That guy did what? And he has Parkinson’s?
Bret Parker will talk about running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh
If you have given birth to one child, there is a point in most second or subsequent labors when you remember how very much it hurts.
You’ve managed to forget what it feels like, and as your body feels like it is about to be riven into two unattached parts because it is simultaneously being cut apart by a hacksaw and singed by a welder, you remember. And you curse your idiocy in forgetting.
And then you have a baby.
And your endorphins kick in, and your joy, and your body makes sure that your mind forgets what it felt like — until the next time, when once again it’s far too late to change your mind.
So why is this the opening to a story about running a marathon?
Because Bret Parker, a lawyer who will talk about running, faced that oh-NOW-I-remember-moment seven times in more or less seven days.
Mr. Parker ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
That’s as in SEVEN marathons on SEVEN continents in SEVEN days.
And Mr. Parker has Parkinson’s disease.
It is an extraordinary story of courage and endurance and will, and Mr. Parker will talk about it next week at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. (See box.)
Mr. Parker grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, graduated from P.S. 6, and then from Horace Mann High School, and then from the University of Pennsylvania, and then from law school at Fordham University, where he met his wife. He worked at two law firms and then as an in-house lawyer at three companies. All very impressive but standard for Upper East Side Jews. And then, when he was 39, “I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s,” he said.
It was a very early diagnosis. His symptoms were slight and easy to hide, and for five years Mr. Parker hid them from everyone but family and the closest of his friends. The disease “progressed slowly,” he said. “I could see the symptoms; sometimes other people could see them — tremors in my hands, some stiffness — but they didn’t know what they were.
“But then, after five years, I outed myself,” he said. At first, he’d just tell friends, one at a time. “It was exhausting,” he said. “They would cry. I would cry. But I had to tell people.” Not only were his symptoms becoming harder to hide — again, like a pregnancy — but “the stress of hiding them makes them worse,” he said.
Then Mr. Parker decided to switch from the retail to the wholesale model. In a blog post published on Forbes in 2012, he went entirely public with his condition, explaining, in very personal terms, why he’d chosen to hide it, and why he’d decided to stop hiding. Among other reasons, he said, once he no longer hides, he can do the thing that he feels most driven to do — work to raise money to understand and fight Parkinson’s. (To find his post, just google “Bret Parker,” “Forbes,” and “Parkinsons.”
Once he’d written the post, he sent the link to his friends, and told them to “just read it.” The response was “wonderful,” he said. “It was great. It was so supportive.” He began to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation — Mr. Fox, of course, is the actor who also was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was young, and whose foundation does great work in supporting research.
After he went public, Mr. Parker’s best friend, David Samson, who then was president of a major league baseball team, the Miami Marlins, decided to run a double marathon to raise money for Parkinson’s research. (The two men first met in high school and have been close ever since.) Mr. Parker ran a leg of that marathon.
This was not his first marathon. Before he was diagnosed, Mr. Parker was an occasional marathon runner, neither an all-in runner nor a you’ve-got-to-be-crazy-to-run-26.2-miles type. “When I was growing up, I always dreamt about doing the New York City Marathon,” he said. “So in 1996, I ran the first one. I ran it with David. It was his first too.
“We were not athletes. We were not in shape. So I said let’s do it together. So we ran around the Central Park reservoir; that’s 1.6 miles, and we almost died the first time. We were coughing up our lungs.
“We trained for about seven months; we went from zero to the New York City marathon in seven months. And then I didn’t exercise again for six years.”
How was the New York marathon? “Amazing,” Mr. Parker said. “It was tiring. I was sore. But it was exhilarating. It is the most amazing New York City experience.
“Ironically,” he added, “I was always inspired by Zoe Koplowitz, who would always run the marathon, and would always finish.” Ms. Koplowitz has multiple sclerosis; she’s run 23 New York marathons and finished last in all of them, once taking more than 33 hours to get to the finish line. “The Guardian Angels would protect her, and she would crutch in,” Mr. Parker said.
Mr. Parker and Mr. Samson ran again in 1999 and in 2002; the two trained for seven months both times, and ran together for the whole course. In 2007, Mr. Parker was diagnosed, “and then in 2010 we ran again,” he said. “I hadn’t outed myself then” — Mr. Samson was among the few people who knew — “and I didn’t do it for charity. I just did it to see if I could.” This time, he took about 15 minutes longer that he had before his diagnosis.
