BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – For Joe Boyle, training for his first marathon isn’t just a challenge of endurance and strength.
It’s a test of heart and will and hope, and by those measures, he’s already crossed the finish line.
The 39-year-old Bowling Green man learned he had kidney cancer in 2011, roughly a year after he developed a passion for running.
The diagnosis and treatments stalled his marathon plans, but now he’s seizing his last chance to pound out 26.2 miles before starting an intensive, experimental immunotherapy regimen.
Today, Boyle, along with his Cleveland Clinic oncologist and some friends, will run three loops of a nearly 9-mile course they’ve mapped out along Bowling Green’s sidewalks and through the Bowling Green State University campus.
The run will cap several years of on-and-off training and cross off a goal that a doctor once told him would be impossible.
When they say, You have cancer,’ or when they say, You’re never going to run again,’ it’s a horrible, horrible place, and you’re kind of grasping in the darkness for anything, said Boyle, who was a reporter at The Journal Gazette in the late 1990s.
The marathon became something to strive for as he fought cancer. Running brings him hope, he said, and his quest has inspired those who know him.
It might not be an option for him to do it again, said Elizabeth Gorski, a friend who will run the marathon with him. It’s something that he really wants to do, so we are going to do it.
He wants those miles to send a message to his children – Ellie, 11, Joey, 8, and Mark, 5 – and his students at Rogers High School in Toledo.
We’re all dying in one way or another. We don’t know when, so the important thing is just to do what you love and be with the people that you love, he said.
He started running in 2010 after a visit to Africa awakened his interest in physical fitness. Out of shape and overweight, Boyle joined a BGSU-associated group on an educational trip. The itinerary included a hike up a mountain in Tunisia. Upon reaching the top, he said, he had an epiphany.
I just climbed this mountain, he thought. If I can do this, what else can I do?
He started running within weeks of returning home. He jogged at first – huffing and puffing around the block.
But he finished a 5-kilometer race, later extending it to 10 kilometers.
Running just became this incredible, empowering thing for me, he said. It was tranquil, it was quiet, it was fun, it made me feel good, and it became a huge part of who I am.
Boyle planned to run a marathon in 2011, and that March, he finished a half-marathon. After the race, he became sick, developing stomach pains that prompted a visit to the emergency room at Wood County Hospital.
That’s when doctors discovered a tumor in his right kidney growing into his circulatory system.
A whirlwind of emotions accompanied a flurry of medical action.
After a major surgery at Cleveland Clinic, he developed a blood clot in his left leg that caused his leg to swell to double its normal size. He was treated for the clot, but a doctor told him running wasn’t possible.
The news was devastating, threatening to take away the thing that made him feel really alive. He used a walker to get around, and he slowly built up his strength despite the leg pain.
In time, he started to run, though his pace was much slower. By September 2011, he finished another 5K race and worked to build up his miles.
The following summer brought another setback. His kidney cancer had traveled to his lungs, prompting more intensive treatments.
Through it all, he ran when he could, finding solace in those strides.
Every four months, he undergoes scans to check the disease’s progression. In November, his Cleveland Clinic oncologist, Dr. Brian Rini, told Boyle that the tumors in his lungs were still growing – albeit slowly – and he would soon have to start treatment.
He’ll begin an immunotherapy regimen in mid-February, and the side effects – fatigue, joint pain, inflammation – will make running difficult.
If he wants to do a marathon, he needs to do it now.
Boyle and his friends embraced the challenge. He increased his training, and at least three of his friends have volunteered to run alongside him.
Rini, a veteran of four marathons who often chats with his patient about their mutual love of running, agreed to join the unconventional run.
It’s not even a physical thing, it’s more mentally to try to cross it off the list, Rini said. He’s like me, once you decide to do something, you are going to accomplish (it).
That determination is inspirational.
He’s amazing, Rini said.
Boyle doesn’t know exactly what will happen after the marathon. For the moment, he’s focused on the marathon and bolstered by the love shown from the community, school, friends, his children, and his wife, Katie.
When you realize you can do these things, that’s living, he said