In the race to fight cancer

Team in Training group focuses on raising awareness, funds

August 17, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Motivation is a personal thing. Some people get involved in triathlons and marathons because they want to look or feel better, others because they can't resist the challenge, and still others because they enjoy training with a group.

For the Riesz family of Ellicott City, two of whose members will be participating in Sunday's Iron Girl triathlon, the catalyst was cancer.

In the spring of 1999, Charlie Riesz was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and given a 50-50 chance of survival. The news was devastating. "For a time, I became very angry and depressed," he said.

But as the treatments went on and his prognosis improved, so did his mood. Eight years later, Riesz is healthy and is training for this fall's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington with Team in Training, which combines a focus on fitness with cancer awareness and fundraising.

His wife, Penny Thompson, and daughter, Megan Riesz, 16, have been working out with the Team in Training group as they prepared for the second RYKA Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon, to be held Sunday morning in and around Centennial Park near Ellicott City.

Last year, more than 1,850 women from 23 states ran the 3.3 miles around the park, biked 17.5 miles to western Howard County and back, and swam 0.62 miles in Centennial Lake in the women-only competition. This year, 2,300 women are registered from 21 states, said Robert Vigorito, head of the Columbia Triathlon Association, which produces the event.

Of this year's competitors, 172 are age 50 or older, and 62 are 19 or younger, he said.

Among the beneficiaries of the triathlon is the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, which is expected to get about $15,000 this year from Team in Training competitors and the association.

"This is a really special year for us," Riesz said. "For me, watching the two of them cross the finish line, that will be something." He particularly likes that his daughter Megan chose to participate without any pressure from her parents. "She really did it on her own volition, which was really great," he said.

Penny, who competed in the first Iron Girl, hopes to beat last year's time. "I used to make fun of people who talking about improving their time," she said with a laugh. Last year, she took slightly more than two and a half hours to finish, she said. Last year's winning time, by Margaret Shapiro of Annandale, Va., was 1 hour, 21 minutes and 48 seconds.

Megan, going into her junior year at Wilde Lake High School, has a goal, too, said her mother. "Her goal is to beat me."

The two have been swimming, biking and running with about 20 other members of their Team in Training group. To participate, in Team in Training, they each had to collect $2,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The Team in Training group this year has raised more than $75,000 for the society.

Megan started early by collecting money at school, Penny said. "It was good to see her take that part of it really, really seriously."

That's not surprising, said Michael Schaeffer, campaign director for the Team in Training Maryland Chapter. He said it's common for families or for groups of friends to become involved in Team in Training activities together. Cancer, he said, "certainly touches people and the people who are close to those people."

Charlie Riesz, who is now 47, underwent five months of chemotherapy and two of radiation treatment. Before he got sick, he said, he had run a five 5K and 10K races, but "nothing major." About a year after his treatment was finished, he received a Team in Training leaflet in the mail and decided to give it a try. He now competes in one or two marathons or other athletic events a year, and usually gets ready for the events with Team in Training.

His wife and daughter saw how much he enjoyed it, and couldn't resist getting involved themselves. "When Charlie started this stuff, I thought he was a little crazy," said Thompson, 46. But after getting a Team in Training flier in the mail a couple of years ago, she started training with the group, too. She was particularly attracted to the first Iron Girl, she said, because "it seemed more do-able" than other athletic events.

Schaeffer said, at first, he didn't know that Riesz was a cancer survivor. "I didn't know until my second or third run with him," Schaeffer said. "He didn't use it to gain any sort of sympathy. He was just running and was happy to be out there with people."

At this point, Riesz doesn't need the training support, but he enjoys being with the people he has met, and also likes to support the fundraising aspect of the organization. "It's just great group of people," he said. "I race for others who are not as lucky as I am."

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