One morning, Michael Blaha woke up and decided that he would start running. He began by running around the block in his Oak Lawn neighborhood, then graduated to trails in the local forest preserves running through creeks and over rocks and tree roots.
There was a momentary lapse in his newfound running career when he began experiencing pain in his right leg. A doctor told him it might be cancer, but it turned out to be a bone cyst that he probably had his whole life.
Blaha went to one of the top orthopedic specialists in Chicago for a second opinion. It wasn’t the bone cyst that was causing him pain but arthritis.
“Keep running,” the doctor advised him, so he did.
That was over 20 years ago. Last year, Blaha competed in his very first Chicago Marathon.
“I just wanted to do something to stay physically active with all the benefits of being in shape so I didn’t have to worry about what I eat and drink,” Blaha said. “Some friends say I’m a fat person who runs a lot.”
Hardly fat, the 53-year-old Blaha has taken on a rigorous schedule of 13.1-mile half-marathons. He plans to run a half-marathon a month before the end of 2012.
“We’re already in month five and we’ve been to Arizona, Texas and Indiana,” Blaha said, who travels with his wife, Annamarie, his press agent and his biggest fan.
“Our plans are to go to Juneau, Alaska; Tacoma; Boston; Minnesota; Clayton, Ohio; and Memphis.”
He continues to improve his personal best. In April, he set a personal record for himself by running a half-marathon in Indianapolis at 1:42:44.
“I never ran a half-marathon before until last year,” Blaha said. “I ended up doing better and better.”
Despite his success, he realized that there had to be more to running half-marathons than setting personal records and traveling to interesting cities. The face of one of his former students where he has taught weekend religion classes at for the past 20 years haunted him.
“Sometimes you think of things that motivate you when you’re completing a run,” he said, “and sometimes you think of other people who can’t do it.”
A Lasting Impression
There was something about John Peltzer that made him stand out from the rest of the seventh-graders in Blaha's religion class at St. Gerald's.
“John was picked on a lot, and I never knew why,” Blaha said. “He wasn’t one of those kids who would just take it. He stood up for himself when other kids teased him. He was a good, smart kid, even though he could be disruptive in class. It wasn’t his fault.”
Teacher and student moved on. Not until Blaha had John’s brother in a pre cana class did he learn John had been diagnosed at birth with neurofibromatosis, or NF, a genetic disorder which causes tumors to grow in the nervous system.
“What was stunning to me is that NF is a more common hereditary disease than multiple sclerosis, Tay-Sachs, and Huntington’s,” Blaha said. “Most people have heard of those diseases, but I didn’t know anything about NF.”
Neurofibromatosis affects every individual differently, causing small tumors to grow behind the eyes, or on the spine and face. Joseph Merrick, the Englishman whose life story was depicted in The Elephant Man (he was called John in the film) was afflicted with a severe form of NF.
Inspired by John’s determination—now 22—who finished high school despite a learning disorder than was part of his NF condition, Blaha decided to dedicate his year of half-marathons in John’s honor to raise money and awareness for a disease that is more common than many of us realize.
This weekend, Blaha will be running in the First Midwest Bank Southwest Half-Marathon in Palos Heights on May 6 as part of his "2012Run12 Campaign" on behlf of NF Midwest.
Tumors have grown behind John's eye and on his spine, making it painful for him to walk and get around. He was working as forklift driver until recently, when he was injured on the job. His doctor has advised him to find a less strenuous line of work. He’d like to get into sales.
As for his former teacher, whose class he once disrupted, John has gotten to know Blaha as a friend since he’s become part of the NF cause.
“I really appreciate everything he’s done for me in my name,” John said. “I was surprised because I didn’t think people cared that much about me.”
Read more about Michael Blaha’s half-marathon adventures and his quest to raise money and awareness for NF on his I Run Trails blog.
Look for John Peltzer this weekend, May 5-6, when he will be out collecting for NF Midwest in Tinley Park.