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The Force In Bob Vitale Remains Strong

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
- Muhammad Ali

What’s in a name? For Bob Vitale (Vitale: Italian form of Latin Vitalis, meaning "of life; vital”), his name is the very essence of his character. At 50, a time when most folks are easing up, Bob picked up running. His running soon became a defining passion. He ran for fun, but he raced to win, garnering many awards for the 5K, 10K, half and full marathons, plus cross country. His zest for running landed him a spot on the cover of "Competitor Magazine".

For 30 plus years, Bob has been an inspiration to his family, friends and the running world, but today, we honor him for a new race – the race against Mesothelioma. Bob is no stranger to agony. Like any competitive runner, he has had his share of aches and pains. Overtraining once brought on a severe case of sciatica. “I broke my own rule and pushed myself too hard,” remembered Bob, probably making the part up about a rule against excessive exercise. “It was so bad, I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Bob eventually eased back into training with a renewed joy in the sport. He became mindful of two kinds of pain: the kind he accepted as a “reward” for a great effort and the kind that warned of imminent physical breakdown. Recently Bob got a stark lesson in the difference between acceptable and unacceptable pain – he just finished a phase of chemotherapy, which he likened to a circle of Hell he’d rather not visit again.

Bob running in marathon
Bob is a patient of Dr. Robert Cameron of UCLA Medical School. Where many surgeons might preclude a patient from major surgery simply because of his age (Bob is 81 years old), Dr. Cameron looks at both the mileage on the car as well as how it’s running. Minus his cancer, according to Dr. Cameron, Bob has the physical constitution of a robust 55 year old.

Bob’s mind continues to run, gallops, skip and jump, as well. Recently, sitting in a cramped waiting room waiting for his PET scan, Bob employed a useful trick to transcend his current unpleasant place and time. He closed his eyes and transported himself back to his favorite trails and race courses, reliving the patience, the hunt, the kick and the exhilaration of a strong finish.

“What I really liked were the cross country runs. It was great to compete against runners of all ages,” remembers Bob, who admits to taking devilish pleasure in beating up on the youngsters. “I entered my last one at 72, and although they gave us ‘seniors’ a 20 minute head start, the High School coaches were warning their young bucks to watch out for the two fast guys up ahead – including me! It felt good to be singled out as a threat against runners who were 50 years younger. I came in 10th place overall that day.”

Unfortunately, Bob’s recent hospital stay was a hard reminder of the fragility of his condition and the uncompromising ugliness of mesothelioma. With excellent care and a willful constitution, Bob was able to bounce back one more time, even exiting the hospital with a runner’s flare.

“Before he would order my discharge, the attendant, who was dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day, insisted that I pass a physical test by doing two laps around the ward. So we both started out together, me pushing one of those darn “walkers”, and keeping a nice brisk walking pace. He mentioned that he was competing in the upcoming LA Marathon, so of course I commented that I was a pretty good runner. Not sure what got into me, but I decided to give him a little test to see how fast he was. I warned him half-jokingly that I was going to ‘open it up now.’

Bob with Carl Lewis (r)
“Next thing I knew, we were both running around the ward at a pretty good pace – I guess I was showing off,” laughed Bob. “And, about 20 minutes later this same attendant comes in and tells my daughter, Mary, that it was time for me to go, and that he didn’t care what the doctor said, cause he didn’t want to deal with me anymore. He had the LA Marathon to run and didn't want to tire out.”

Bob is 81 years young, and up until a couple of months ago, he was running every day, working out with weights and playing golf. For now, his vigorous fitness regime is on hold, but just a few days out of the hospital, Bob found himself doing stretching exercises under a physical therapist’s direction. Old good habits die hard. Bob continues to personify his surname and wake up each day with a goal in mind.

His latest mission is to visit Yosemite. “What I’d really like to do is take 3 days and hike around Yosemite and the John Muir Trail.” Good luck Bob Vitale, the Force in you is strong.

March 25, 2011

The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.”
- Benjamin Mays