By Phil Gutis | January 25, 2023
Phil Gutis, a Being Patient reporter and columnist living with early-onset Alzheimer’s, reflects on his marathon years — and how, when it comes to brain health, they might still be paying off.
It was 1999. We were about to turn the clock back on a century and a millennium. I don’t remember exactly how it all happened, but apparently I thought it would be a good idea to mark the new year by deciding to become a runner. And since I never do anything by halves, I decided to start my running adventure by training for a marathon.
My first and second official races were the Marine Corps Marathons in Washington, DC. I ran to raise money for AIDS research and support. Even though the training was grueling, I completed both runs and found myself captured by a scurrying insect.
Friends and I decided it would be “fun” to pick a marathon somewhere in the country and fly to the race. It was on one of these random runs that I met an incredible woman named Cathy Troisi. I don’t remember how we started talking, but I remember that Cathy was an “older” woman (older than me anyway – she was probably only in her early 50s at the time), but she told me that she was a woman too late. -runner of life, and that she traveled across the country to run marathons. She added that she used to run a marathon every weekend.
Inspired by Cathy’s crazy schedule, I decided that if she could run a marathon every week, I could run a marathon every month for at least a year. The dates and races are lost in my memory, but I clearly remember running one marathon a month for six months.
Over the course of my short running career, I’ve done marathons in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia Beach and Disney World (the Mickey Mouse medal is amazing! In fact, I had to go back the next year to run the half marathon to get it Donald Duck finisher’s medal). I also completed marathons in Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Hartford, Huntsville, Alabama, Madison, Wisconsin and Clearwater, Florida.
Over a three-year period, I covered the 26.2-mile distance 17 times.
I was in San Francisco, running my seventh monthly marathon of the year, when my quest ended. I had just crossed the half marathon line and saw a bus there to take the 13.1 mile finishers back to the start of the race. I made the snap decision that I had had enough and jumped on the bus, accepted my half marathon finisher’s medal, and crawled to a seat.
I was finished. I don’t believe it has taken another step for ten years or more. That’s not to say I haven’t exercised – but more on that in a bit.
I just saw on Facebook that Cathy passed away unexpectedly at the age of 76. In addition to honoring a friend and marking her incredible achievement – 400 marathon runs and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for cancer research – I wanted to write this article because I’ve been thinking again about exercise and the role movement plays in development. and progression of cognitive disorders.
Exercise and I have long had a love-hate relationship — heavy on the hate. I didn’t play sports growing up and I always struggled with my weight. (Even running those marathons, I would weigh about 200 pounds on my 5’7” frame.)
That midlife jolt, however, got me moving. While I still see myself as a sedentary being (the COVID years haven’t helped), I’ve been pretty athletic. I made two climatic tours, where we cycle more than 160 kilometers a day. I dabbled in CrossFit for several years and developed an amazing rowing routine in an indoor rowing studio.
COVID, however, destroyed my routine. The rowing studio closed and I couldn’t bring myself to find a replacement. And of course my type 2 diabetes came back full force and my blood pressure became challenging again. Lately, I struggle to work exercise in my daily routine.
I recognize that I need to get moving again, and my friend Brittany Cassin – co-founder of a brain health company working on artificial intelligence and early detection of Alzheimer’s – and I are working on a brain health action program that we hope will lead to Running a marathon. We have a long way to go. She is walking about three miles; I’ve gone about a mile – and I’m exhausted afterwards.
While the research is clear about the connection between exercise and cognitive illness, I wonder why my 20-something years of intense exercise didn’t stop me from developing Alzheimer’s disease. But then again, my progression has been very slow.
I generally attribute this slow progression to receiving Aduhelm as part of an ongoing clinical trial. But there’s another possibility: What if my Alzheimer’s progressed relatively slowly because I did all these exercises in my 40s and 50s?
Or, what if the reverse is true: all those miles, all that CrossFit activity and endless rowing did nothing to stop the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s a frustrating thought to consider. And we may never know the answer: there is still so much unknown about Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders and the brain is the most complex organ in our body. Hell, the only way to conclusively determine the cause of cognitive illness is a postmortem brain autopsy.
Still, inspired by my friend Cathy and with Brittany’s help, I vow to get active again. Exercise won’t cure my Alzheimer’s, but it might help slow the progression. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my efforts. So stay tuned and wish me luck!
Phil Gutis is a former New York Times reporter and current contributor to Being Patient who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. This article is part of his Phil’s Journal series, chronicling his experience living with Alzheimer’s disease and his participation in the aducanumab clinical trial.