Running with a greater purpose

Raising money to combat the disease that took her father has taken Winter Vinecki around the globe. Anita Allen Marathon Tours

When Winter Vinecki lost her father, Michael, to prostate cancer in 2009, she and her brothers vowed to fight the disease.

That vow was etched into his headstone: "Cancer, we will chase you to the end of the earth and stomp you out like you stomped my dad out."

Four years later, Vinecki, 14, is fulfilling that end-of-the-earth promise. She's trying to become the youngest runner ever to complete seven marathons on seven continents as part of her drive to raise attention and money for prostate cancer research. Team Winter, the non-profit organization she founded as a 9-year-old, has attracted big-name sponsorships and raised approximately $400,000 for the cause.

Vinecki has completed marathons in Oregon, Kenya and Antarctica. Next up is the Inca Trail Marathon in Peru on June 5, followed by races in Mongolia (August), New Zealand (October) and Greece (November).

For Vinecki, this quest is personal and necessary. When she runs, she feels her father's presence. She saw his determination in fighting cancer and is equally determined to finish these seven marathons.

"He kept fighting and never gave in," Vinecki said of her dad, who passed away at age 40. "I hope I'm making him proud and getting him to places he never got to go in the world."

Though her passion was born of pain, it keeps her running.

"You never expect to lose your dad, who was so active, never smoked and was completely healthy," Vinecki said. "You never expect to lose him so young and you never want to see any other family go through that, and that's one of the reasons we're doing Team Winter, so no family has to lose a brother or son or any member of their family so young."

Vinecki's mother, Dr. Dawn Estelle, is an Ironman triathlete and marathoner who has been watching her daughter do seemingly impossible things since she entered her first road race at age 5. She was running, skiing and doing short triathlons on weekends with her parents when most kids her age were watching cartoons.

It was only natural that Vinecki would be a go-go-go girl while growing up with two active, outdoorsy parents and three brothers. Family fun was piling into a motorhome to go to triathlons and races on weekends when they weren't camping.

"It's funny, because my youngest brother, we were at a triathlon over one weekend and he asked my dad, 'Is this what normal families do on the weekend?'" Vinecki said. "And my dad was like, 'Heck, no.'"

By age 9, Vinecki completed an Olympic-distance triathlon -- a feat some said was too much for a girl her age.

"After that, I knew there was nothing that she couldn't do," said Estelle, a physician in Salem, Ore.

Vinecki is a two-time IronKids national triathlon champion (2010 and 2011) and also a member of Fly Elite, an Olympic development team for aerial skiing. She lives with a host family for much of the year in Park City, Utah, to pursue her ski training, with a goal of competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

She also gobbles up 4,000 or more calories a day to fuel her 5-foot-2, 100-pound body as it not only cross-trains its way across the earth but handles the rigorous course work of Stanford's Online High School.

Now Vinecki is poised to take on the marathon of marathons in Peru and it's another mission that some believe is too much for a young teen. In fact, finding marathons that fit into her schedule and will allow her to race has been difficult because many won't permit runners under the age of 16 or 18.

To Estelle and her daughter, the age factor isn't relevant.

"It's never bothered me because I've done the research," says Estelle. "As a physician, I've looked into it and there is no evidence-based medicine that shows it's any more harmful for her to run than a 40-year-old."

Estelle says she and Vinecki's running coach, Mark Hadley, have done extensive reading and can't find "anything damaging about what she's doing."

"As a matter of fact, childhood obesity is far more dangerous on our youth than someone like Winter who wants to go out and run 26 miles," Estelle said.

Hadley, who's worked with Vinecki for close to a year and a half, says she is an exceptional athlete with natural endurance. A longtime runner and coach who operates Maximum Performance Running in North Carolina, Hadley believes the appropriate age for young people to run marathons depends on the athlete.

"You have to look at it on an individual basis rather than all kids should do this or all kids shouldn't do this," Hadley said.

He's confident that Vinecki has the proper training, nutrition and athletic ability to do these races, especially given that her goal is simply to finish them, not run exceptional times.

Vinecki says most people are supportive of her endeavor, and she tries to tune out the naysayers who are certain she's too young and bound to burn herself out.

"You've just got to stick to your heart and surround yourself with people who believe in you," Vinecki said.

