(Jan. 2021) LifetimeRunning first profiled Tom Perri in 2018--a few months before he received a cancer diagnosis. (See this page.) At that time he was averaging 40 marathons a year and was a four-time finisher of the Fifty-States Club. He’s now working on his sixth go-round as a Fifty State finisher and just finished his 536th marathon on New Year’s Day 2021. Perri still paces marathons when he can find one, and is still thrilled to bring first-time marathoners across their finish line. Now 59, Perri is looking forward to a new age division in April of 2021.
How did you find out you had cancer? I had a complete physical on 12/21/18, and was told that my PSA was well outside the normal range, which was a strong indication that I probably had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. This was confirmed by the prostate biopsy. At that time it appearedto be Stage 3 cancer, but after my first prostate surgery on 7/3/19, the biopsies came back and I was given a Stage 4 diagnosis on 7/30/19. Since then I have undergone three surgeries: prostate (7/3/19), bladder (10/23/19) and benign growth removal on neck (11/19/20).
As a runner did you have any idea that something was wrong? Any warning signs? In early 2018 I wasn’t running the times I should have easily been able to run. Sub 8-minute mile training runs were becoming more of a challenge and I was becoming easily fatigued on training runs from 5 miles to 9 miles. Extra days off from running wasn’t helping, neither was adjusting my diet and training. Other things I tried were daily naps and getting extra sleep and reducing intensity of the workouts. After 42-plus years of running I knew something was wrong.
I had zero signs of the more typical straight forward prostate cancer symptoms--awakening at night to use the bathroom, frequent urination issues, etc. The fatigue is a generic sign for so many diagnoses that I had no idea it would be related to a cancer diagnosis.
What do your doctors say about running through the cancer? Are they supportive? My treatment team knows full well my desire and determination to run. The key for me was having a complete treatment team and a team that knows me very well and supported me. My treatment team has an atypical challenge with me, in that I didn’t/don’t want to rest and/or take time off. In all my multiple injuries/surgeries I have only taken two pain pills in my 45 years of running.
Have they ever had a patient like you, an extreme marathoner? Nothing like me per says, but they have had athletes in various sports. I had a remarkable treatment team - lead by my GP that I have been with for nearly 37 years and that has made a significant difference. He "gets" me.
I had a funny experience with the electrical equipment I was hooked up to after surgery. As a runner, my resting heart rate is typically very low. The equipment that monitored my heart rate kept going off and beeping during the night, so they finally disconnected it and just kept checking on me.
Are you still pacing runners at marathons? I never stopped pacing races and/or marathons even after my treatments or surgeries. For some races, to be safe I became a backup pacer if the race was immediately after my treatments/surgeries. Being a backup means I basically run the distance as long as I can with another pacer but I always hit my goal. Once fully recovered I was good to go back to my normal pacing. I have paced 32 races since initial cancer diagnosis and have been on target for all of them. Obviously with the pandemic my number of pacing assignments/races is way down in the last ten months because of races being cancelled. I am pacing times up to 3 hours slower than when I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer, just to be safe. The longer I am out on the course the worse the fatigues get so I have to balance that at this time.
What are you most proud of in your current achievements? Regardless of my appointments, surgeries, or treatments since my initial cancer diagnosis I have continued to pace and run almost as much as if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. When real marathons weren’t available, I did virtual marathons and races to keep my monthly streak active, and those running statistics will just have an asterisk by it.
In April, I will hit 41 years of at least 2,000 running miles, 41 years of at least 36 races a year, and continued my streak of one race a month since April of 1976. Since 10/5/2003, I have 204 consecutive months of completing at least one marathon a month. Only April and May of 2020 will be given an asterisk because of the pandemic.
I would have hit 30 real marathons in 2020, but the Hoover Dam Marathon canceled on me, so that cost me my 30th marathon for the year.
Total races (through 1-2-21) since 12/26/18 when told you likely had an aggressive prostate cancer?
In-person races: 86
Virtual races: 23
Total races: 109
64 in-person marathons, one Ultra, and six virtual marathons.
Of the 86 real races, 19 were age group/overall win awards.
Paced 32 of the 85 real events.
Guesstimate the number of lifetime miles you have run? 111,926 - Lifetime miles through 12/31/2020
Running Philosophy? I am more of a purist when running. I rarely listen to music and much prefer the company of another runner. To me, running is so much more than simply winning a race - it is about having fun. I cannot recall any race that I have ever done in my life in which I have not reached out to another runner in the race to chat or check-in - to make sure they are okay and hopefully having fun and to make them smile.
How has running helped you through cancer? Running helps me manage my life. I have the courage, perseverance, and strength to take on the challenges thrown at me. I made the decision that when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that I would live my life like I didn’t have cancer. Cancer became just a word; it didn’t define me or tell me what I could or couldn’t do.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned from running?
Take one day at a time. Sometimes the race or run will not go well. Of the 516 overall wins and/or age group awards I’ve earned - including three first place overall marathon finishes - I simply wouldn’t have that many if I didn’t have the courage to start. You can’t win if you don’t start.
Any lessons you’ve adopted/learned since running through cancer? When I was a therapist and worked with addicts and suicidal clients, the three things I learned to help them get through the day are the same things I follow every day:
1) One day at time - Some days are significantly easier than others. If today is a bad day, let's see what tomorrow brings.
2) Staying happy keeps me motivated - that means doing stuff that makes me happy - if I can't go for a run that day, then read a book. If I’m too tired to read or run, then I watch a comedy. Anything to make me smile!
3) I can only do what I can do each day. Cancer will also do what it wants to do each day. I have lived my life the same way I would have, had I not been diagnosed with cancer. I may run a little or a lot slower. I learned that taking naps is okay and not a sign of weakness.