Stories of Hope
Doctor Runs the New York Marathon With her Patients
Article date: January 30, 2002
You can't stop living. You've got to keep on going. That's what survival is all about.
NYC Celebrates Life After Sept. 11
The 13-member team had been training six months for the New York Marathon when tragedy struck on Sept. 11. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, an internist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, felt the caution of a protective mother taking her brood — all patients of hers — into a war zone. What about the security risk?
Peeke had lost a patient in the Pentagon crash, and had almost lost her best friend in the World Trade Towers. In grief and shock, she stopped running for five days.
Peeke asked another patient, a holocaust survivor, whether they should participate in the Nov. 4 New York Marathon. "It's time for you to teach me," she said.
The patient replied, "You can't stop living. You've got to keep on going. That's what survival is all about."
The team was unanimous, "Let's do it!"
Walking the Talk
Peeke had run the Marine Corps Marathon in 1998 and was considering the New York Marathon when Lawson said, "I want to do it with you." The word spread. Next Peeke knew, she had a group of patients wanting to participate with her — but drew the line at 12.
Peeke, a Pew Foundation scholar in nutrition and metabolism, and a stress physiologist, likes to stay in shape. "I practice what I preach," she said, and has helped several of her patients to improve their fitness and lose weight — as much as 110 pounds.
Practicing means working out daily, and preaching includes consultations with her patients where she will often say to them, "Do you want a 'walk and talk'?" She'll put on her sneakers and walk outside with her patients while conferring with them. "Sometimes I've logged 20 to 25 miles in one day," said Peeke.
This all started by chance, when one of Peeke's patients wasn't sure she could walk up hills. Peeke told her, "Come on let's walk — show me." She was wearing a suit and grabbed her sneakers.
"It's all about walking your talk," said Peeke.
Training for the Big Day
Peeke brought in a trainer for the team of women, now dubbed, the "Peeke Performers," to prepare them. The team was made up of executives, teachers, mothers, and business owners. Most had never done a marathon.
Five would run and the other seven would walk briskly. For seven months, they met and trained. Each would walk/run three to five miles four days a week, plus a long walk on the weekends, starting at eight miles, adding on two miles each weekend until the length of a marathon was nearly reached, 26.2 miles.
During training, Lawson had a recurrence of breast cancer and would be treated with chemotherapy during the time of the race. The team formed a circle around Lawson that said, "We're here for you." Lawson was determined to walk the marathon.
Another breast cancer survivor, Michele Conley, an athlete, would run the entire marathon, while the other four runners, including Peeke, would use the Galloway method.
Created by Jeff Galloway, the Olympic marathoner, the method alternates running for six minutes with walking briskly for one minute. "It's a brilliant idea, because it allows people to run who otherwise couldn't," explained Peeke.
The team raised $60,000 for cancer as part of Fred's Team from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Fred Lebow, a legend in running and a creator of the New York Marathon, died of brain cancer in 1994. In his honor, funds are raised for cancer research.
Fired-up to Race
"Did you ever have a time in your life when everything comes together in an extraordinary way?" exclaimed Peeke.
Two days before the race, Peeke and Lawson appeared on the Today Show. Lawson had a low-grade fever and a cold. She had taken her chemo earlier before the trip, but got checked out at Sloan-Kettering. Against her oncologist's advice, she was determined to walk the race.
"Betty is a true inspiration," said Peeke. By the time they went to the Jacob Javits Center to pick up their racing numbers, people recognized Lawson from the show. Runners from all over the world greeted her and wished her well.
Peeke and Lawson visited Ground Zero. "We got a fire in our gut. It was one huge graveyard. We [Washington, D.C.] were the other wounded city. We came real close to not doing this. I felt I needed to get that fire," said Peeke.
A Whole City Participates
Race day was ideal running weather, sunny, 61 degrees, the wind at their backs.
The nearly 30,000 participants gathered at the Verrazano Bridge, the start of the race, to hear Mayor Giuliani give them a rousing welcome. His voice broke, Peeke said, when he told us, "I didn't think you would come — but now that you're here, we will embrace you like never before!"
A fireman sang the national anthem and God Bless America by a policeman. The crowd sang along with Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," played over the loud speakers.
An estimated two million spectators cheered the racers through the five boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan.
Peeke could see SWAT teams on the spires of the Verrazano, which spans the New York Harbor to Staten Island. Police helicopters hovered overhead. As they ran over the bridge, Peeke watched the Coast Guard and tugboats spray water in red, white, and blue.
"When we looked to the left, we saw where the towers should have been, leaving an empty feeling in our stomachs," said Peeke. Due to prior threats, "Everyone's time was incredibly fast on the bridge. We were all scared and glad to get over the bridge."
Once they hit the borough of Brooklyn, the party started. "We were the most fun they've had," noted Peeke about the New Yorkers who celebrated life as a city for the first time after Sept. 11. "People were everywhere, hanging out of windows cheering us on," laughed Peeke.
"I'm so thankful to my patient who was a holocaust survivor for encouraging us," said Peeke. "We were a part of a huge mass of humanity, finding whatever joy we could and sharing it with everyone," she said.
The police were everywhere, on top of buildings, noted Peeke. Firemen blocked streets with their fire trucks, and sat on ladders way up in the sky, waving the racers on. Peeke observed that whenever a runner ran with the red, white, and blue, there would be a roar from the crowd. Policemen and firemen would high-five each other.
"At Mile 16, crossing the Queensboro bridge into Manhattan, running down First Avenue, I felt like Rocky," said Peeke. "As we passed Sloan-Kettering, patients, doctors, administrators were all yelling for Fred's Team. It was a very emotional moment."
Throughout the race, Peeke kept a quote from Henry Ford in her mind: "Obstacles are those frightful things that appear when one loses focus of one's goal." It helped her stay fixed to the finish line, no matter what the pain.
Marathon a Metaphor
The race ended in Central Park. Teammates kept in touch with cell phones, and announced, "I made it!" after each crossed the finish line. Their careful training paid off — all Peeke Performers finished without injury. Conley clocked in at 4:19, Peeke at 6:13, and Lawson at 7:39.
"A marathon is a metaphor for life," said Peeke, which she often points out to her patients and uses as a motto. "This [problem] sounds like that hill on the 20th mile, look past that to the goal," she explained.
"I just believe patients need mentoring," she said. "You have to live fully and breathe, and show patients they can do that, too."
"I've been able to make some incredible changes in my patients' lives," Peeke concluded. She invites others to become Peeke Performers.