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Aug 28, 2017 12:40 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Parker, Nelson Get Set To Embark On International Journey

Part-time Sag Harbor resident Bret Parker, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, is on the Patient Council of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and runs for Team Fox, a fundraising program for MJFF.
Aug 29, 2017 5:56 PM

Bret Parker was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease just over 10 years ago, and since then, has been engaged in a constant effort to personally challenge himself. His latest endeavor is perhaps his most ambitious—the part-time Sag Harbor resident, who will celebrate his 50th birthday in March, will run in the World Marathon Challenge in January, completing seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.Though he suffers from Parkinson’s—a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement and gradually worsens—Parker is determined to challenge himself athletically. He’s competed in marathons and triathlons and has even sky-dived, but he says the grueling seven-marathon effort is about more than pushing his body.

For the first five years he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Parker, an attorney and a married father of two, kept his illness a secret. It wasn’t until a guest column he wrote that appeared on the Forbes website that he let everyone in his life know that he had the disease. A big reason for letting his secret out was because his best friend, David Samson, the president of the Miami Marlins, had invited him to run for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda and to ensure the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s. Parker wanted to be involved in the race, and to do so with a clear conscience, he knew he’d have to finally reveal that he had Parkinson’s.

Since then, Parker has made it a goal to raise awareness and funds by running for Team Fox, a grassroots community fundraising program for the The Michael J. Fox Foundation. Each year, thousands of Team Fox members worldwide turn their passions and interests into unique fundraising events and athletic feats. To date, the team has raised more than $55 million for Parkinson’s research.

Parker is now on the Patient Council of The Michael J. Fox Foundation and will run in the World Marathon Challenge, in large part, to raise more awareness and funds for it.

“We’re completely out of our minds and crazy,” Parker said, jokingly, about himself and his teammates. “But I figured, with the 10th anniversary of my diagnosis, it is degenerative, so there’s only so many years I can try and do something like that. Part of it also is the concept of living life to the fullest as long as you can, part of it is hitting this milestone, of turning 50.

“With Parkinson’s, people don’t think of it as a disease for younger people, but I had it in my 30s, Michael J. Fox was in his 30s when he was diagnosed,” Parker added. “Plus, I think people, when they hear how much we’re training to be able to do the Challenge, it does help get attention.”

Parker had been thinking about competing in the Challenge this past fall, but before making a final decision, he ran in last November’s New York City Marathon to see how his body would bounce back from running in one marathon, let alone seven. Parker completed the marathon in 5 hours and 15 minutes, which he called “slow but bearable.”

“If I can do one, I can do seven, I thought, stupidly,” he remarked.

After talking to his good friend, David Samson, some more, Parker decided in January of this year that he would do the Challenge, giving himself a full year to train. Due to some injuries, though, Parker’s training didn’t go full bore until June. Since then he has been slowly increasing the amount of miles he runs each week.

Parker will be joined by Cara Nelson, a 31-year-old Smithtown resident, who is entering her fifth year teaching seventh grade social studies at East Hampton Middle School. Nelson, who is also coaching East Hampton’s varsity girls soccer team, met Parker through their mutual friend, Samson. All three—Nelson, Parker and Samson—are a part of the 16-member team dubbed “Hold The Plane,” which is looking to raise $2 million for 11 different charities, and includes former major league baseball player Jeff Conine, among others. The Michael J. Fox Foundation that Parker is specifically running for is one of those charities.

Participants are expected to arrive at Cape Town, South Africa, on January 28, just two days prior to the World Marathon Challenge. On January 30, they will fly to Novolazarevskaya, otherwise known as Novo, Antarctica, within the Antarctic Circle, where the first marathon takes place.

During the seven-day time period, competitors will fly by charter plane and must run standard marathon distances (26.2 miles) at Novo, Cape Town, South Africa, Perth, Australia, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lisbon, Portugal, Barranquilla, Colombia, and finally, Miami, Florida.

Local running experts will ensure the marathons are the correct distance on custom courses at each location. Among them will be Dave Cundy, the Vice President of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), who measured the Sydney and Beijing Olympic Marathon courses.

Competitors will have to deal with fatigue, jet lag and sleep deprivation as the event progresses. Temperature fluctuations will almost certainly be a factor as well.

Nelson has been a runner her entire life, something she caught from her father, who just ran in his 500th road race this summer. She's ran in over a dozen half marathons and ran her first full marathon last January.

“In January, this will be all about perseverance,” she said.

Nelson is also excited that she will be able to include her class, and East Hampton Middle School in general, on her two-week journey, through an online classroom. While she is out for two weeks she’ll still be able to reach her students through Skype and Google Classroom. A substitute teacher will be on hand to assist Nelson and oversee everything.

Nelson says one of the essential questions in her classroom, and seventh grade social studies in general is, “How does geography influence the development of culture?” Or in other terms, “How does where you live affect how you live?”

The World Marathon Challenge will expand the unit’s questions beyond the scope of American history and look at it from a global perspective, she said. Students will conduct case studies of the seven cities Nelson will be running in, focusing on how geography and climate affect how the inhabitants of each city live and the culture that has developed as a result. In addition, students will have various tasks to complete each day, including mapping her route, calculating the miles traveled, analyzing race data, and interviewing other participants in the Challenge.

Nelson will Skype with her students and post live blog updates at mile 20.8 of each marathon, to signify her classroom, room 208.

“I’m very excited for this educational journey. As a social studies teacher, this is the epitome—taking them on a trip around the world without them having to take a bag!” Nelson said.

Every teacher at East Hampton Middle School will find their own creative way to incorporate Nelson’s participation in this event into their curriculum, she said. For instance, in math classes, students will calculate her pace per mile and the rate of change from marathons one through seven. In science, students will learn about cellular respiration and lactic acid and what happens to the body when it works out over extended periods of time. In health, they may be creating or analyzing nutritional plans. In Spanish classes, they will be focusing on the cities of Madrid, Barranquilla, and Miami.

“I am hoping that my training and the World Marathon Challenge itself will be a lesson on perseverance and pushing forward in spite of difficulties or obstacles encountered along the way,” she said. “And that my students can apply it to their own lives, in moments when they have to persevere.”

Nelson is also going to have her students interview her Hold The Plane teammates, asking them prior to the marathons how they have persevered through personal or professional obstacles, and then ask them about how they persevered during training and throughout the seven marathons. Many of Nelson and Parker’s teammates have unique and rich stories of perseverance. Parker has dealt with his diagnosis for 10 years, while another teammate, Sarah Reinertsen, had her leg amputated at a young age and has become an Ironman triathlete. Team member Dave McGillivray was the Boston Marathon Race Director during the 2013 bombing.

Due to the tight travel schedule of the Challenge, there is a maximum finish time—if runners haven’t completed a marathon in eight hours, they will have to stop running no matter where they are in the race. Parker said that’s where the team name, “Hold The Plane,” came from, because a few of the team members will take much of those eight hours to finish a marathon.

But as Parker and Nelson said, finishing each marathon is the main goal, no matter how long it takes.

“I am told they will hold the plane,” Parker said, with a laugh. “Seven hours, 59 minutes is a perfect time.

“We’re hoping to do our best,” Nelson said. “But if we fall short, that’s okay too.”

For more information on the World Marathon Challenge, "Hold The Plane," and to donate to the various charities, go to 777marathon.com.

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