Then, in 2012, after his blog post, Mr. Parker ran one leg of Mr. Samson’s double marathon. “I was fine,” he said. “It was a short run, it was in Florida, and it was fine. And David got a lot of attention for the fund-raising.
“At that point, I said to myself that I had to be more out there. I had to be more visible. So I did a series of events, one per year.”
The first was a sky dive. “Part of the awareness I wanted to bring to Parkinson’s was that I will not let Parkinson’s hold me back,” Mr. Parker said. “I want to live life as big as I can. I will not let Parkinson’s define me.”
Instead, he willed himself to be defined by courage. “I had always wanted to sky dive, so I asked myself what was I waiting for,” he said. As he and his family — he and his wife, Katharine, have two sons — would drive out to eastern Long Island to relax, “we would pass a skydiving place. It’s at Exit 69. It’s a place I had passed a million times. I would always say that we should pull off and sky dive, and they’d call my bluff.” So they’d drive on by.
Not this time.
“It was great,” he said. “It was terrifying. I had imagined that it would feel like a roller coaster, when you go up and down, but when you sky dive you only feel that for the first second or so. You hit a consistent speed after that,” so that your internal organs feel as if they’re all dropping at the same rate. “And when you pull the cord and the parachute goes up, you feel that again for a second, and then you float, and it was amazing.” Until you get close to the ground and have to worry about breaking your legs, he added.
“I raised money with that one,” he said. “And I tell people that this was the easiest thing I’ve done, because you don’t have to train. You just have to jump out of the plane.” (As if…)
Mr. Parker’s next feat was an Olympic-length triathlon, the 2014 Mighty Hamptons race. “That one was a bucket item,” he said. “When I was 2 or 3 years old, I fell into a pool, so I never learned to swim right,” he said. “I was terrified. I couldn’t dive. When I went to camp I never got beyond advanced beginning in swimming. I would hide during instructional swim.” So the triathalon was an important hurdle for him to surmount.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I got a trainer to teach me to swim. I started with the men,” who go first as the swimming third of the race begins, “but I fell right back past the women, and finished second to last. I don’t know what I was thinking.
“After that you bike and you run, but I was so beat up by the swim… When I finally finished, it was such a great feeling.”
Mr. Parker and his wife, Katharine, did the triathalon together; “and then the next year she and I did a mountain hike up Mount Elbert,” Colorado’s tallest peak. Like all his other adventures, it was a fund-raiser; “and that also makes it harder to back out,” he said.
In 2016, he ran the New York City marathon once more, to be sure that “I could still run one, before I tried to run seven.”
Then he and Mr. Samson decided to tackle the world marathon. “We saw a video of a guy, a British schoolteacher, Ted Jackson. ESPN did a documentary about him. He was really heavy, not in good shape, and I said that if Ted Jackson can do it, I can do it too.
“It was not my smartest move.”
The World Marathon Challenge began in 2012; it’s been run every year since then. Since it began, 100 people have run it. “The first year there was just a handful, and then every year there were a few more,” Mr. Parker said. This year’s race, in February 2018, had 50 entrants. He was part of a group of 16 who did it together. “We were all connected in some way, friends or friends of friends,” he said. “One of them has a prosthetic leg” — her name is Sarah Reinertsen — “she has done all sorts of big events.” All of them raised money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and a few other philanthropic causes, including cancer-fighting organizations. “There were five women, and the rest of us were men,” Mr. Parker said. “Some were in their mid to late 20s, and the oldest were in their late 60s and early 70s. One of the runners was Dave McGillivray, the race director for the Boston Marathon.” Others were associated with the Miami Marlins; they knew about the race through Mr. Parker’s friend Mr. Samson.
The race charges $40,000 per person; that buys everything, including transportation, food, staff, and everything else. “We had an anonymous donor who paid for all of us,” Mr. Parker said.
Mr. Parker is Jewish; he is a member of Central Synagogue in Manhattan. “One of the rabbis had me there for Friday night services before I left,” he said. “I didn’t fully understand how big a deal this was for Central until that night.”
Then, finally, it was off to the races.
The group flew to Capetown, South Africa, spent a few days settling in, meeting each other, getting ready. Then they took the six-hour flight to Antarctica for the first race; races there can be run only when the weather is right, so the times for the entire seven races are dependent on it. “You want to start the clock running when you can start the first race,” Mr. Parker said.
