Ron Marinucci: Karen Lewis, Great Comebacks

Ron Marinucci: Karen Lewis, Great Comebacks

Karen Lewis has run 32 marathons and four ultras (50Ks). That’s pretty impressive enough. Then consider than the Brighton, Michigan runner has finished each of them after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and colorectal cancer. Toss in a fractured tibia. Add her commitment to give back by raising funds and co-founding the Feet and Friends Fighting Colon Cancer Race/Walk. Now, that’s far beyond impressive.

For her accomplishments and dedication, in September Great Comebacks announced that Lewis is the 2011 Central Region Award Recipient. Great Comebacks was founded by former National Football League placekicker Rolf Benirschke. While playing for the San Diego Chargers in the 1970s and 1980s, the All-Pro underwent emergency surgery for colitis, but returned for several more record-setting NFL seasons. He started Great Comebacks “to provide information and inspiration to people facing the emotional and physical challenges of living with serious intestinal diseases and ostomy surgery.” By raising public awareness of colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, and colitis, “the program also aims to remove the stigma surrounding ostomy surgery.”

Benirschke noted, “Karen is a wonderful example of a young woman who has overcome many serious medical challenges and continues to push herself to make a positive difference. Her bravery continually inspires many others in our community who face severe intestinal conditions.”

At 23, Lewis was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease that affects the large intestine/colon and rectum. “I suffered for about eight years before finding a doctor who started me on a new type of drug which finally put me in remission.”

The colitis caused her to lose weight and become anemic. “Even trying to exercise was very difficult. Once my disease was in remission, I gained weight, my anemia became better, and I started feeling much better. I could walk around the block without becoming short of breath.”

Walking was followed by running, coincidentally. “I began running in 1994,” Lewis recalled, “while training to walk the Honolulu Marathon. I had started race walking two years prior. One day I walked past Running Fit and happened to see a flyer recruiting walkers for the Honolulu Marathon. This was the Leukemia & Lymphoma’s Team in Training program. Since I had recently completed my first Crim 10 Mile [in Flint, Michigan], I decided this was a great incentive to take my walking to the next level.” She quipped, “I think the real reason I started running was that while training to walk Honolulu, I became impatient with how much time the long training walks were taking. By jogging some of them, I could get done quicker.”

She added, “Since I was doing all of the training and mileage by myself, one evening I decided to go to the Brighton Road Striders and see if there were any walkers. Although there were no walkers, I met an awesome bunch of women who were fairly new to running. In order to keep up with them and socialize, I realized that my race walking made for an easy transition into running.”

Running in Hawaii was exciting. “Finishing the 1994 Honolulu Marathon—my first marathon! I couldn’t believe that I did 26.2 miles when a few years prior it was the furthest thing that I dreamed I could ever do.” She also was thrilled by Boston—not necessarily running the marathon, but qualifying for it. Although she’s run it twice, she was more excited by two of the marathons that served as qualifiers. “The first time I qualified for Boston was such a thrill…at the 1997 Glass City Marathon [in Toledo, Ohio] and just the “high’ I got from qualifying was much fore exciting than the 1997 Boston Marathon itself.” The 2004 Bayshore Marathon in the beautiful Traverse Bay area of northwestern Michigan was another such “high,” her third qualifier. It “came as a total surprise because I didn’t go into the marathon with the notion of even trying to qualify.”

Lewis’s walking and running goals were to keep her colitis in remission. “I had this wacky idea that the more I exercised and kept on exercising, the longer the disease would stay in remission. I knew that if I could run marathons, I could beat cancer.”

Facing down the colitis, she encountered another serious diagnosis in 2005, colorectal cancer. Enduring radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she found that running “was something to look forward to in the healing process.” Also gaining strength from the support of her husband and running friends, Lewis continued to train for her next race by walking laps around the floors of the hospital. “Running has kept me strong for all of the surgeries I have had,” eleven of them altogether.

By 2006, she was ready to tackle the North Country Trail Marathon near Manistee, Michigan. It was special because “it was the first marathon after my colorectal cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatment.” And, it almost didn’t happen, but not due to the cancer or any of its complications.

A little while before North Country, she purchased new running shoes and went out on a five-mile run. “My toe blistered and got infected,” she anguished. It worsened and five days before the marathon, she visited a podiatrist, who told her, “I don’t think you’ll be able to run.” Lewis remembered thinking, “I‘ve been through everything and now this is going to take my dream?” She determined, “I wasn’t going to let this stop me.” Her podiatrist suggested “cutting the toe out of my shoe and I did.” Easing the pressure, she completed North Country.

She was on her way. The next year, Lewis ran another of her favorites, the Desert Island Marathon in Maine. “I loved Maine,” she enthused. “It is such a beautiful course and nothing is better than a fall day in Maine.”

June 2010 brought another setback, but only another temporary one. She fractured her tibia. It was not running-related. “It was a lawn-mower accident,” in Michigan’s Up North country. The mower “shot a big rock out of the back and it hit my leg. They had to put in a metal rod and then another temporary [one] until January [2011]. I got the go ahead to run again in April. The leg is fine now.”

It was so “fine” that she completed another of her favorites in October. She ran the Chicago Marathon with her sisters, a highlight. “After all these years, they finally decided to give it a try.”

Lewis said, “I try to get in 5-7 miles two or three times during the week after work. On the weekend I like to do a long run of at least 8-10 miles, perhaps more, on one day and a five-mile run on [the other]. I also make sure I do yoga three to four times during the week.”

“In the spring and summer,” she continued, “I try to get in one session a week of eight miles of repeats. [But] I’m not real serious about my training—I don’t use a watch. I run depending on how I feel. I know when I am pushing it. I want to run to enjoy it, not have it become a chore.”

Andrea Coan, a spokeswoman for Great Comebacks, offered this, “Karen is dedicated to raising awareness for colorectal cancer, especially among younger people.” In 2008, she raised funds while running the San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, contributing $10,000 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundations’s Team Challenge.

In 2010, Lewis teamed with a friend, Susan Snyder (also a survivor of colorectal cancer), “to approach the American Cancer Society with an idea to create a run/walk event for colon cancer awareness. Thus, Feet & Friends Fighting Colon Cancer was born.” The inaugural event last spring was held in Ann Arbor. With 564 participants, Feet & Friends raised more than $60,000 to donate to research seeking a cure for colon cancer.

To accommodate an expected larger turnout, the April 21, 2012 event will be moved to Hudson Mills Metropark near Ann Arbor. Lewis and Snyder plan for two events, a 5K and an 8K, for both runners and walkers. They hope another successful race will lead to its expansion to other parts of the country. In fact, they’ve had such inquiries already.

Lewis is aiming to add to her list of marathons in 2012. Targets include New Orleans in March and St. George in October. And, she admitted, “I might sneak in another one.”

After everything that she’s conquered, “don’t be surprised if Lewis does “sneak in” that third marathon.