Cancer survivor's challenge: Run 192 miles for those who can't

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Friday, actors, musicians, sports figures and newscasters are coming together in the fight against cancer in a nationally televised event called "Stand Up To Cancer," which will be live and commercial-free on ABC, CBS and NBC at 8 p.m. ET, and re-broadcast on the West Coast at 8 p.m. PT. The event aims to raise much-needed funding for cancer research and to build awareness about a disease that kills one person in this country every minute, and nearly 1,500 people each day.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Twenty-five hours into his run on this humid August night, the non-stop pounding was taking its toll on Dan Rose. Sleep deprivation had set in, and his mind was gradually losing its ability to process thoughts. His legs burned, his feet throbbed; and like a car running out of gas, his sunburned body began to slow down. But he refused to stop. Rose was determined to keep on running for those who cannot, and fight through the pain for those who are doing the very same.

None of the pain he felt on a pitch-black road in southeastern Massachusetts that night, though, compared to the hardships he had overcome a year earlier -- his battle against cancer.

Four weeks later, 31-year-old Rose, tall and slim, pumps his fist as he watches his beloved Red Sox round the bases on the big-screen TV that dominates the tiny living room of his Washington, D.C. apartment. Dressed in a weathered 2004 World Series tee, this native of Taunton, Mass., recalls how his running career started in high school when his friends convinced him to join the indoor track team as a way to get in shape for baseball season. It didn't take long for him to get serious about distance running. In his sophomore year at Brandeis University, he completed his first Boston Marathon.

After college, though, his interest gradually waned, and he took a six-year hiatus from organized racing. But in 2003, he decided to lace up his sneakers again and tackle the Portland (Maine) Marathon. While he was training, he noticed a small lump in his neck. Physically, he says he felt fine. In fact, Rose says he was in the best shape of his life. Still, when he finished that race, he decided to get it checked out.

"You have a very serious disease," were the words from his general practitioner a few months later. Rose had initially doubted the cyst was reason for serious worry, but he underwent a biopsy as a precaution. The diagnosis hit him like a ton of bricks: He had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"More than anything, I was just totally stunned," he says. "I got home, sat down and remember feeling just really disappointed. I loved my friends and family and even going to work, and I wanted to do more stuff with my life before it's over."

Twenty-six at the time, Rose immediately saw a specialist at the renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and his roller-coaster ride began. The initial surgery was followed by chemotherapy, which involved heavy-duty drugs to eradicate the disease. With the chemo came a wide range of side effects -- extreme fatigue, nausea and pain. His experience as an athlete helped him persevere.

"The mental training you learn getting through chemotherapy is completely analogous to the mental aspects of running ultra-long distances," he says.

After four months, Rose got a clean bill of health. At first he was overcome with joy, but that feeling quickly gave way to guilt.

"I thought, 'Why am I getting to walk out of here when some of the friends I made are still suffering?' I wanted to keep fighting for those that couldn't," he says.

He knew he had to get himself back into fighting shape. The chemo had taken its toll. The strength and endurance he had built up through his training was gone. Already skinny, Rose had lost 20 pounds, as well as his hair and eyelashes. He had become, as he describes it, a "complete shell" of himself.

"All of the literature you read says you're never going to be the same," he says. "And you don't want to hear that as a 26-year-old kid."

Rose set his sights on a return to the Portland Marathon -- one year after he first discovered the cyst -- with a goal of completing the race with a faster time. Reality, though, set in as soon as he went for his first run post-treatment.

"I got a half-mile down the road, couldn't breathe; everything burned," he says. "When I finished, I plopped on the ground. I looked up and saw the sun and thought, 'I am so happy that is the sun and not a fluorescent light in the hospital.' It was the most pain since chemo, but I was just so happy."

He not only completed the marathon but scraped six seconds off his time. Rose knew he was back. He knew, too, that it was time to give back.

"I didn't have much money, but I did have my legs," he says.

Rose set out to test the limits of the new life he had been given. He upgraded from marathons to 50-mile races, then to ultra-marathons (100-mile races). And he hatched a plan: He wanted to run the Pan Mass Challenge, a 192-mile bike race through Massachusetts in August, to raise money for cancer research. This would be the equivalent of running more than seven marathons back-to-back. But Rose was determined. He called the undertaking "Run 192."