It was summertime in Antarctica. “I had never been there before, and going there also was on my bucket list, so I got to do both things at the same time,” Mr. Parker said. “We landed on an ice runway at a Russian research station. For the marathon, they shaved down a path that goes around the runway; you’re running on flattened ice and snow. They rough up the surface a little, but it’s still a little slippery. We ran in trail shoes, which are a little heavier than normal running shoes.”
The runners also wore warm clothing, long pants, long-sleeved jackets, and snow goggles.
“We went round and round the track, but it was not at all boring, because it was shockingly beautiful. It was all loops, so we saw each other all the time.”
Most of the runners finished long before he did, though, and “when I was one of the few people left on the course, it got colder and windier and lonelier. My iPhone battery died from the cold.
“And the sun never went down, which was sort of eerie. It felt alien, almost like we were on another planet.
“It took hours after I finished before we could leave,” he continued. “We waited in a big tent; there might have been heaters, but it was very cold.” It wasn’t hot when they started; by the time Mr. Parker finished “it was 10 or maybe 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I was very cold, and my symptoms were not great. When I am cold, I get very shivery, with a whole-body tremor. Also, the running wears out my medication and that makes my symptoms kick in.”
Eventually the plane did take off and the group went back to Capetown, where they ran the second marathon, about 12 hours after Mr. Parker finished the first one. “It was really hot,” he said. “We ran along the beach; we wore t-shirts and shorts. It was beautiful, sunny, nice, beautiful.” He was among the last three runners to finish, but he was not dead last.
Next, the group went to Perth, Australia, after a 12-hour flight. “We had enough time on the plane to eat and sleep and sort of recover,” he said. Then, “there was a cricket match earlier that night” in the place where they ran. “We had to wait to start until 9 or 10 at night. It was a running trail in a park, and we ran through the night.
“You have no sense of what day or time it is,” he continued. “You get through the first two marathons on adrenaline and novelty, but by the third you are starting to feel the effects of the other two, plus jet lag and the lack of sleep.”
This run, like the first one, had loops that brought runners in and out of contact with each other. “It was not boring, although by the end there were long stretches when I was alone,” Mr. Parker said. “It was too dark to see anything.” It was not a scenic run.
Then it was on to Dubai, where again the group had to run at night. “It was a flat path along the beach,” he said. “By the time I finished, at 5:30 in the morning, the first call for prayers had gone out on loudspeakers. At 12 or 1 o’clock I had seen young people coming out of clubs and bars and going home, and a few hours later I heard the day start with the call to prayer. And then the sun came out.
“It was surreal. It all was surreal.”
By then, things had started to change for Mr. Parker. “I was really starting to get tired, and I was really starting to feel my symptoms more,” he said. “I started to have something going on at the bottom of my foot, and I was getting worried. By then I was really slowing down. My first marathons were 6 1/2 hours and then the next two were seven hours. I was still feeling sort of okay at that point; walking at some points, running at others.”
The flights between venues were getting longer. “I had no idea what time it was or what day it was,” Mr. Parker said.
Next was Lisbon. “That was the tough one,” he said. “I am starting to worry about finishing. We had been told that there was an eight-hour cutoff — that if you didn’t finish in eight hours you had to stop — but I found out that all that mattered is that you had to make the flight. I was slowing down, getting more hurt, getting more tired.
“We ran in the rain and part of the way we were on cobblestones. It was night again. I had a blister on the bottom of my left foot. It was a very big blister. My symptoms were getting worse.
“I knew that I was not going to make eight hours, but they said not to worry about that. That marathon took more than nine hours. It was terrible, and it was so bad that they sent Ted Jackson” — the formerly overweight non-runner who had run the seven marathons a few years earlier and who had inspired Mr. Parker, and who had come to Lisbon to meet the groups — “to walk the last four miles with me and keep me company. It was 5 in the morning then, and I appreciated it. I must have walked the last 10, 15 miles, and I was only walking then, anything from a brisk walk to a hobble.
“Ted was very entertaining,” he added.
Lisbon remains hard for Mr. Parker to talk about. He choked up when he tried to explain what it was like. The intensity of the pain he was feeling from his body in general and his badly blistered foot in particular — added to the fear that his symptoms would intrude to the point where he could not overcome then, piled on to his fatigue and self-questioning, there in the European darkness — almost overcame him.
