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The woman who ran around the world

She's lacing up for her 20th marathon, and for the first time Deborah Bullerjahn is running for her life

Like that first kiss, avid runners clearly remember their first marathon. For Deborah Bullerjahn , it was Boston, April 1989. A novice who began running in her 40s after her three children were born, Bullerjahn was pumped. At mile 15, near her Wellesley home, she beamed and waved to family and friends.

Then she hit the wall. "My mantra is never to walk, no matter how bad your legs are cramping," she says. "Just keep running. Tough it out. It's a real mental game that you play with yourself that pushes you to the finish line."

These are the lessons she took with her as she pursued her goal of finishing among the top five women in her age group in marathons on each continent, from the subfreezing glacial run in Antarctica to the mile-high marathon on Mount Kilimanjaro. She also did London, Chicago, Caracas, Canberra, and Singapore. And as dawn broke on Jan. 1, 2000, Bullerjahn, who was 50, ran the Millennium Marathon in New Zealand.

"I think I've done 19," she says.

She'll be using those same mental exercises that got her through her first marathon on her 20th, when she laces up her size- 8 Asics on Monday in Hopkinton. But this Boston Marathon will be a much more meaningful, personal one for her. Bullerjahn, 57, is running on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's team, raising money for research. She is running for her life, and for others who have also been diagnosed with cancer.

In 2003, she went in for a routine physical exam and her doctor felt something. It turned out to be a rare cancer that had started in the appendix and spread to her ovaries. She underwent an appendectomy and hysterectomy. Her ovaries were removed. Chemotherapy followed. Her racing days, she thought, were over.

But when her treatments were finished, her thoughts turned again to running. If she could stay healthy, she told herself, she'd run the marathon for the Dana-Farber, which has provided her medical care. In Boston, she won't be the elite athlete she was in all those other marathons, half-marathons, and 10Ks. She'll be No. 20,501, "a back-of-the-packer."

This invitational number comes courtesy of the Dana-Farber Challenge Team , where she will join other patients, doctors, and nurses.

"I've come full circle," she says, recalling her slow, early days of running. "And I'm pleased and happy and thrilled to be there. I'm being very conservative. I just want to finish." She grins. "And you know what? That's OK with me. I'm not hung up on speed at all."

That first marathon, by the way, where she hit that wall? A stellar 3:39 finish.

Bullerjahn, a slight woman with a ready smile, is curled up on her living-room sofa , dressed in black tights and a purple and green jacket, poised for a tapering training run. On a nearby wall are 22 framed photos of her in various races. Antarctica, in 1997, proved a huge challenge. Since there's nothing but research stations on the frozen continent, the 80-person contingent stayed on boats moored offshore. The day of the race -- during the Antarctic summer -- Bullerjahn look ed out the portal and saw a blizzard of horizontal-blowing snow. Huge waves had whipped up, but her group got into a large rubber raft, covered themselves in plastic to keep from getting wet, and got to shore. "On the glacier, the gusts were intense enough to concern a lightweight like me," she says. "I truly felt that I was at risk of being blown off."

Somehow, she matched her first Boston record: 3 hours 39 minutes, finishing second in her age group.

The next year was Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a race that actually took place at the trailhead of the great mountain. She finished first among all women. Not content to rest on her laurels, she began to climb the mountain the next day. She had just run a fast race at about 3:10 -- her own clocked time, since there was no official timekeeper -- and at a mile-high altitude.

"I really had no concept of what altitude can do to your body," she says. On her trek, she carried a backpack and went with fellow runners and some guides. It took four days to make it to base camp at 18,000 feet. Then it was up a scree to a steep glacial cap, a "false summit." Here, most people began their descent. But Bullerjahn and a few others decided to go for the actual peak, and somehow the group became scattered, without guides. On an ice bridge, she took a nasty fall and could not get up. Finally, a climber coming down reached her and gave her a hand.

"It was very dangerous," she says. "I had no energy, I was weak and dehydrated and not thinking clearly. It was truly not a smart decision."

But the next year, she decided to do Antarctica again. She finished first in her age category, third woman overall. The last marathon she ran was Boston in 2001, a 3:19. "Not bad for a 51-year-old," she says.

But then a series of events happened that took her away from running. Running-related injuries. Her father's death. She was executor of his estate and worked hard on it. She began feeling more tired than usual and went for a check - up. The grim diagnosis and grueling treatments followed. Today, she says, she lives "from scan to scan."

Her fund-raising letter to friends, family, friends of friends, neighbors, college classmates, "guys I dated," her husband's colleagues at Goldman Sachs -- anyone, really -- is laid out mile by mile. Mile 1: "A routine exam reveals something in my body that should not be there -- everybody's nightmare." Mile 8: "Dr. Mayer is factual and direct; and he is a doctor of real hope and perse verance. Metastatic cancer statistics are grim. I focus on his inherent optimism and determination."

She also described scenes she saw while receiving treatment. Mile 15: "A young father of small children despairs -- his treatments are ending; he is not cancer-free." Mile 17: "A determined teenager encourages her frail mom."

Mile 19: "There is no cure for my cancer, but for now I am cancer-free. I am learning to live with uncertainty."

Mile 21: "Everyone tells me to run, but I do not want to. Irrationally I feel betrayed by running. It did not protect me from cancer."

Mile 22: "Running did not betray me. Cancer is indiscriminate. I start to run again."

Mile 26.2: "I am training for a marathon. I will run it and finish!"

Her doctor, Robert Mayer, has no doubt that she will. "This is what she does," he says. "To be able to achieve this is symbolic of how far she's come. The courage, the triumph of having completed what many of us couldn't do -- I'm an enormous fan of hers."

Bullerjahn has another goal: to raise $42,200, or $1,000 for each kilometer in the marathon. She's up to $40,000.

She knows the nor'easter that is predicted for Monday may replace Antarctica as "my worst marathon." But she will be at the starting line and, she believes, will cross the finish line. "Thanks to Dana-Farber, this Marathon Monday certainly will not be the worst storm I've come through," she says.

And despite her claim that she won't be watching the clock for the first time ever -- that she is over that competitive phase of her life -- in her heart she will be. She knows the qualifying time for a woman her age is 4 hours and 15 minutes. "In the back of my mind," she says, "I'd like to do that."