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'Thinking Makes It So'

Derek Stefureac makes shaka hand signs as he runs
Cleveland Clinic

This MS patient isn’t running from his diagnosis; he’s running with it

Derek Stefureac had never considered himself a runner. But that changed when the now 51-year-old Las Vegas local was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, also called MS, 12 years ago, causing muscle weakness, vision changes, and balance problems. To supplement a healthy diet and MS medication, his neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health suggested he take up some form of regular exercise. Stefureac, who'd only ever participated in one organized race, decided on running. Fast forward to today: He’s run 35 marathons on six continents. His next international race, Brisbane Marathon in June, will be the final step in his goal of racing on all seven continents. Closer to home, Stefureac is training to compete in next year's Boston Marathon, which he qualified for at the REVEL Mt. Charleston Marathon on April 6, posting a final time of 3:10:33. An edited excerpt of his conversation with Desert Companion follows.

Take me through that moment when you were diagnosed with MS at the Lou Ruvo Center — what was it like to get that news?
It came three months after I had kind of like an ‘attack’ at work. I was at work and in half my body (in about the course of about 30 seconds) this numbness in my foot crept up my leg to my knee, to my thigh, to my hip, to my arm. And I thought it was having a stroke or something bad. I told my coworker to call 911, and she went to the phone to call and was on the phone with them … and all this numbness just went away. So, I was like, “Well, you can cancel the ambulance, but someone should take me to a doctor.”

… Finally the diagnosis came three months after all this wondering, and it was MS. I didn't even know what it was — in my brain it kind of shared the space with ALS or (muscular dystrophy). It's scary when you don't know. And made me feel a little bit better when they said it doesn't shorten your lifespan, but it's a quality-of-life thing … But getting a diagnosis, it's settled in, and then I learned more about MS and how people deal with it, and what the treatments can be, and doctors are all 100 percent in agreement: If you live healthier, you do better. So, I quit smoking finally, which I tried so many times … and I started jogging.

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What made you want to begin running marathons, specifically?
I discovered this guy on the internet called Wim Hof. And he does these ice baths and cold treatment and breath holding. And one of my friends just started kind of getting into that and you start getting into this thing of making yourself suffer — you feel tougher when you're doing hard things. And that part of my brain always thought of marathons like, ‘Let me think of something hard to do so that I could say I did that.’

How does your diagnosis impact your training?
I know I have MS; I know it's always there. It’s not going to take a day off. But I really love running. I really love what my life has become and what I do now. So, I think right now, if you took the MS diagnosis away, I'm sure I'd still be doing this. (But) it's the catalyst for extra motivation.

How has marathon training affected your symptoms?
When I started running, I would limp and drag my leg after running about a mile … Then it’d be a mile and a half a couple of weeks later, that I’d go before my leg would get numb. And it kind of grew like that over time … I knew that leg was a problem. And I guess I thought the answer was just to run more in general.

What was your first race like?
I thought I couldn't do a (full) marathon, but a half marathon seemed doable … So, I signed up for that … I had to walk at the end of that one, the last three miles. And I didn't like that feeling at all — people jogging past me and I'm walking, I can't do anything. So, I signed up for one that was one month later. And I'm like, “Well, I'm coming again, I'm going to finish this one.” And on that second one, I didn't walk, but I dragged my leg for like the last two miles to the point where it wore a hole in my shoe. My toes were sticking out of my shoe (and I was) dragging my foot. And so, that was pretty memorable and felt pretty good when I finished that (second) one.

What’s your next race going to be?
At my last (marathon), I met some people who were close to qualifying for the Olympics. And I thought, “Wow, I'm always jogging, getting ready for marathons, but I've never, like, trained like that.” And it sounded exciting to me. So, I thought, “I'm going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I'm not going to buy my ticket in; I'm going to be like a real runner and get in by qualifying.” So, that’s my latest goal that I started every day, running before the sun (rises), six days a week … I just feel like I'm out there doing what I should be doing.

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Do you feel the responsibility of being an example for people who’ve received scary diagnoses, showing them they can also achieve their dreams?
One of my favorite quotes is by Shakespeare, “Things are not good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I swear the diagnosis of MS is one of the best things that happened to me in my life. You can put anything in a positive light. There's a shiny side to everything. It might not be right away, but in the future, oftentimes, you can look back and see that things happen for the best.