For some, parkrun simply provides a way to (quite literally) stretch their legs for some weekend exercise. For others, it’s a chance to spend time together as a family, catch up with friends or meet new people. Others enjoy the opportunity to volunteer and contribute to a community-building activity. For most, it’s a combination of all these things. More and more, we hear stories that reveal that there’s a bit more gravity behind some peoples’ motivation to become involved with parkrun. Quite often, a significant life change (or the desire for one) serves as the catalyst for someone to check out their local parkrun or even take on the challenge of starting one. This was the case for Bill Justus.
Our neighbors to the north featured a story about Bill, the Event Director for Okanagan parkrun, in their latest newsletter. He shared his battle with an autoimmune disease and how parkrun gave him some much-needed focus during a challenging time in his life.
Bill clocked a 4:02:14 mile as a senior in high school. The caption on a decades old photograph digitally uploaded to social media says “…when the rest of the world was wrapping their heads around 26.2 [we] were out doing 100″. He ran marathons, ultras and Ironmans. “Once upon a time I was a 30 minute 10K guy,” he wrote. “That was a long time ago and it has been a long road, with many bumps along the way.”
One significant bump, perhaps more akin to a deep pothole that causes a flat tire and bent rim, came 6 years ago. “I had been a runner for 4 decades or better, and in the blink of an eye it all stopped.” He went in to see his doctor for a checkup and was diagnosed with cancer. He was told that he couldn’t race anymore and that he had to focus on treatment and a regime of surgery in order to beat it.
He did beat it. Then, 2 years ago, another checkup and another pothole. This time the diagnosis was CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy). He describes it as “…an autoimmune disease that tells my immune system to destroy the coating around my nervous system…” His doctor told him there was no known cure, but several treatment options to try, one after the next until something worked. He was also told there was a chance that he would end up in a wheelchair for 6-8 months.
Bill turned to parkrun as an outlet. Instead of focusing on his health condition and the lack of feeling in his body, he wanted to focus on something healthy and vital. A former colleague and friend told him about parkrun and it didn’t take much convincing for Bill to decide that it was something he wanted to do. He figured that if he had to be in a wheelchair, parkrun would be an inviting place where he and others would be welcome. He sought to accomplish something that would leave a legacy, so he began working to bring parkrun to Okanagan.
“As CIDP attacked me, I attacked parkrun, the city, the government…” he wrote. Bill and Euan Bowman, parkrun Canada Country Manager, worked tirelessly to build support and spread the word. “The disease was winning, taking my ability to run, even walk, so much so that stepping off a sidewalk cause me to hyperextend my [knee,] tear my meniscus and MCL, and put me in a brace and on crutches…” he wrote. With the possibility of surgery looming, he carried on with parkrun planning, then set up, directed and packed up events once it was launched. With a steady turnout of 10-20 people out every Saturday, his dream had become a reality. Only when Okanagan parkrun was a success and growing did he explore treatment options for his CIDP. “Finally, after many needles, pills and the like, we (the neurologist and I) found something that worked! I started to mend; I started to feel my feet, then walk normally, then jog and once again RUN.”
Although he still takes medications every day and only has 90% feeling in his feet, Bill is once again able to run a 5k in under 19 minutes. However he states that the joy he experiences at parkrun is not due solely to his regained mobility and feeling the wind in his hair. “It’s the smiles on everyone’s faces as I see them leave the starting area” that gives him the most pleasure, as does “…cheering them on as they finish…” He acknowledges that others may be struggling with their own life experiences, and takes comfort in the fact that no matter what someone may be going through, “…they know that every Saturday rain or shine, parkrun will be [there].”
“I have to thank the community of parkrun for helping me find my joy, my passion, my life.” -Bill Justus
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