Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Leukemia patient finds comfort in marathons — lots of them

An avid distance runner, Phillip Fields was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, told by his doctors he would never run again and that was that.

Except it wasn't.

Fields, a 61-year-old human anatomy instructor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, wasn't convinced. And when he discovered running actually made him feel better, so were his doctors. Eventually, he was encouraged to run, run and run some more.

The leukemia is still there and Fields ultimately will have to begin chemotherapy. But his goal is to put that off until after he has competed in marathons in all 50 states. He crosses off No. 29 Sunday, when he'll run in the Prairie Fire Marathon in Wichita.

"I have blood tests every two weeks,'' Fields said. "It seems like the more I ran, the rate of doubling of my abnormal lymphocytes came down. Everything just kind of slowed down.''

Encouraged, Fields thought of a way to combine his passion for running and his desire to see the country. So in 2009, after building up some stamina after the first waves of his disease zapped him, he started by running a marathon in Pensacola, Fla.

The Prairie Fire Marathon will be his third in six weeks, an especially busy period, and 23rd in the past 21 months.

If you're wondering how a man who teaches human anatomy at a university can fit in so many marathons, which require so much training, you're not alone. There's also the matter of finances.

"I have a full teaching load; I'm teaching three different courses this fall,'' Fields said. "So my life consists of my job, running and training. I don't do anything else. I don't have time to do anything else. But it's been a blessing. I've seen some fantastic places I would not have seen had this not occurred.''

Fields doesn't run like as fast as he used to, of course. Where he used to finish in the 3 1/2-hour range, he's lucky to finish a race in 4:30. Sometimes, it's closer to 5:30. That disappoints him.

"But my body seems to be holding up,'' Fields said. "The races that really give me problems are the ones in altitude. Last weekend, in South Dakota, we started out at 4,500 feet and at one point were at 6,500. Estes Park was around 7,000 feet. Phoenix was around 5,500. When you have a really low red blood cell count, those are a struggle.''

Fields, being a human anatomy professor, knew something was wrong when he had difficulty getting past three miles without stopping.

Having qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2004, he suffered a knee injury in 2005 that took him nearly a year to recover from. Able to train again, he put a return to Boston in his sights. Everything seemed normal at first; he was able to run 20 miles in training without a problem.

Then he ran a marathon just for practice, he said, and got through it OK.

Four weeks later, though, he noticed an alarming change in his stamina. He went through a battery of medical tests, but doctors could not tell him what was wrong.

It was during his yearly checkup that swellings in Fields' neck led to tests that determined his white blood cell count was high. He was sent to an oncologist and the diagnosis was made.

"The thought then was that, the markers I had, that I would more and likely have to start chemo fairly rapidly,'' Fields said. "And so I just thought that before I did that, I was going to try and run one more marathon.''

He was able to build up enough stamina to run some 20-milers, but it was much harder. Yet the more he ran, the better his blood tests looked.

Fields' doctors think he can go another year to 18 months before he has to start chemotherapy. By then, he'll have run marathons in 50 states.

"I always ran two or three marathons a year before this,'' Fields said. "Since 1984, when I started running marathons, I'd probably run close to 50 in five different states.''

Fields will fly into Wichita on Saturday, look for something interesting to do in town that day, then run in Sunday's race. He'll return to Mobile on Monday morning and be in front of his students Tuesday.

"Some of my favorite marathons — because of where they've been — were in Montana because I also did Glacier National Park,'' Fields said. "This past spring, after the race in Phoenix, I drove up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. South Dakota was great because the course looped around Crazy Horse Monument Park in the area of Mount Rushmore.''

This is Fields' first trip to Kansas, and he's excited.

"The Old Cowtown Museum looks interesting, especially the dinner theater,'' he said. "I may do that after the marathon.''

Fields is having a blast going from state to state, seeing the country while doing what he loves most — running.

"You don't limit your challenges,'' he said, "you challenge your limits. That's something the race director in South Dakota wrote to me in an e-mail and it struck home. That's probably what I'm doing.''

Fields' long-term prognosis, he said, isn't good. Eventually, chemotherapy will be unavoidable. And doctors have warned him that the chemo he ultimately receives might not be enough to help.

But those are worries for other days. Fields has learned to take his life one day at a time. He's running 26 miles in Wichita on Sunday, during which his mind will wander and his eyes will see things they've never seen before.

Life is good. Running is his chemo, for now, and running works.