Push­ing him­self

And one man with Parkin­son’s. Can he make it?


A man with Parkin­son’s took on a mis­sion: seven marathons in a week.

Dur­ing the first marathon, Bret Parker felt great — for the first 15 miles of ice and snow. ¶ “I was chug­ging along, and I had no symp­toms,” he re­called the next day. “I was run­ning a good pace. I said, ‘You got this.’” ¶ He paused. “And that was the kiss of death. I started slow­ing down. It got colder. It got windier.” ¶ It was Jan. 30, and Bret was run­ning a marathon on Antarc­tica. It wasn’t ac­tu­ally that cold for most of the race — about 20 de­grees. But it was windy. And Bret has Parkin­son’s dis­ease. Like the 50 or so oth­ers on this ad­ven­ture, he wore ski gog­gles and trail shoes and lots of lay­ers. Un­like them, he car­ried a tiny plas­tic bag­gie of pills that he was reg­u­larly pop­ping to keep the stiff­ness, cramp­ing and tremors of Parkin­son’s at bay. ¶ The symp­toms came any­way. The route on Antarc­tica amounted to six laps around a four-mile loop at a Rus­sian re­search sta­tion called No­volazarevskaya, with end­less vis­tas of blue ice all around — like Car­ib­bean wa­ters, only frozen. He walked a lot over the fi­nal 10 miles. But with a quar­ter-mile to go, he started run­ning again. He could feel a symp­tom com­ing on that he had ex­pe­ri­enced only rarely since he was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s 11 years ago, at age 38: an un­con­trol­lable, head-to-toe shiv­er­ing. He knew he had to get in­side.

When he crossed the fin­ish line in just un­der 6 hours, 23 min­utes, Bret’s hands had curled up, his calves were cramp­ing and he strug­gled to speak. He stopped to record a video to post on­line for the friends and fam­ily mem­bers fol­low­ing his progress. But he was in such bad shape that the event or­ga­niz­ers put him on a snow­mo­bile for the ride back to shel­ter.

“It took me a while to fi­nally set­tle down,” he re­called. “Then we got back on the plane.”

Less than eight hours later, Bret lined up at an­other start­ing line along the south­ern tip of Africa, ready to do it all over again.

A crazy chal­lenge

Bret was com­pet­ing in the World Marathon Chal­lenge, in which ath­letes run seven marathons on seven con­ti­nents in seven days, do­ing lit­tle other than sleep­ing and eat­ing on a char­tered air­plane be­tween races.

Since he was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s, Bret has been on the hunt for per­sonal chal­lenges. There was his home­town New York City Marathon. There was a triathlon along Long Is­land Sound. There was a jump out of an air­plane. Now, there was this.

“Parkin­son’s has given me the free­dom, the lib­erty to take on these things, even though they seem ridicu­lous,” Bret, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the New York City Bar As­so­ci­a­tion, said in an in­ter­view in Novem­ber. “It helps me get over a fear of wa­ter, it helps me raise money, it gives me a goal. It’s a lot bet­ter story when I’m try­ing to tell peo­ple to do­nate to be able to say I’m do­ing my part.

“Also,” he added, “I don’t want it to be in charge of me.”

“That’s the real is­sue,” his wife, Katharine, chimed in.

Bret’s Parkin­son’s is of­ten hard to no­tice. His right hand trem­bles oc­ca­sion­ally, and he of­ten ex­hibits a roly-poly move­ment in his arms and shoul­ders that he said is a side ef­fect of his med­i­ca­tion. He knew his symp­toms would worsen over the course of the World Marathon Chal­lenge, and they did.

Day 2 brought Bret to a beach­front prom­e­nade in Cape Town, South Africa. He’d got­ten two hours of sleep on the flight from Antarc­tica. His feet hurt from the first run, and he had de­cided to walk this race’s four six-mile loops along the At­lantic Ocean.

Yet he sounded op­ti­mistic as he pre­pared to start.

“One marathon down, 6 to go!” Bret posted on Facebook that day. “Antarc­tica was won­der­ful and aw­ful! A lit­tle banged up (com­bi­na­tion of Parkin­son’s and run­ning 26.2), but next one is in Cape Town, less than 12 hours af­ter Antarc­tica and I’ll be on the start­ing line.”

Em­brac­ing a new iden­tity

Bret and I met in 1986, when we lived on the same dor­mi­tory hall­way dur­ing our fresh­man year at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. We worked on the stu­dent news­pa­per to­gether, but af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he went off to law school and I to my first news­pa­per job, and we fell out of touch, re­con­nect­ing only when Facebook came along.

