Parkinson's seems to disappear when Michael Westphal runs
Michael Westphal and Gary Allen grew up together on Great Cranberry Island, a beautiful spot of green in the Atlantic Ocean, just a short ferry ride from Maine's Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.
Each became a terrific distance runner, something Allen finds amusing, because Great Cranberry is "only 2 miles long. Usually, you need more space to become a good distance runner."
Westphal was a standout at the University of Maine in the late 1970s and once ran a 2-hour, 29-minute marathon. In 1979, he ran 2:30 in his first of three Boston Marathons.
"Mike was really one of the best runners in the state of Maine," says Allen, a 23-time Boston finisher and race organizer who has run sub-3-hour marathons in five straight decades. "You had to go through him to win a lot of races, and he won more than his share at all distances."
Now, their little home island has also produced one of the best feel-good stories leading into this year's Boston Marathon.
Westphal, now 58, gave up running after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2006, but he started up again three years ago and has qualified to run in Boston on April 18. After giving up running because of the Parkinson's disease he was diagnosed with in 2006, Westphal took it up more than three years ago and has qualified to run at Boston on Monday.
He earned his spot by running 3 hours, 32 minutes, 56 seconds this past June in The Great Run, a marathon over a 2-mile stretch of pavement on Great Cranberry in which runners go up and back, through the start-finish line, over and over again.
It was a beautiful day, and the island's small population -- about 60 full-time residents, with another 100 or so in the summer -- turned out to support Westphal, a carpenter and vacation-home caretaker. Schoolchildren hung up banners along the route and wrote inspirational messages in chalk on the road. Even his infant granddaughter was there, her first trip to the island.
"It was almost like they were willing me to finish," he says of the crowd.
As he tried to sprint to the finish, however, he fell twice, about 50 yards from the end, the result of his medications wearing off. He wasn't hurt, and popped back up and broke through the tape held out for him.
He had thought his running days were over, yet there he was, with a ticket to Boston for the first time since 1986.
"It's amazing to me that I'm lucky to still be able to run," Westphal says. "I just can't believe it. When I first was diagnosed I thought it would be the end of my active life and I had visions of being in a wheelchair in a few years. And, actually, this past two years, running has really helped me. It's changed my life completely."
Stopping, then starting
At first, Westphal simply had a sore left shoulder. Then the left side of his body felt achy and tight and his movements started to change. That was his first experience with the symptoms of Parkinson's.
"It was so sore and so tight that my arm swing was very awkward, and I just didn't look right running," he recalls. "I couldn't bear to do it."
So, he stopped.
Over time, the symptoms became worse. He couldn't control his movements. His muscles would act on their own, refusing to respond to brain commands. Sometimes, his head bobbed. Other times, he experienced periods when he shuffled along slowly and couldn't speak clearly.
The longtime carpenter continued to run his business, but had to give up most hands-on work. His two sons and another employee do the carpentry, and a sister-in-law also helps. Westphal works with clients, does the design work and handles the bookkeeping. He also has continued to care for about 35 vacation properties on the island.
He says his medications -- he takes four prescriptions each day -- have helped alleviate some symptoms.
Then came the big breakthrough, when he decided to run again.
He was inspired by Allen, who did a 500-mile run to raise money for charity. Allen logged about 50 miles per day from Maine to Washington, D.C., for the second inauguration of President Obama in January 2013.
If his childhood buddy could run 500 miles, thought Westphal, why couldn't he run a half-mile or a mile?
He started slowly, sometimes jogging between the vacation properties he serviced. He discovered the arm-swing problems and head bobbing were gone.
"Then I started actually getting out there with sweatpants and my shoes on," he says.
The farther he ran, the better he felt. He did some road races -- 5Ks, 10Ks and a 10-miler -- then decided in February of 2015 he'd do The Great Run marathon that June.
When he ran, his body's actions were more fluid and under control. The jerky movements ceased. He says his strength and balance improved and the incidents of slowdowns decreased. Running also helped his mental outlook. He was happy to be out on the roads again.
"It's an incredible feeling, just to be out there doing it," he says. "You actually feel normal for a change."
Allen says the physical transformation when Westphal runs is dramatic.
"If we walked into your office or your home or wherever, just walked in, Mike would noticeably be stricken with Parkinson's symptoms," he says. "But if Mike ran by you, you'd say, 'Wow, that's a pretty fit-looking runner.' You actually can't tell that he has any Parkinson's or anything when he's running. He's just as smooth as silk and he looks great."
Leading up to The Great Run, Westphal felt good. He did a 17-mile training run at a 7:32-per-mile pace, which would put him below the Boston Marathon qualifying standard for his age group (3 hours, 40 minutes).
On race day, he had goals.
"I had it in the back of my mind [to qualify for Boston]," he says. "But the first thing was to finish because I'd raised up to $27,000 to run for Michael J. Fox and Team Fox, to earn money for Parkinson's research. People had pledged money for me to run in it and I felt a lot of pressure to get the job done, so that was the first thing."
He says he didn't talk about Boston "out loud," but he felt good about his chances.
His youngest son, Brendon, ran with him the first 10 miles to keep his pace at about 8 minutes per mile. He didn't want to go out too fast. Then Westphal's brother and Allen ran with him the rest of the way at a faster clip.
As the race progressed, Westphal could feel his medications starting to wear off. His legs weren't responding as well as they had early in the race. Between miles 22 and 26 he walked a few times on the hilly sections of the route.
Then, when it came to the final 50 yards, he went down, got back up and went down again.
"The crowd was yelling and screaming, and I was up for it and tried to sprint to the finish," he says. "I just picked up the pace and my brain told my legs to go, but my legs said no."
Still, he finished the race, raised the funds (the final total was $38,000) and qualified for Boston. It was a good day.
"It was pretty exciting," Allen says.
Overcoming a tough break
Westphal suffered a setback last fall, fracturing his pelvis in the weeks leading up to the Mount Desert Island Marathon in October. He's not quite sure how it happened -- he guesses it was when he stepped off a dock -- but he ran the marathon anyway, not knowing what the injury was, and finished in 3:44.
"About 2 miles in I started to feel some pain, but I just kept running and trying to conserve my stride," he says. "When I got done, 10 minutes later I could hardly walk. I didn't know I had actually broken it until two weeks later when I went to the emergency room."
He had to spend all of November on crutches. In December, he could walk without them. In January, he began running short distances, and has since built to about 47 miles per week.
Westphal says training for Boston is going well. The only thing he's worried about is getting injured before the race.
"I'm ready to run right now," he says.
It has been 30 years since he last ran Boston, and he's eager to see the crowds, hear the cheers and experience the spectacle. And Westphal is not worried about falling in Boston. He says heha s figured out what went wrong.
"When I get tired, I've got to remember not to lean too far forward," he says. "I think I've got it under control now."
He's not exactly sure why running has been such a positive for him. He believes his body is probably producing more dopamine as a result of the exercise and the "runner's high" -- which he thinks is allowing signals to flow more efficiently from his brain to his muscles. Many believe increased exertion -- he calls it forced activity -- helps the brain produce more dopamine.
At Boston, he'll be raising funds again for the fight against Parkinson's, and has two other goals, just as he did at The Great Run: to finish, and to come in somewhere between 3:20 and 3:30.
"If I finish I'll be happy," Westphal says. "I'll be ecstatic if I finish under 3:30."