But instead he overcame.
“They had taken down most of the finish line in Lisbon by the time I got there,” Mr. Parker said. “They held up a tape. By then everyone else was upstairs in the hotel, sleeping. I never got to sleep. By the time I finished showering, everyone else already was downstairs eating breakfast.
“After Lisbon, I knew that if I can do a marathon in more than nine hours, then there is no way I won’t finish. There is nothing that will stop me now. There are only two marathons left, and I will do them. I may have to go very slowly, but I will finish.”
Spoiler alert — he did.
The next-to-last marathon was in Cartagena, Columbia. “That course was really bad,” Mr. Parker said. “It was a very complicated course, and the directions really were not great. A lot of people ended up running more than they should have because they got so lost.
“I ran through the town square, which clearly is where all the hookers congregate,” he said. “There was a lot of business going on there. I ran through that square maybe 20 times.” He was very lost. “I am sure they thought I was shopping.
“By the last time, they sent the race director out to walk with me and we got lost again, and then the police stopped us. We were asking for directions, and they thought we were getting drugs. I was about to empty my pockets, and then I realized that I had all my Parkinson’s drugs in them.” Finally they convinced the police that they in fact were marathon runners, not drug addicts. “And then I ended up almost stepping on a rat. And then I finished.
“This was not a conventional marathon.”
They laughed about it, but Mr. Parker wasn’t feeling particularly good. “The blister on my foot was really bad,” he said. “The skin had completely ripped off the bottom of my foot.” It had to be bandaged, and he needed Advil.
And then it was the last marathon, the culminating North American run, in Miami. “It was great,” he said. “My family was there, we had a lot of friends there, it was daytime.” It wasn’t perfect; “I was in incredible pain from my foot. There was no skin left on it. I ran a good chunk of the first four, five, six miles, at a good pace, and my body felt good, but not my foot.
“And then everything started to hurt. And I walked.”
This was the last few miles of the 183.4 he had gotten himself across, on his own feet, despite his Parkinson’s, in the last seven days. Could he make it? Of course he could! And he had company.
“My younger son, Ben, walked most of the course with me, and my wife joined me for part of it,” he said. (His older son, Matthew, who is in college at the University of Southern California, couldn’t get to Miami; Ben, who is about to graduate from Horace Mann, will go to Cornell this fall.)
“The end was great,” Mr. Parker said. “I finished dead last. And it was great. I have never felt so excited to be done with a race.
“It was surreal. Even looking back I can’t actually believe I did that.”
There were some repercussions. Doctors feared that his foot could get infected; the most pessimistic among them feared that it might have to be amputated. But that didn’t happen. He was confined to a wheelchair for the first week — “I learned that when you are in a wheelchair at LaGuardia, you get to go to the front of the taxi line,” he said — and it took six weeks to heal, but it will be fine.
Now he’s back at work — Bret Parker is the executive director of the New York City Bar Association — and tight-lipped about his next adventure. But, he says, there will be one.
Have his experiences changed him? Yes, he says. He’s taken on a three-word mantra; unfortunately, we can print only two of them in this paper: Do epic s***. “That’s what this is about,” he said.
“For some people, epic s*** is swimming across a lake or running around the reservoir or walking around the block, but everyone should be out there doing their own epic s***.
“Everyone should stretch a little. Everyone has problems, everyone has issues, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing epic s***. That’s the biggest takeaway I have gotten from all of this.
“And I couldn’t have done it alone. What I did, I realize looking back, was crazy. I must have been out of my frickin mind. But it was hard work, and it was an amazing experience, and I did it with a whole group of people. Everyone was so supportive. It would have been too lonely doing it alone.
“The night after Lisbon, my friend could tell that I was very upset, and he said, ‘Go do what you can. People are behind you, whether you finish or not. This is not your job. Just go out and do your best.’
“I want people to hear about this, and to do their own runs, whatever their own runs might be,” Bret Parker said.
Who: Bret Parker
What: Will talk about his marathon experiences as a runner with Parkinson’s
When: On Monday, June 18, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: At the Jewish Home at Rockleigh at 10 Link Drive
Why: To raise awareness
How much: The talk is free and open to the community. Reservations are required; call (551) 444-3183 or email parkinsons@JewishHomeFamily.org.