I re­mem­ber when Bret re­vealed his di­ag­no­sis on Facebook, in 2012. He’d been liv­ing with a se­cret that he had shared only with Katharine, his par­ents and a close friend.

Bret and Katharine had hid­den his di­ag­no­sis — even from their two sons, Ben, now 17, and Matt, 20 — out of un­cer­tainty over how it would change their lives, his ca­reer, his abil­ity to be a hus­band and fa­ther, how his friends and peers would per­ceive him. Katharine re­called won­der­ing whether he would be able to drive, work or even walk.

When he fi­nally went pub­lic about his dis­ease, he em­braced his new iden­tity. He be­gan rais­ing money for the Michael J. Fox Foun­da­tion, whose fa­mous founder, like Bret, had been stricken with Parkin­son’s at a young age.

Parkin­son’s pa­tients don’t see them­selves as ter­mi­nally ill, but their life spans are typ­i­cally re­duced and there is not yet a cure for the neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­ease, which causes re­duced dopamine lev­els in the brain and a va­ri­ety of symp­toms, in­clud­ing slowed move­ment, stiff­ness, cramp­ing and tremors, which typ­i­cally worsen with age. The av­er­age age at di­ag­no­sis is about 60, but young-on­set Parkin­son’s oc­curs in as many as 10 per­cent of cases.

Much of Bret’s ad­vo­cacy has come on so­cial me­dia, where he has built a sup­port net­work that spans con­ti­nents and in­cludes peo­ple he’s never met. There, ques­tions about the wis­dom of taking on big­ger and big­ger chal­lenges in­ter­min­gle with straight-up cheers. Both at­tract at­ten­tion and do­na­tions. Both seem to have the same, mo­ti­vat­ing ef­fect on Bret.

Run­ning seven marathons in seven days can be dam­ag­ing to a per­fectly healthy adult. But hav­ing Parkin­son’s doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it more so, said Melissa J. Niren­berg, a neu­rol­o­gist and re­searcher who treated Bret for the first 10 years af­ter his di­ag­no­sis.

Niren­berg, who is now the chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of the New York Stem Cell Foun­da­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, said she had the same re­ac­tion as many of Bret’s friends when he told her of his plans — “What in the world are you thinking?” I had that re­ac­tion too, when Bret posted news of his next chal­lenge on Facebook early in 2017. But Niren­berg noted that ex­er­cise is known to slow the pro­gres­sion of the dis­ease’s symp­toms.

“There was a time when this would have been an end to a road,” Bret said to me dur­ing a call from the Cape Town race route, as he walked swiftly past play­grounds and mini-golf cour­ses in the shadow of Ta­ble Moun­tain. “Right now I feel per­fectly fine. I’m very aware of the ul­ti­mate goal of run­ning all seven. I just want to get on the plane to Perth tonight and get a good night’s sleep.”

He crossed the fin­ish line in Cape Town at 6 hours, 47 min­utes and 50 sec­onds.

The chal­lenge of Perth

Bret’s con­di­tion took a turn for the worse in Perth, Aus­tralia. He had man­aged about six Am­bi­enin­duced hours of sleep on the chal­lenge’s char­tered plane, which came equipped with lie-flat seats and couches. Among this year’s 50 com­peti­tors, Bret was

part of a smaller group of 16 who col­lec­tively raised about $1 mil­lion for mul­ti­ple char­i­ties and whose en­try fees, about $45,000 apiece, had been paid by a sin­gle, anony­mous bene­fac­tor.

When Bret woke up as the plane ap­proached Perth, the top of his right foot and his left shin hurt badly. He also had de­vel­oped blis­ters, in­clud­ing one on the ball of his left foot that was the size of a large cookie.

On a bus to the ho­tel where run­ners would have about 30 min­utes to get ready for the race, he sat next to a win­dow and wept.

“I had read all the Facebook com­ments — ‘You got this,’ ‘You’re awe­some,’ ‘You’re a hero,’ ” Bret told me by phone af­ter that day’s race, his voice low and sub­dued. “And now I’m go­ing to have to tell them, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”

His voice cracked as he con­tin­ued, de­scrib­ing the Facebook post he had sent out about a half-hour be­fore the start. “It’s pos­si­ble I won’t make it through this one,” he had writ­ten. “I know I shouldn’t even ad­mit that be­fore I start and it’s all very emo­tional for me, but af­ter the joy I felt (and posted about) I thought I should share the lows as well to keep it real.”

The post gen­er­ated nearly 300 likes and more than 100 com­ments. “Bret, you’ve al­ready won,” one friend wrote.