"The whole point of doing this was to have an inspiring story to tell to the patients at Dana-Farber," he says. "'Realize that your life isn't over after you get out of the hospital. You don't have to be Lance Armstrong to accomplish great things. When you get out, you can be just as good, if not better.'"

Race organizers agreed to let him run the course, but he would have to do it three days before the actual bike race began so as not to get in the way of the cyclists.

"The thing that hit home with me is that he was so driven," says Jan Ross, director of Marathon and Running Programs at Dana-Farber. "There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to accomplish his goal."

His job as an event planner at the Library of Congress didn't leave Rose with a lot of free time for training. He squeezed it in before and after work, and averaged over 100 miles a week, including long runs of 40 or 50 miles on Saturdays. Ten months after he began his training, Rose headed to the starting line of the Pan Mass Challenge in Sturbridge, Mass. His wife, family, and friends formed a "crew" to meet up with him at five-mile intervals during the three days of running and provide water, food and, most importantly, the encouragement his body -- and mind -- needed to keep going.

"I basically just planned to put my head down and plow through, just like chemo," Rose says. "There are people helping you, but it's mostly you. Just focus mentally and get it done."

On the first day, Rose ran 120 miles in 26 hours, 20 miles longer than he had ever run in his life. He fought through the pain that hit him at the 25-hour mark for another 60 minutes.

"My feet hurt so bad," he says. "I must have looked like the Three Stooges all in one. Just slapping myself in the face to keep awake. … I was falling asleep as I was moving."

After a 10-minute nap in the back of his brother's SUV, he woke up, thinking he was ready to pound the pavement … until the intense physical and mental fatigue hit him again.

"I picked up my legs to stand up, went around back, reached for the [trunk] handle and then passed out," he says.

His brother, Erich, took him to his home a few miles away, where Rose collapsed on a bed. Forty-five minutes later, he was awake but unable to move. And a sudden sense of urgency struck. He remembers thinking, "'I have 72 miles to go … there's no way I'm going to be able to run. I can't even move. How am I going to do this?' The whole point of me running was to give an example to fellow patients who were fighting. I knew I had to get back out there."

"It was so beautiful and inspiring to see him run," says Elizabeth, his wife of three months. "But at the same time it was frightening, because he was thinking like a machine and not like a human being."

Rose dragged himself out of bed and returned to his run. He started with a slow walk, but soon hit a stride. Along the way, passers-by stopped to tell him how cancer had touched their lives in one way or another. After his story was broadcast on a local news station, he was bombarded by text messages from strangers, whose kind words fueled him even more.

Seventy miles and two days later, Rose finally reached Provincetown, the tip of Cape Cod. Stars dotting the night sky provided enough light for him to see the finish line ahead. His family and friends cheered him on and gave him the burst of energy needed to surge forward and complete his goal.

Afterward, Rose reflected on the challenges he has faced over the past few years.

"Cancer has been a blessing," he says. "I'm sure I would have gone on to be a nice guy or whatever, but I never would have been motivated to do something like this. It was like grad school in a way. It taught me important lessons. I went from being a 26-year-old kid who thought he was invincible to having a better understanding of the big picture and what's important in life."

Elizabeth adds, "People say it's a miracle that he was able to do that run. The miracle is that he's still here."

With his run, Rose raised more than $6,000 for the Jimmy Fund, an organization dedicated to supporting cancer research.

"I think the lesson learned is that everybody has their own talents. Sometimes, they're not so obvious. But there are so many ways to make a difference," says Dana-Farber's Ross.

Now, Rose shaves his head each day as a reminder -- both of the obstacles he has overcome and that his work isn't done. Over the next months, Rose plans to visit with the patients at Dana-Farber to share his story. He has been "overwhelmed" with e-mails and phone calls from friends and co-workers and from complete strangers who have heard his story and whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Rose is also brainstorming ways to continue his fundraising campaign. One possibility: running the Boston Marathon again, and completing the course four times consecutively. And instead of asking people to donate, he is seeking a sponsor.

"I need to keep the ball rolling and turn a snowball into an avalanche," he says.

And so he will continue, one step -- or stride -- at a time.

Alexa Pozniak is a feature producer for ESPN, focusing on human interest stories. She also blogs about sports for abcnews.com. She can be reached at alexa.pozniak@espn.com.