Beating the odds: Cancer survivor to run his 600th marathon

On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast:.

You read that right, 600 marathons. If you’ve ever run a marathon (26.2 miles) you know how incredibly challenging it can be. The training can be grueling and the race itself can present challenges you weren’t expecting. Despite how prepared you are, some runners hit the halfway point and can’t take another step. Others get to within the last couple of miles and have reached the point of extreme exhaustion. Some collapse. Now imagine doing that 600 times, sometimes back to back. Incredible, right?

Now imagine doing it while battling stage 4 prostate cancer.

A word. Inspiring.

In partnership with USA Today’s good news brand Humankind, 5 Things brings you the story of Tom Perri a 60 year old from Maple Grove, Minnesota who beat cancer and is preparing to run his 600th marathon later this month.

To read Tom’s story click here.

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To follow Zulekha on Twitter, click here.

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Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below.This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

James Brown: Hello, and welcome to Five Things. I’m James Brown. It’s Sunday, May 15th, 2022. On Sundays, we do things a bit differently, focusing on one topic instead of five. And this week is about running. Marathons that is.

For most people running one marathon in their lifetime is a big achievement. A couple years ago, I bought a step counter with a goal of actually doing it. I’m not quite there yet, but someday, maybe I’ll get there.

After wearing a step counter for a few weeks, I realized how little I actually moved in a day. The average person walks about 4,000 steps, which is around two miles each day. I was under 2,000 steps at one point, and I knew things had to change. Today, I’m around 6,000 or 7,000 steps per day. And I barely got through a 5K a few years ago.

For 60-year-old Tom Perry from Maple Grove, Minnesota-.

Tom Perry: That’s right, buddy. Come on. We got run. We got to run. Come on. Come on.

James Brown: 7,000 steps is nothing.

Tom Perry: Come [inaudible 00:01:10].

James Brown: He’s on track to run his 600th marathon this month. That’s not his only achievement. Joining me now with more on Tom is Zulekha Nathoo. She’s a host and producer with USA Today’s good news brand, Humankind. Zulekha, welcome back.

Zulekha Nathoo: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

James Brown: How many races does he run in a normal year?

Zulekha Nathoo: Well, Tom averages about 36 races a year, sometimes more. During the pandemic, there were fewer obviously, but sometimes he’ll even do them back to back. So he’ll do one marathon on a Saturday morning and then another one on a Sunday night. So that is some real dedication.

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James Brown: How is that even possible? I would think it would be hell on your body.

Zulekha Nathoo: Yeah. I mean, I guess he does have a gift for running, which helps, but he also has a lot of discipline and his body I guess is so accustomed to what I think some people would perceive as torture, but he is somebody who really enjoys the thrill of crossing the finish line.

James Brown: That’s truly amazing. What made this story stand out for you?

Zulekha Nathoo: This is the kind of story that you think you know when you hear that headline, 600 marathons. Okay. So it’s about a guy who’s run 600 marathons. That’s a big deal. But the thing is, it’s only the beginning. There’s so many layers to Tom Perry’s story.

First of all, he’s run marathons in all 50 states. He’s done that five times. So five times each in every state, and yes, he’s about to run his 600th marathon in Fargo, North Dakota, but the last hundred, or I’d say almost hundred marathons he’s done, he’s done while battling cancer.

He has stage four prostate cancer and he was diagnosed in 2019. So he’s had his prostate removed. He’s had 38 rounds of radiation, been on drug therapy. Here’s what he told me about the races that he’s run since then.

Tom Perry: I never even dreamed I could get 600, but it was just one day at a time thinking that I could do it one day at a time, get one done, get to the start line, get to the finish line, worry about the next race. And that’s why I’m telling runners now the most common question I get is what’s my favorite marathon or race.

And I said, it’s always my next one because I’m not guaranteed that next race. So if I finish that next race, it’s my favorite till the next race.

James Brown: I would think if I was in that situation that I might not keep going. What drives him? Why does he keep running after that?

Zulekha Nathoo: Yeah, I was wondering the same thing because running in itself, first of all takes such a toll on your body. Tom is 60 years old. And then on top of that, running marathons when your health is somewhat compromised is really something. And I think this is where the layers of this story continue to appear.

Tom tells me about how he’s been running since he was a kid. And he still remembers his very first track meet in eighth grade when he downed a milkshake right before a one mile race. And then he threw up on the side of the track, but he told me, he said, “I did not win that race, obviously, but I finished it.” And he continued to run track throughout high school.