Af­ter a few miles in Perth, Bret re­al­ized that he could make it if he was care­ful and per­sis­tent and kept to a con­sis­tent walk­ing pace. He even be­gan run­ning to­ward the end of the course, out of fear that he might miss what he thought was an eight-hour cut­off. Run­ning, oddly, was less painful for his feet. He crossed the fin­ish line with eight min­utes to spare.

Push­ing on

Bret mostly walked the next three marathons — in Dubai, Lisbon and Carta­gena, Colom­bia — but he also broke into some un­ex­pected bursts of run­ning. In the early morn­ing in Dubai, he saw late-night club­go­ers on their way home — and heard Mus­lim prayers com­ing from the loud­speak­ers of mosques. In Lisbon, a cob­ble­stone marathon route and cold, rainy weather cre­ated prob­lems for all the run­ners, and Bret walked his slow­est race so far, fin­ish­ing just un­der 9 hours and 17 min­utes. The eight-hour cut­off, it turns out, was not en­forced so long as the group could re­main on the air char­ter’s sched­ule.

But Bret’s phys­i­cal con­di­tion con­tin­ued to worsen. To­ward the end of each flight, he made his way to the couches at the back of the plane, where a race staffer wrapped and taped his left foot, which was cov­ered in blis­ters and peeled skin. As they flew to the fi­nal marathon, the staffer came to him.

When he ar­rived in Mi­ami on Feb. 5, he could barely walk off the plane. Tum­bling out of the bus at the start­ing line along Ocean Drive in Mi­ami Beach, he found dozens of friends, fam­ily and even a few strangers who had learned of his ef­fort through the Fox Foun­da­tion and gath­ered to watch the fi­nal race. Katharine had bought or­ange T-shirts for ev­ery­one, em­bla­zoned with her hus­band’s name. Bret’s fa­ther, James, stood along the route the en­tire day.

Bret was feel­ing eu­phoric that the end was in sight. Around 2:20 p.m., he be­gan run­ning. Af­ter the first 5.2-mile loop, up and back along the South Beach board­walk, though, he slowed to a walk. It had been a long seven days.

His son Ben walked three fivemile loops with his dad, at one point car­ry­ing a box with a slice of pizza for him. Oth­ers joined the pro­ces­sion. When Bret asked for some­thing with caf­feine, a lawyer friend who had flown down from New Jer­sey dashed off to a beach­side bar and ran back with a slosh­ing cup of Diet Coke.

As the day turned to night and foot­lights came on along the board­walk, the crowd sur­round­ing Bret grew to nearly a dozen. Along one stretch, he stopped cold and the group froze. A foot was cramp­ing. He re­sumed walk­ing, his right hand hang­ing clenched at his side.

It was dark when Bret started the fi­nal lap. Katharine joined him for a few min­utes, but then he set off on his own.

The crowd at the fin­ish line grew quiet as Bret dis­ap­peared from view. Katharine pre­pared a bot­tle of champagne. Or­ga­niz­ers stretched vic­tory tape across the path.

Right around 10 p.m., Bret’s bob­bing white run­ning hat popped into view, with Ben, who had joined him for the fi­nal quar­ter-mile, at his side. Ev­ery­one else had fin­ished the race long ago. A deaf­en­ing cho­rus of cheers erupted as Bret crossed the fin­ish line. It had been 7 hours, 41 min­utes, 22 sec­onds.

He flashed seven fin­gers as he broke through the tape. He spun around, smil­ing, his hands on his waist. He laughed as Katharine popped the champagne, gave her a hug and took the beer she held out in her hand.

“It’s pos­si­ble I won’t make it through this one. I know I shouldn’t even ad­mit that be­fore I start and it’s all very emo­tional for me, but af­ter the joy I felt (and posted about) I thought I should share the lows as well to keep it real.” Bret Parker on Facebook, be­fore the sec­ond of seven planned marathons

Bret Parker is greeted with champagne at the fin­ish line of one of the events in the 2018 World Marathon Chal­lenge.


CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Bret Parker re­acts as friends and rel­a­tives greet him be­fore one of the events in the World Marathon Chal­lenge. At his Man­hat­tan home in De­cem­ber, Parker awaits a visit from his phys­i­cal ther­a­pist. Dur­ing his runs, Parker reg­u­larly pops pills to keep the stiff­ness, cramp­ing and tremors of Parkin­son’s dis­ease at bay.


“Antarc­tica was won­der­ful and aw­ful!” Parker posted on Facebook af­ter his tough race.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Bret Parker in Man­hat­tan, where he is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the New York City Bar As­so­ci­a­tion. It is dark by the time he com­pletes the course on Feb. 5 in Mi­ami. But cheers erupt when he reaches the fin­ish line of the sev­enth event in the World Marathon Chal­lenge.

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