Michael Westphal, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost a decade, runs for the finish line of Saturday’s Lamoine half-marathon. PHOTO BY TAYLOR VORTHERMS

Runner with Parkinson’s trains for Boston Marathon

LAMOINE — Michael Westphal’s finish in last summer’s Great Run marathon on Great Cranberry Island resembled something out of a movie.

The 58-year-old runner, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost a decade, approached the finish line of the 26.2-mile course to music, bells and cheers. But spectators fell quiet when Westphal lost his balance and stumbled to the ground. He pushed himself up and took one more step before collapsing again.

Like any inspirational story, Westphal didn’t stay down for long. He not only finished the race, but also qualified for the Boston Marathon with a time of three hours, 32 minutes and 56 seconds.

Westphal is now training for one of the world’s best-known marathons, slated for April 18. He’ll be running to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, as he did for the Great Run.

Westphal was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 49. The progressive, central nervous system disorder results from the dying off of dopamine-producing cells responsible for coordination.

Westphal, who lives and owns a carpentry business on Great Cranberry, hadn’t run a marathon in 22 years before completing the Great Run on his home turf last June.

On the subject of his dramatic finish, Westphal smiled and responded: “That wasn’t scripted.”

Westphal said he could feel the dopamine replacement medication he takes for his Parkinson’s begin to wear off around mile 22. Once he spotted the finish, he tried to pick up the pace.

“The top of my body went forward and my legs didn’t,” Westphal said. “I looked at the video, and my face was half an inch from the tar. I couldn’t have planned that.”

That moving video of Westphal’s finish has been viewed more than 5,000 times on YouTube.

In similar fashion, Westphal has unintentionally touched people across the world through his running, even attracting press and donations from England, Ireland and Australia. Westphal’s goal was to reach $4,000 leading up to the Great Run. He ended up with $38,000 — putting him among the top 10 of more than a thousand 2015 fundraisers for the Michael J Fox Foundation.

As a result, Westphal has been invited to the foundation’s 10th annual MVP awards dinner in New York City on April 15, just three days before the Boston Marathon.

Westphal recently started fundraising again, this time with a goal of $10,000. He has raised $4,120 so far.

“It just tells you how generous people can be,” Westphal said. “They really do want to give.”

Westphal is back on the roads training. In the final stretch of Saturday’s Lamoine half-marathon, hints of Westphal’s Parkinson’s were subtle. Other than a slight head bob, he seems to shed his symptoms between the starting and finish lines of races.

Westphal said that while his running form has improved from last year, his excessive movement, or dyskinesia — a result of excess artificial dopamine — continues to grow more pronounced over time.

“With Parkinson’s, the medication is what makes you move around a lot,” Westphal said. “As the years go by, you get a little more dyskinesia.”

Westphal has encountered a few setbacks since last summer. On Oct. 18, he fractured his pelvis in two spots just two miles into the Mount Desert Island Marathon.

“Only had 24 miles to go,” Westphal said. “I ran the whole thing in pain.”

He finished the marathon in three hours and 44 minutes only to discover the extent of his injuries two weeks later in an emergency room.

Westphal picked up his training again in January. He started with running 17 miles a week and has gradually increased that distance to 47 miles.

Westphal said he hasn’t noticed any progression in his Parkinson’s since last year other than that he feels a little slower.

“I’m just a little more tired,” Westphal said. “It takes a toll on you. Once I get up to around 50 miles, I’ll probably get my energy back.”

“Today was good,” he added after finishing the 13.1-mile hilly race through Lamoine in 1:38:56. “Better than I thought I was going to do, so I think I’m a little ahead of the curve.”

Decades before Westphal’s diagnosis, he was one of the top runners in the state. The University of Maine track star could run a mile in four minutes and 19 seconds.

In 1979, Westphal paced the first female Olympic marathon gold medalist in the Boston Marathon before passing Maine’s Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the women’s division for the first time that year.

Westphal has finished 14 marathons — including three Boston Marathons — with a personal best time of 2 hours, 29 minutes and 32 seconds.

Westphal described running a Boston Marathon as “incredible.” The course passes through towns decorated with signs, and residents often stand outside their homes to offer water or, on a hot day, spray runners down with a hose.

“You have crowds and people celebrating the whole way,” Westphal said. “It’s great support.”

Westphal faded from the competitive running scene in the 1990s as he grew more involved with his family and operating his carpentry business, which he now runs with his two sons. But running always remained part of his life, that is, until 2006 when he began feeling soreness in his left shoulder.

Slowly, Westphal began losing coordination, and the stiffness once isolated to just one arm began to seize his whole body.

Westphal withdrew until last winter, when he returned to the road-racing scene to start raising awareness for Parkinson’s.

Around that time, he also became a grandfather of a baby girl, who turned 10 months old on Friday.

“It’s been the happiest year I’ve had in years,” Westphal said. “The running community has been really supportive. Everyone helps me and looks out for me.”

Westphal said he now hears from countless people who have been affected by Parkinson’s. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, an estimated seven to 10 million people worldwide are living with the disease.

One thing hasn’t changed from last year. Westphal’s growing celebrity status in both the running and Parkinson’s communities hasn’t gone to his head.

“There are a lot of people who have stories of friends or relatives who have Parkinson’s,” Westphal said. “There are stories out there that are more significant than mine.”

To donate to Westphal’s fundraiser, visit www.michaeljfox.org.

Taylor Vortherms

Taylor Vortherms

Sports Editor at The Ellsworth American
Taylor Vortherms covers sports in Hancock County. The St. Louis, Missouri native recently graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and joined The Ellsworth American in 2013.

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