And in fact, in his high school yearbook, he’s listed as getting one of the best times. So it’s always been a part of his life. And when he got sick, he says he sat down with a six pack of beer and realized he had a choice.

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He could let life go by with this new reality or he could live life like he always has, but maybe be a little slower. And so that’s what he decided to do. It was almost like his way of trying to fight back against this illness.

James Brown: My guess is, and correct me if I’m wrong, there’s more to this. What keeps him going on his dark days?

Zulekha Nathoo: Yeah, this is really a very layered and interesting story. So for starters, he would run with his neighbor’s dog Otto when he was recovering from the radiation. And he said that Otto really got him through some very dark days. So they’d run a block together, walk when he needed to. And Otto would even keep him company on the couch on those days when he just did not want to do much of anything.

And then there’s another layer to all this. And I think this is actually the key to what ties everything together and explains his motivation. So Tom is choosing to do his 600th marathon in Fargo. His best race time actually was at Fargo several years ago and he just likes that course a lot.

So I spoke with the race director there and he told me something that Tom probably wouldn’t have told me himself if I hadn’t asked. And it’s that Tom doesn’t just run marathons. He paces marathons. So that means he helps other runners keep to time so that they can achieve their personal goals and hit their target finish.

And you can imagine how much encouragement you might need when let’s say it’s your first or second marathon. You hit that runner’s wall halfway through the race. You’re just so incredibly tired. You want to give up. So to have somebody who’s experienced and can give you a little bit of extra motivation during that really long course is quite fundamental, but then there’s even another layer to this.

So I asked Tom about it. I asked him about pacing and what it means and why he does it. And he actually told me that he does something extra beyond just the pacing and it kind of blew me away. Here’s what he told me.

Tom Perry: I was kind of like the Marine Corps mentality is that I didn’t like to leave somebody behind. So I’d finish, go back and get him, bring somebody in, go back, finish, bring somebody in. So a lot of times on a marathon, I always run in between 29 to 32 miles that day.

Zulekha Nathoo: So basically he’d crossed the finish line and then go back to help others. So for example, he talked about pacing a race in Arkansas in 2020 and a runner fell behind in their group. So when Tom crossed the finish line, he actually went back about a mile to find that runner and make sure she crossed the finish line, because oftentimes he said it’s in those last couple of miles believe it or not, that can be the absolute hardest to complete in a marathon.

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You think by the time you’re at mile 25, you’d be celebrating already. But he said, that’s not how it works because your body is just so exhausted. So he wanted to make sure that the people he started with he could finish with. So he ran back with her that last mile to motivate her, basically. So imagine running 26.22 miles and then just tacking on a couple more to help someone else. But Tom said, that’s the best part of it all for him.

Tom Perry: It makes me feel wonderful. Because running has never been about me and I tell that when I talk to high school groups and all that. I don’t want people to remember me. Oh yeah. You know Tom. He did 600 marathons or 2000 plus races or he’s in the hundred thousand mile club or he’s got all these stats. That’s not what I want to be remembered by.

I want to be remembered by, “Oh yeah, he got me a personal record at this race. He got me B2. He paced me on a race where I didn’t think I could even finish. And he came back out on the course and got me.”.

Zulekha Nathoo: So Tom’s running the Fargo marathon on May 21st. And he says that they’re even trying to get him the number 600 in honor of his milestone marathon.

James Brown: Tom, if you’re listening, I can’t imagine what that must be like to finish a marathon and run back a mile. This vision of someone who has to be totally exhausted turning around and coming all the way back to help somebody else. I mean, you must be a hell of a dude.

Zulekha Nathoo: Well, and if you ask him about it, he treats it like it’s something anyone would do for somebody else.

James Brown: Well, Zulekha thanks for joining me.

Zulekha Nathoo: Thanks for having me.

James Brown: If you like the show, write us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening and do me a favor, share it with a friend. Thanks to Zulekha Nathoo for joining me.

Are you a runner or a walker like me? Or do you want to? What are your goals? Tell us at James Brown TV or @usatoday on Twitter. Or email me at [email protected]. We might share your stories on the show. Thanks to Alexis Gustin for her production assistance. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with five things you need to know for Monday and for all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I’m James Brown and as always, be well.


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