Bowling Green's Joe Boyle really was born to run. He just didn't know it.
|Joe Boyle, right, works with kids during St. Al’s cross country practice at the BG City Park. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Not until he was a 30-something, married father of two with an undeniable spare tire around his midsection.
"If they'd had awards for least athletic I probably would have qualified," Boyle says of his days at Grand Rapids Elementary and well beyond.
It wasn't until the high school social studies teacher accompanied a group of students from Bowling Green State University, his alma mater, on a two-week trip to North Africa in March 2010 that he had an epiphany.
"I was a pretty overweight guy and we went to climb up this mountain at Chebika (in Tunisia) to find this source of water on the other side of the mountain. I'm watching all these kids ahead of me, and I'm huffing and puffing."
Finally reaching the top he discovered "there's this 18-inch crack in the wall of rock to get through."
He managed the hike, but it wasn't pretty. One unavoidable thought came to him.
"I had bad knees growing up and I had asthma, and was fat. But I thought: 'If I could do this, what else can I do?'"
Back home in Wood County, Boyle decided to find out.
"In May 2010 was the Couch Potato 5-K here in BG and I registered for the race. I had not trained at all, not one bit. To my surprise I ran a mile without stopping.
"It was the same kind of moment I had back in Tunisia: Hey if I can run a mile, wonder what else I can do?"
After that 5-K, Boyle "wanted to do this for real. I started running pretty much every night after that."
He uses the language of a lover to describe his enthrallment with the solitary sport.
"It's the only time my mind and my heart were totally still."
Boyle had no way of knowing there was a time bomb ticking away inside his body that would soon threaten not just his newfound love, but his life itself.
He got up to 10-K distance with no problem and in the winter of 2011 started training for marathons, beginning with the March 20 Churchill Half Marathon in Maumee.
"It was nonstop fun; it was a great run.
"The week after, I started having stomach pains. The pain didn't go away. I ended up in the emergency room at Wood County. They do a CAT-scan thinking maybe I've got a burst appendix."
Instead, what doctors found was a tumor the size of a Nerf football growing out of Boyle's kidney and up toward his heart.
"I'll always be grateful to the doctors at Wood County; they sent me straight to Cleveland Clinic" where a diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma was confirmed.
"At Cleveland they took my right kidney, adrenal gland, about 90 percent of my lymph nodes."
He was hospitalized for another week, then sent home.
"It's April and I can't wait to get back outside running again."
He and a runner friend, Elizabeth Gorski of Haskins, "had decided we were going to run 1,000 miles in 2011" so Boyle had big goals despite the onerous chemotherapy regimen he was facing.
On April 30 he and Katie, his wife, hosted a birthday party for their son. At 2:30 a.m. the next morning "I had this pain in my groin and the top of my leg."
He hoped it was a hernia, but in fact it was a massive blood clot. The leg was swollen to twice its normal size.
Boyle was readmitted to Cleveland Clinic.
"One of the first things this doc told me - 'You're never going to walk again.' That was the first time between the cancer diagnosis and everything else I felt nearly hopeless."
That's when the book "Born to Run" landed in his life.
A friend had handed the best-seller to him a couple weeks earlier and he had hardly cracked the cover.
"But while I was home from the hospital," recuperating from the blood clot complication, "I had nothing but time. I started reading that book. I think I nailed it in two days. I could not stop reading it. All I wanted was to get out there and start running again."
"Born to Run" is the city of Bowling Green's "Community Reads" book for 2013 as well as the Common Reading Experience book for all freshmen at BGSU this fall. Author Christopher McDougall is coming to town Tuesday for a serious of events including an 8 a.m. Fun Run, a 5 p.m. reception/author Q-and-A at the Carter House, and a 7:30 p.m. public talk at the university.
"Born to Run" tells the true story of a charismatic if quirky runners' guru named Micah True, known to his stateside followers and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's deadly Copper Canyons alike as El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse). The Tarahumara are an extremely reclusive tribe widely considered to be the world's best long-distance runners, able - according to the cover blurb - "to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury." McDougall, himself an often-injured runner, becomes transformed by his encounters with True, the native runners and a colorful band of ultra runners from up north.
McDougall, the author, "runs the Copper Canyon and lives happily ever after," Boyle says, offering a one-sentence synopsis of the book.
"I was thrilled to hear he was coming" to BG, Boyle said of McDougall. "For a lot of runners" Born to Run is something of a bible. "This book spoke to the reason you got into running in the first place.
"And whether or not you got involved in the footwear argument you found souls that you could understand in this book," he added, pun-intended.
Boyle's definitely planning to join Tuesday's run alongside McDougall, BG Mayor Dick Edwards, BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey and anyone else who registers in advance.
"I'm going to do the run that morning and go to the library reception that night."
Boyle was befriended by ‘Yoda of runners’
Joe Boyle is one of a relatively small number of people who can actually say they had personal dealings with the elusive Caballo Blanco.
It all started when the Grand Rapids native and mild-mannered social studies teacher at Rogers High School in Toledo, faced with a devastating cancer diagnosis, surgery and then complications, first learned about Caballo from the pages of “Born to Run.”
“He’s basically Yoda; the guy who’s been to the other side of the mountain, who’s learned all the secrets.
“Soon after I got done reading it I went on Facebook and started ‘following’ the book after listing it as a favorite,” said Boyle.
“Micah True, who is Caballo Blanco, had posted a pretty inspirational thing on that Facebook page and I commented on it along the lines of, I was sick but I was gonna come back and run again. To my great surprise — like the next day or day after — I have a ‘friend’ request from Micah True.”
Boyle says the thrilling Facebook exchange over that Memorial Weekend was occurring at exactly the same time his doctors “were trying to decide if I was going to be able to take part in a clinical study for a different chemo.
“It was like the greatest thing at the worst moment. I wrote him back and told him my story. (Caballo) wrote back: ‘Run free, don’t let them get you down, you’re going to do great.’”
Caballo even invited Boyle to come down to Copper Canyon and run with him some time.
No more than a week later, Boyle started walking around the block. In later summer 2011 “I got my first 5-K again, the Soaring Eagle in BG.”
“I’ve been running ever since. The book just meant so much to me because I was in this place where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and there’s these people telling me I’m never going to run again.
“I still have the cancer. It’s metastasized to my lungs, but I’m still running. I guess it’s why I see the running as a big part of my treatment, of my therapy, because it’s just about the one thing I can control.”
Boyle, 38, is passing his love of running to his children. Sons, Joey, 8, and Mark, 5, both run cross-country at St. Aloysius School, with dad serving as a coach. “And my daughter (10-year-old Ellie) helps out with the team. She’s run a couple of 5-K’s with me; a good time.”
Ironically, Boyle, despite his frightening diagnosis, is still running and active, while Caballo Blanco has since died.
“True ended up having a heart attack last year,” Boyle explained. He was out for a solo trail run in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness and his body was discovered several days later by a search party of fellow runners.
Tuesday’s ‘Born to Run’ events
• 8 a.m. — Join Born to Run author Chris McDougall on a fun run/walk from BGSU’s Jerome Library to the Wood County Public Library, and back to Jerome. Advance registration, waiver required.
• 5 p.m. — BG Community Reads reception for the author at the Carter House, 307 N. Church St. An opportunity to chat informally with McDougall. Free tickets for the event are available at the county library’s check-out desk.
• 7:30 p.m. — Author presentation, Q&A, and book signing in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom of BGSU Student Union. Open to all.