Estelle believes that because her daughter cross-trains "like a beast" -- for triathlons, marathons and skiing -- she has been resistant to injuries and burnout. Estelle is confident Vinecki will prove that age limits are arbitrary.

"Winter will be a pioneer in youth endurance sports," said Estelle, who has run the first three marathons with Vinecki and plans to run all seven. "Everybody will be looking to see how she's going to turn out."

Thom Gilligan, a longtime marathoner and president of Marathon Tours & Travel -- a Boston-based company that takes runners around the world to races -- admits he's not a fan of young people running marathons.

But Gilligan, the race organizer for the Antarctica Marathon & Half-Marathon that was held March 30, allowed Vinecki to compete. She became the youngest ever to finish a full marathon on the continent, running the loop course in 4:49:45, which was third among women.

Before he approved her participation, Gilligan interviewed Estelle to make certain she knew "the challenges that a marathon endurance event has on a young skeleton." He was convinced that as a doctor and runner herself, she was aware. And when he ran with Vinecki and other entrants in Buenos Aires, Argentina, two days prior to sailing to Antarctica, he felt confident about her abilities.

"She was keeping up with the faster runners and it was pretty obvious she knew what she was doing," Gilligan said. "She had trained properly ... I had her tagged as one of the favorites."

On race day, with temperatures about 22 degrees at the start and dipping to 4 or 5 with wind chill, Vinecki ran a smart, conservative pace, according to Gilligan.

After seeing what she can do, Gilligan has "no doubt in my mind" that Vinecki will complete the seven marathons.

The fourth test in Vinecki's quest to complete marathons in all seven continents is the Inca Trail Marathon to the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, which is billed as "the most difficult marathon in the world." It includes treks over mountain passes of nearly 14,000 feet.

Though she has trained at altitude in Utah, Vinecki knows this will be more severe. Runners often become walkers. One section of the route, she noted with a laugh, is called Dead Woman's Pass.

"We did some research on the race course, and from previous years, we know basically you should double your time at least, so my time will be around 8½, 9 hours if everything goes well," Vinecki said. "It will be long and grueling."

Vinecki's first test was the Eugene Marathon last spring, when she ran 3:45:04 as a 13-year-old. In September, she ran the Amazing Maasai Ultra in Kenya -- a hilly course at altitude over dirt trails in 90-degree heat -- and finished third among women in a time of 4:04.

After the Inca Trail, Vinecki is penciled in for the Sunrise To Sunset marathon in Mongolia on Aug. 7, the Great Barrier Wharf to Wharf in New Zealand on Oct. 12 and then race No. 7, the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece on Nov. 10 where she'll get to experience portions of the original marathon course of Phidippides. If she completes her mission -- about a month shy of her 15th birthday -- Vinecki will become the youngest runner to finish a marathon in seven continents, breaking the mark of American Sarah Oliphant, who at 15 years and 192 days completed the feat in December of 2010.

Though each stop involves running, it's been about much more than that. For Vinecki it's been a cultural awakening and an opportunity to do something positive. She has carried her message about prostate cancer, helped raise money for girls' education in Kenya and had the chance to see penguins and whales in Antarctica.

And as she crosses the finish line of each race, Vinecki points her finger to the sky to remind everyone that she's doing this for her dad.

Vinecki's quest has caught the attention of media everywhere she's gone. She's been the subject of feature stories on network TV and national magazines.

"A lot of people ask now, 'How does it feel to be famous?'" Vinecki said. "I don't even think about being famous. It's not about me getting on TV. It's getting my face on there for my cause, it's my face being out there to help spread the word. I want people to recognize me and say, 'Oh, yeah, she's the girl who's helping raise funds for prostate cancer and she's the one who's helping save lives.' That's what I really think about."

To adults she meets, Vinecki seems as if she's 14 going on 40. Gilligan calls her "the most impressive young person I've ever met."

Estelle, in fact, says Vinecki is known in their family as "a chameleon" because she can be a goofy teenager one day, clowning around with her three brothers or friends, and then do a speaking engagement, interview or appearance with sponsors in a totally adult environment the next.

"She's still a kid," Estelle said. "Everybody says she's growing up too fast and she's missing her childhood, but unless you've really been around her and all of her scenarios, she's still a kid and she loves it.

"But she's also making a difference in the world and some of that does require her to be more adult. And that's not a bad thing."