape again and running more miles, the off periods started lessening. I’ve still got a lot of dyskinesia from the medicine. The medicine causes a lot of movement.”

Westphal also has learned more through his two most recent marathons — which brought his career total to 14 — about how to maximize the impact of dopamine he takes during the races to help reduce those symptoms.

“I timed my medications a little better at MDI,” he said. “I took them at more of a steady pace. In July I changed over to time-release medicines. With the other pills I took one pill every three hours, but with this medication I take one every hour so it evens it out.

“It ended up going much smoother. I didn’t experience the off period I did at Cranberry where I kind of lost touch with my mind for a bit. I think I’ve got it down now.”

Time for teamwork

Westphal’s training for Boston began with 17 miles the first week in January and built up to a maximum of between 40 and 47 miles by late March.

He expected to run about 25 miles early this week, then take the final two or three days off before the race.

Westphal’s plan is to run the first 10 miles in 80 minutes, then pick up the pace slightly as the race continues.

That’s where Rolf, a 51-year-old veteran of 10 to 15 marathons including the 2015 New York City Marathon, comes in.

“I just want to keep him on pace,” said Rolf, who will be running Boston for the second time. “The ultimate goal is to finish, but then to break 3:30 is what I think he really wants to do, so we’ll see what happens in the last 6 [miles]. That’s where his last two runs, the Great Run on Cranberry and the MDI Marathon, have been really tough and he’s had a bit of an issue, so we’ll see how he fares this time in Boston.

“You never know what’s going to happen in a marathon, but it will be nice just to be able to run with him and spend the day together.”

Michael Westphal appreciates his brother’s presence in familial and tactical senses.

“Rolf normally would run about a three-hour marathon, but he’s going to slow down and hang with me,” he said. “It’s very helpful because you tend to go out too quick, I do anyways. Boston is downhill for the first 3 miles, and a lot of people start a little too quick, but he’ll put the reins on me and hold me to my stated goal of eight minutes a mile for the first 10 miles anyway.”

Westphal — whose career best for the distance is 2:29.32 at the 1980 Paul Bunyan Marathon in Bangor — would like to beat last June’s effort in The Great Run at Boston and hopes to finish with a time between 3:25 and 3:30.

“But any kind of finish, whether it’s four hours or five hours or 3½ hours,” he said, “is going to be very, very satisfying to me.”

 

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