CHICAGO — Don’t look to Leesa Drake for first-time nerves at the starting line of the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 7. This isn’t her first, 10th or even 50th. It will be her 102nd marathon in the two decades that running has been her through line, from becoming a mother to recovering from a knee injury to hearing the words, “You have breast cancer.”
Drake’s first marathon was in Chicago in 1994. She had planned to run the race a year earlier. But the Sunday before the race, she’d biked the route. Her front wheel hit a car going through an intersection. She flipped over its hood.
The next day, a doctor told her she had a mass of blood surrounding her kneecap and that she would never run again. He said she might walk with a permanent limp and gave her a cane. “I left crying, hysterically,” she said.
She got a second opinion. The new doctor laid out a plan for recovery that included surgery and physical therapy.
Still, she second-guessed his optimism. She worked hard in physical therapy. “If they told me to do 50 leg lifts, I did 100,” she said. A year later, she was ready for the Chicago Marathon. She’d found a runners group and ran that first marathon with a buddy she’d met in the group.
Ever since, Drake, 51, has wanted to push her limits.
After running multiple marathons a year, she signed up for 50K races on the North and South sides. “You see what you can do, and you want to up the ante,” she said. Next was the Kettle Moraine 50-mile race, which she ran in 2003 and 2004. But soon even that wasn’t enough.
The next challenge came in the form of a 100-mile run in Vermont in 2005. She paid a running coach to help prepare for the ultramarathon. He advised her on training, food and nutrition. He suggested that she continue to move for 18 hours straight — from 6 a.m. to midnight. She started with a run with her group, switched to the stationary bike on the balcony of her condo and ended the day with a run with her husband, Wesley Drake, whom she’d met in a runners group in 2001.
To further prepare for the ultramarathon, she ran regular marathons. One Memorial Day weekend, she ran a Saturday race in Salt Lake City, flew to Chicago for a Sunday race and slept in the backseat of the car that night as her husband drove to Traverse City, Mich., for a Monday marathon.
“I figured if I can’t run three back-to-back, I have no business running 100 (miles),” she said. She crossed the finish line after 28 hours, 39 minutes and 14 seconds. She couldn’t wear any shoes comfortably for weeks.
In 2009, when she had her son, Adam, she took some time off from marathons. But the next year, she logged her 88th.
Her son began running with her. He was 5 when he joined her for the last 0.2 miles of the 2015 Baltimore Marathon. “He thought he helped me finish,” she said. “It was just so cute.”
Last year, she hit a roadblock.
She had been going to a twice-yearly check of a lump in her breast that physicians had flagged. Each time she was told she did not have cancer and to return in six months. This time was different. A doctor brought her into a room with a box of tissues and told her that she needed a biopsy.
Days later, while sitting in her office at work, she received the call: She had breast cancer.
She remembers hiding teary-eyed behind sunglasses on the Brown Line that afternoon. She was on her way to pick her son up from school. “I was trying really hard not to cry but not doing a very good job.”
Drake discussed her options with doctors. She told them: “I have a 7-year-old, and I need to be here. We need to figure this out.”
Two weeks later, she had a double mastectomy. She thought her breast cancer story would end with this proactive procedure. But after her surgery, a physician entered her hospital room, where she was alone, and told her the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She would need radiation and chemotherapy. “It just kind of took my breath away,” she said.
Her doctor, Northwestern Medicine chief of breast surgery Dr. Nora Hansen, said it was clear from the beginning that running would be part of Drake’s healing.
“Running for her is a big part of her life and has been for a long time,” she said. “When she had her cancer diagnosis, the big fear was that she wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.”
Hansen said it’s important for patients to retain things they enjoy. Not every patient can or wants to exercise, but she encourages it when they can. “I do think it helps the patient be more centered and really helps them to heal,” she said.
For Drake, she added, “I think running made her feel good and made her feel in control of things. With the cancer, you certainly don’t feel in control.”
When chemo made her feel nauseated, running helped. When life felt stripped of things she had planned — the family vacation to China, the marathon in Connecticut — steady footfalls provided continuity.
“You get hit with cancer, and that’s a big enough curveball,” said Drake. “And then if it’s going to take away something that’s so important, that’s a bigger curveball. That almost was more devastating than just the cancer, just feeling like your life is unraveling.”
She was in the middle of her chemotherapy treatment when she ran the Chicago Marathon last year. Her medical team advised extra water — chemotherapy can dehydrate patients, so she needed more than normal. And she’d be going more slowly, so she needed calories on hand to match being out there longer.
Her husband and son joined her for part of the race. She ran bald — chemo had meant losing her hair.
This year, the cancer diagnosis feels like a fading memory, she said. Her hair has grown back enough that she’s had two haircuts. She is ready to get another Chicago Marathon medal.
“There’s nothing that’s going to happen to me out there that I can’t handle,” she said. “I know that there’ll be times when I feel good. I know there’ll be times when I feel crummy, and fatigued and tired, and wish it were done. But I know how to handle all of that. I can walk when I need to, if it comes to that, but otherwise I’ll just power through.”
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