Running for hope and gratitude, Ruxton native tackles first half marathon in Orlando

The inspiration for Team in Training runs her first race nearly 30 years after being diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia

January 06, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

At the ungodly hour of 5:30 this morning, they step off the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in Orlando: the lean, serious speedsters and the dedicated plodders and the fat guys in Mickey Mouse ears just hoping to make it to the first water stop.

Among them will be 28-year-old Georgia Cleland, a small woman from Ruxton with a ready smile. And you can bet she'll be smiling today, because hers might be the best story in the entire field, a three-hankie tale of a family's love and a father's crazy idea that raised millions for cancer research and spawned the whole running-for-a-cause movement.

The story begins on a March day in 1986. The Clelands are living in Rye, N.Y. Georgia is 2. Her mother, Isobel, has just returned with her from a visit to the doctor's office. Izzie Cleland had been concerned about Georgia's many ear infections and sicknesses and the strange bruises on her body.

Now she knows.

She picks up the phone and delivers the terrible news to her husband, Bruce: Georgia has acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Bruce feels as if a wall has just caved in on him.

"That was one of the tough days," he says now. "In my ill-informed mind, it meant death."

Back then, the long-term survival rate was around 55 percent . Sixty years ago, it was zero. Today it's over 90 percent . But that's getting ahead of the story.

Now, after Georgia's diagnosis, the Clelands plunge into the terrifying world of blood cancer patients.

Endless hospital stays, chemotherapy, radiation – Georgia endures it all. She undergoes cranial radiation to stop the disease from spreading to her brain. The procedure will leave her with learning disabilities.

Little by little, though, her health improves. Finally, after two harrowing years, the disease is in remission. But the little girl is by no means out of danger.

In the meantime, the Clelands join the Leukemia Society of America (now the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society). They help out at fundraisers. But Bruce is frustrated, too. He's an investment guy on Wall Street. And he wonders if there isn't a better way to raise money for a cure.

One night, exhausted after yet another fundraiser and unable to sleep, it comes to him: he'll get a team up to run the New York City Marathon. People will pledge money for each mile run. Or they'll bet against the runners finishing and Cleland will rake in the cash that way.

It's lunacy, of course. He's in his early 40's and totally out of shape. Plus he's got a bad knee from his rugby days in New Zealand. He's lucky if he can run to the mailbox, never mind 26.2 miles.

Doesn't matter. At 7 that morning, he calls a buddy in L.A., explains his plan.

There's a pause on the other end of the line.

"You gotta be freaking crazy," his buddy says. And hangs up.

"'Cause it was 4 in the morning in L.A.!" Cleland recalls.

But eventually his buddy says: count me in. And soon after, Cleland has rounded up 39 others to run, too. He calls them Team in Training. They meet in a church hall for their first workout. But it's a sorry-looking bunch: a lot of fatsos, a lot of folks with creaking joints and God knows what other issues.

"There were people breathing hard just walking up the steps," Cleland says.

But Cleland is undeterred. He gets his friend Rod Dixon, a fellow New Zealander and the '83 NYC Marathon winner, to train this motley bunch for 10 months. They meet once a month at a local dive bar to go over progress. And 38 of them show up at the starting line on that November day in 1988.

Thirty-eight of them finish, too. Cleland crosses the line in five hours and 20 some minutes, his bum knee screaming but his arms raised in triumph. And Team in Training raises a whopping $320,000 for leukemia research.

A month later, the head of the Leukemia Society calls Cleland and asks him for a plan to replicate the Team in Training concept for local chapters around the country. And from this, the Society says, the "fund-racing" model that swept the country was born.

Now flash forward to May of last year. Georgia Cleland, all grown up, is working for the Leukemia Society as an operations assistant and receptionist. She's on a mission to lose weight, working with a personal trainer and a nutritionist so she can look good in her bridesmaid's dress for her brother James' wedding.

"We gotta shimmy!" she keeps telling everyone. And the pounds are coming off. Eventually, almost 70 of them will.

A few months later, Bruce Cleland gets a call on his cell. It's Georgia.

"Dad," she says, voice vibrating with excitement, "I have to tell you something. I'm going to do the Disney Half Marathon in Orlando."

Bruce almost drops the phone. He doesn't know what to say.

"I thought she was setting herself up for failure," he says now. But Georgia didn't.

"I felt awesome," she says of her decision. "I wasn't scared at all. It was like: let's do this!"

So this morning in Orlando, in the inky pre-dawn darkness, the story comes full circle.

With her parents and siblings cheering her on, Georgia Cleland, happy and healthy now, will run with 900 other Team in Training teammates from all over the country, all of them in purple and green, the colors of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

"It's . . . a way of giving back to the people who helped me," she says. A way "to say thank you to everyone who put their best foot forward."

Her time won't matter at all. The only number that matters today is this: $1.2 billion raised by Team in Training for blood cancer research since Bruce Cleland took that first halting run with his bum knee all those years ago.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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