Runners Roll Out a 26.2-Mile Red Carpet for a Friend with Parkinson’s

People pose for photo in front of bridge

Matt Wilbur, left, with his daughter, Kristen Martin, and his friend Michael Dubin.

It was to be Matt Wilbur’s fourth and last New York City Marathon, and his last marathon, period. The man who had run 30 marathons – one of them in less than 3 hours — was now taking more than seven hours to complete the 26.2 miles. But Hurricane Sandy pummeled Matt’s plans for a final hurrah, forcing the event’s cancellation amid a rising tide of misery and loss across the eastern seaboard. “I was halfway across Pennsylvania when I started receiving calls stating that the race had been cancelled,” says Matt, a 60-year-old retired math teacher with early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

But Matt Wilbur, a member of the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s “Team Fox” and a patient of Andrew Duker, MD, at the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, will run his final marathon after all. The Cincinnati Galloway Marathon Training Program, with whom Matt trains, has been so inspired by his perseverance with Parkinson’s disease that it is rolling out a 26.2-mile red carpet in his honor. With the help of 50 volunteers, it is staging a marathon for him this Saturday in Cincinnati.

“As a fellow runner, I was compelled to do something to honor Matt’s courage and sacrifice for Team Fox,” says Tony Alonso, the race director. “So I enlisted the help of running friends from our group to organize a local marathon for him. It is not a formal race, but we are doing everything in our power to create an experience for him to finish what he started: run his final marathon to bring awareness to Parkinson’s disease and provide a means to express that through the money he raised in preparing for the 2012 NYC Marathon.”

Saturday’s 26.2-mile course was designed to mirror landmarks in New York. They include: Coney Island (Staten Island), Eden Park/Washington Park/Central Parkway (Central Park), the Roebling Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge), downtown Cincinnati (Manhattan), Broadway Street (Broadway Avenue), and Fountain Square (Times Square). The event has been named “The One Step Ahead of Parkinson’s Disease Marathon,” after a book Mr. Wilbur recently authored about his 35 years in running.

“Matt Wilbur has written an eloquent and inspiring memoir of his life as a runner and how Parkinson’s has affected him,” says Dr. Duker, a neurologist at the Gardner Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, one of four institutes of the College of Medicine and UC Health. “His drive and perseverance have allowed him to bring hope to those who live with Parkinson’s disease, and his example is something for patients, and really all of us, to aspire towards.”

Dr. Duker has overseen Matt’s care since 2010, when Matt moved to Cincinnati from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, after a 35-year teaching career. “Dr. Duker has been supportive of me and my running,” Matt says. “It is also important to me that he doesn’t predetermine what direction my care is going to go. He values and respects my evaluation, and together we decide what direction we will go. A Parkinson’s patient has little control over his disease. But we all want some ownership and some control of our care.”

Matt picked up running as a hobby during the “jogging boom” in the 1970s and became an accomplished marathoner. His first symptoms of Parkinson’s showed up in the late 1990s as an unexpected decline in his running times, and he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 50 in 2002. But if the Parkinson’s disease slowed him, it did not keep him from running marathons. He wanted to raise awareness about Parkinson’s, he says, “And I didn’t think people would listen to a guy who runs 5k’s.”

Matt ran his first New York City Marathon in 2009 with his daughter, Kristen Martin. At the 2010 Marathon, with Kristen out of the country and unable to run with him, Matt was brooding about whether he could complete the race without a companion to run with when he was approached by another member of Team Fox. The runner, Michael Dubin, of Ann Arbor, Mich., was running in honor of his father, who also had Parkinson’s. “Do you need someone to run with you today?” Michael asked. The answer was a grateful “yes,” and it marked the beginning of an enduring friendship. Both Kristen and Michael ran with Matt in the 2011 NYC Marathon, and Michael will be running with him this Saturday while Kristen, eight months pregnant, will be part of the cheering section.

Matt says his fellow runners have gone “above and beyond anything” he could ever imagine. “The Galloway Running Group represents the best of the human spirit. They have performed a willful act of kindness for one guy, the slowest member of their group, so that he can run with a few of his friends in Cincinnati versus 47,000 in New York City.”

What Matt describes as “a once-in-a-lifetime event” will begin at 7 a.m. Saturday at Lunken Airport Terminal, 262 Wilmer Ave., #23, in Mount Lookout and will finish between 2 and 3 p.m. at Washington Park, at the corner of Race and 14th in Over-the-Rhine. Matt says the event will be “a rolling marathon,” in which friends and supporters join him for segments of the race while also providing aid stations and a healthy cheering section.

Matt Wilbur goes into the event about $1,000 shy of his fund-raising goal of $8,874.80. Achieving that goal will bring his total funds raised for the Fox Foundation over four years to $30,000. Those wishing to support his efforts can do so online >>

— Cindy Starr

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