The Power of Motivation: 75-y/o Patient with Parkinson’s Disease Runs His First 5K

James Nagourney has led quite an interesting life…

When he was only three years old, his mother suffered 3rd-degree burns over half of her body in a plane crash. She was in the hospital for months. He says that despite severe pain she never, ever complained during her additional 65 years of life. Yet at age 17, he became so depressed that he spent a year-and-a-half in a psychiatric hospital. With his depression, he was told, he’d never be able to make a living on his intellect. Despite this dire prediction and the fact that he didn’t attend college, he had worked his way up to the position of city manager through sheer hard work by age 29. Eventually, he rose to become vice president of the New York Mets, as well as the New York Islanders during the time they won a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.

Seven years ago, at age 68, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and then with myasthenia gravis, two serious life-long diseases. Treatment for his myasthenia gravis left him in a coma and on a respirator. For 18 days he lay close to death. Once improved, but unable to walk, he was sent to a rehab hospital, where he was told that Medicare would only pay for three weeks of his rehab. He promised the staff that he would walk out in three weeks on his own two feet. The staff told him that that was impossible, but he did it, walking back into the hospital to show the staff after they had discharged him in a wheel chair. “You don’t grow up in a household like my mom’s and quit”, he says. “I was so close to dying, that it makes life so sweet! Every day is a total gift!”

After consulting the best myasthenia gravis expert in the country and days and days of testing, he was told that he did not have the disease. He decided that he wasn’t going to let Parkinson’s get the best of him either. Despite the fact that he was now 75, a self-described “terrible runner”, and had been never an athlete, he decided to run a 5K. His goal was just to finish. He has a very positive attitude and knew he would have to work very hard.

Under the guidance of his long-time physical therapist, Dr. Jen Nash, at the Lou Ruvo Center, he worked his way up to daily vigorous exercise, including 30 high-speed minutes on a stationary bike and lots of stretching and balancing exercises. He started walking, and then running outside, using his new GPS watch to monitor the distances he was covering. In 10 weeks, he worked his way up to greater distances, using a “how to run your first 5K” plan he found online. Eventually, he did three practice runs averaging 63 minutes for the entire distance (3.1 miles).

He improved his diet, adding more fruits and vegetables, and giving up olive oil. Although he did eat some fish and an occasional burger, he ate lots of rice and beans and lots of baked potatoes with A1 steak sauce, tomatoes, and chopped onions. As he got closer to the race, he drank more water and carb-loaded with bread and pasta. By race day, he had lost 17 pounds.

Last Saturday, he ran his race; with Dr. Nash running alongside to cheer him on. He wore the number 51, after calling up his old friend Dick Butkus to tell him he wouldn’t disgrace his number. He ran most of the way, with an occasional “power walk” break. The last quarter mile, he started hearing the music and seeing the crowd, which included friends and neighbors. So for the last twenty yards, he gave it everything he had. He finished in under 54 minutes, beating his own practice times by almost 10 minutes! You can watch him finish here.

He came into our office this morning to show off his medal. “You gotta have a goal!” he said. He told me that he has never been happier and more at peace in his life, even though he is 75, has a serious disease and doesn’t have the money he once did.

Last night, he decided that it would be a shame to give up all the conditioning his body had gained. His next goal? To run another 5K in October when the weather cools off and to shave another 10 minutes off his time! I wouldn’t bet against him!

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