Running in spirit
Though stricken with cancer, Dan Peterson completed his 24th Boston Marathon last April. This year, his running buddies plan to carry his number across the finish line.
BEVERLY -- Dan Peterson's cancer-ravaged body cannot carry him across the living room, let alone the 26.2 miles of a history-steeped course that he loves more than anything besides his family, friends, and faith.
But Peterson, 55, has not abandoned his dream to join the starting-line throng at Hopkinton on Patriots Day and keep his long streak of consecutive Boston Marathons alive.
''This will be my 25th -- if," said Peterson, his eyes twinkling above sunken cheeks. ''I really don't have the guarantee that I'll live long enough. But you have to live ever hopeful. You have to have something, whether it's a trip, a party, or a race. And Boston embodies that."
His wife, Julie, a five-time competitor in the US Olympic Team marathon trials, has to rock him upright from the couch. Peterson's once-sturdy legs have dwindled to the size of sticks. A stocking cap tops a body that for five years has been wracked by melanoma.
''Every day is a gift," Julie said, her eyes brimming with tears.
Last year, surrounded by a coterie of friends for the first Boston Marathon since his right arm was amputated, Peterson completed the course in 5 hours, 51 minutes, said Len Femino, a Beverly lawyer who is his closest friend and another longtime marathoner. In 1984, Peterson ran the marathon in a personal-best time of 2:42.
If Peterson cannot run April 17, Femino said, the friends will carry Peterson's number along the course and over the finish line.
''There's no doubt about that," said Femino, who nearly died in 2000 before a liver transplant from his brother spurred his recovery from a rare disease. The coffee and muffins that Femino has brought Peterson every weekend for two years are partial repayment for the kindness that Peterson showed him then.
''He was great," Femino said. ''He was always by the house, always checking on my wife and daughters and all the things that great friends do."
Dr. Geoffrey Shapiro, who is treating Peterson at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said he has been a remarkable patient, because he has volunteered repeatedly for experimental treatments and the unknowns that go with them.
''He's always had a good, generous spirit about how he's approached being a research subject," Shapiro said. ''It's a major contribution. He was more interested in doing that than taking the standard drug."
Despite his discomfort, Peterson has remained active in the sports life of his 12-year-old daughter Andrea, even playing last year in a father-daughter hockey game with only one arm. But although Peterson played hockey at Beverly High School, the marathon is his athletic love.
Last year, Peterson's entourage made the race a festival, said Dr. John Boyle Jr., a Danvers-based orthopedic surgeon who called it the most enjoyable of his 20 Boston Marathons. Peterson wore a shirt he had emblazoned with the nickname ''Lefty," an oblique reference to his amputated right arm.
''For me, it was a celebration of Dan's life and spirit," Boyle said. ''We let Dan set the pace, and Dan ran almost the entire distance up to the firehouse" in Newton, Boyle said. But for the last eight miles, up the Newton hills and down to Boston, Peterson suffered.
''He has been extremely courageous from Day One," Boyle said. ''He does not whine. He does not complain. He's not looking for any pity. He's definitely an inspiration."
Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon, echoed that sentiment.
''People like Dan are the real heroes, based on what they're going through and what their level of determination continues to be under adverse conditions," McGillivray said. ''They certainly inspire the rest of us."
Julie Peterson said that her husband's health has deteriorated in the last few weeks, but that his upbeat attitude and his desire to shield his daughter from even a hint of self-pity have remained strong.
''It's hard to watch," Julie said. ''But I just feel that, in the last month or so, the love in our marriage has really been cemented."
To Boyle, who worked as a team physician for the Boston Bruins and the New England Patriots, Peterson's enduring competitiveness is remarkable.
''He's been dealing with weight loss, the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, tremendous energy drain, and painful muscles and joints, which ordinarily would preclude just about anyone else even from thinking about running," Boyle said.
''He has tremendous courage, drive, and determination. He's not afraid."
Peterson, who has worked as a salesman for Cricket Press in Manchester-by-the-Sea, is adamant that his friends and family not use the words ''struggle," ''battle," or ''fight" when they refer to his illness.
''I've been living the cancer adventure," Peterson said this week. ''It's an opportunity to take a path, and at the end of the path is a blessing. You can choose to take the blessing or spiral the other way."
Last year, Peterson said, his marathon group stopped on Boylston Street, a few hundred yards from the finish, and tried to absorb the experience.
''We learned that life is not about the finish line; it's about the journey," Peterson recalled, his voice a whisper. ''We took a picture, shed a few tears, and hugged. Then we looked across the line and said, 'Let's go.' I think it touched every guy there."
Peterson said he is still hoping for a chance to complete this year's race, a full recovery afterward, and a strong, quick race in 2007.
And even though he refuses to indulge the thought of death, Peterson has given his friends a few instructions.
His ashes, he said, are to be spread along the marathon course, at Fenway Park, and on the Beverly beaches.
Then Peterson flashed a broad smile, discouraging the notion that such a request will have to be filled in the near future.
''I'm hoping I'll be able to take a couple of weeks off and get back on my feet," he said. ''There's a plan out there for me. Whatever it is, I'm ready."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.