Dr. Michael Stephensen is running the Canadian Death Race as a way of thumbing his nose at cancer. He and his wife survived their battles with the disease. Now, he wants to raise money so other patients can receive treatment in comfort.
First, the family physician has to complete his arduous race training without injury. Next, Stephensen has to run the August long weekend race, an insanely difficult feat. The course is 125 kilometres long. Runners pass over three mountain summits near Grande Cache, Alta. There's a 17,000-foot altitude change. Athletes cross a major river and several creeks.
Oh yeah: They've only got 24 hours to finish the course and, to make it interesting, they run one leg at night, their paths lit by their headlamps.
Stephensen hopes to finish the race in 21 or 22 hours.
It sounds bonkers and it is. No one has died during the race but a number of competitors has likely wanted to during their time on the course.
Michael Stephensen is competing against more than the clock.
"It feels a little bit like there was a bully, cancer. Now I can go back and say 'I'm not afraid of you. We faced you and we beat you and we're not afraid anymore.' "
The Stephensen cancer saga began with Alison, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 38. That was 13 years ago, and her husband still loses his composure when he talks about it.
Alison had a mastectomy followed by three months of chemo. She could have kept her hair if she'd taken a different treatment over six months.
"She didn't want to interfere with the kids' hockey schedule," he says, lip trembling.
Their children were five, six and eight when her lump was discovered.
In 2005, Stephensen was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was 46.
"It's not a dangerous cancer as cancers go," he says blandly,
Stephensen took up running seven years ago at Alison's urging. He started with walking 21/2 kilometres to work. Something clicked, as it does in the brains of marathoners, and he began running, first to work and then longer distances.
Today, he can recite his marathon times down to the second.
"I can't say I love the running," he says. "I love the accomplishment when it's done."
In 2011, he ran the Death Race as part of a relay team. He picked Leg 5, the one in the dark, to see what it was like in case he wanted to solo one day.
Scary. It was scary and "thrilling" to hear water rushing down below and the sound of a wild animal off in the bushes.
A month after his first Death Race experience, Stephensen found out his cancer had returned and metastasized. He had chemo a second time.
Stephensen says he and Alison were at CancerCare Manitoba one day and wondered why they'd been hit with the disease again.
"I said, 'Our kids don't have anything. They're fine. We're lucky. This is what we've got.' "
The fundraising idea began there. All Stephensen has to do is make people understand the magnitude of what he's setting out to do and convince them to part with a little bit of dough. He wants to raise $100 for every one of those 125 kilometres. The cash will go to CancerCare Manitoba.
According to Stephensen, 2,000 or so runners enter the Death Race every year. About 400 are solo runners. Only 30 per cent finish the race.
Training for the Death Race on the Prairies is a challenge. He does his long runs on Sundays. He and his training partner run 25 kilometres now but will up that to 70 or 80 kilometres as the race draws closer. On Wednesdays, he runs stairs in an office building. There are 10 flights. He runs carrying a 13-pound backpack and does 30 squats on each landing. When the snow melts, he'll run up and down Garbage Hill with the rest of the endurance athletes.
If you want to support Stephensen's efforts, go to the CancerCare Foundation website (cancercarefdn.mb.ca), click on "participate" and scroll down. You'll find his name and the link. If you want to follow his training progress, the Facebook page is Michael's Canadian Death Race For Cancer.
"When I look back on my life, I hope I can say I've accomplished a bunch of things that were unexpected," says the doctor who will run down a mountain in the dark to beat the bully.