If it weren’t for his aching feet, Lotatoa "Lota" Ward thinks he would've finished the recent Antelope Island Buffalo Run, a 50-mile trail race near Salt Lake City, Utah.
He made it 33 miles, an impressive distance for any runner to complete. But Lota isn’t just any runner, he's an 8-year-old with a brain tumor.
"I like running because it helps me a lot with hard times," Lota told Runner's World Newswire. "It doesn't make me feel scared going into brain surgery."
Inspired by his ultrarunner dad, Keith, Lota started hitting the trails behind his family home in Layton, Utah, last year. He ran three half-marathons, including the 2014 XTERRA Trail Run National Championship 21K in September, where he raised about $1,700 for two of his friends who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy.
"As his mom, I had a lot of reservations about his running," Rowena Ward said. "I honestly did not want him running the long races. But Lota didn’t take 'no' from me. He brought up the topic every day. Then his dad talked me into letting him try a half-marathon. My hope was that afterward, he would say he would never want to run a race again because it was too hard. But that’s not what he told me at the finish line of his first race.
"At that point, we didn't know he had a brain tumor," she added.
In October, a visit to the optometrist showed the back of Lota’s eyes were swollen. A month later, doctors told the Wards the swelling was due to a benign teratoma brain tumor. Lota underwent two surgeries to remove the tumor.
During a routine follow-up in February, an MRI revealed a new tumor that was four times larger than the original one. The golf-ball-sized mass contained early signs of cancer. Lota went in for his third surgery the next day so doctors could collect samples.
"That surgery was on a Wednesday, and he did a 10-mile training run on Sunday," Keith said. "I think running has helped the mental part of his recovery. Every time he has surgery, he is so motivated to get out of bed. He's up and walking within six hours."
Keith said his son's doctors fully support his running. In fact, his neurosurgeon is a trail runner himself.
"We asked [the doctor] if Lota's running would affect the growth of the tumor or cause it to do mutations, and he said it doesn't affect it at all," Keith said. "He said, 'As long as it keeps him happy and healthy, I don't see anything wrong with it.'"
Rowena said Lota will undergo a fourth surgery soon before doctors decide whether chemotherapy is necessary.
"I think running really helps him deal with a lot of what he's going through," Rowena said.