WHITMAN – Running the Boston Marathon for the first time on Monday, Oct. 11 is one item checked off Chris DiOrio’s bucket list — as well as an opportunity to raise funds to research childhood cancer.
But one has to hope is music shuffle won’t serve up the 17-minute arrangement of “It’s a Small World” just as he hits Heartbreak Hill.
More on that later.
“You can learn to love to run,” DiOrio says. “It’s something that I feel like I have to do it every day, now.”
He didn’t feel that way when he started, however. It hurt in the beginning.
But he had started thinking about doing the marathon as a “bucket list thing” when he was in his 40s, the 54-year-old DiOrio said last week. It didn’t have to be Boston, but he wanted to at least try a 26.2-mile race.
“But I was just not physically able to do it,” he said, noting he was “pushing 400 pounds at points” and finding just walking the stairs to be a challenge. He underwent gastric bypass surgery to lose weight two years ago, and has dropped almost 120 pounds so far, and said his diabetes disappeared after five days.
So he felt it was time to think about a marathon again.
“I start losing the weight, the pain in the legs goes away and now I give it some thought,” he said. He laced up his sneakers again last year to start the long training process.
“It was difficult,” DiOrio said. “I’ve run a 5K about eight years ago. The most I ever had to run as an athlete in school was, at the beginning of summer football practice, you had to run around the football field four times and you had to do it in a certain time.”
When he started running again he found he was crossing items of his list of running goals.
Running a 5K last summer.
A 10K last October for Dana Farber, walking seven miles of the Boston Marathon course before the starting point of the 10K race.
“It was a reckoning,” DiOrio says.
The daunting part of the marathon is, of course, the infamous Heartbreak Hill, so hills have been a feature of this running program – on a stretch Dewey Avenue near his home that features a 20-degree incline – for the past several weeks. Heartbreak Hill is a deceptive 23-degree incline.
“It’s long,” he said.
When you get to the first of the four hills – four and a half miles – with a steady increase in elevation interspersed with flats, it can fool runners.
“It’s four separate hills,” he said. “With the actual Heartbreak Hill being the last, steepest one.”
He trains with Heartbreak Hill Running Co. owner Dan Fitzgerald (a six-time marathoner), who is working with the Mass General Hospital team with which DiOrio is running. A friend of his is a nurse in the hospital’s pediatric oncology department.
“When I said I’m going to run, and I’m going to run Boston, I’m no near a qualifier … but she said MGH has teams,” he said. MGH has three separate teams, one for pediatric oncology, one for the emergency department and one for the veterans’ program Project Home Base.
“As a parent, and knowing people in my life who have kids who have suffered – and some that have died – from pediatric cancer, it’s not something that a lot of research funds go to,” he said of his reason for raising funds.
His run is dedicated to Maddie McCoy, whose mother is a regional theater performer DiOrio has worked with. Maddie had a soft-tissue cancer that matastisizes all over the body. She was diagnosed at age 10 and was 11 when she died, but throughout her illness continued with gymnastics and art.
“If you see kids suffering, you cannot help but be moved,” he said. “It just hit me.”
A singer, DiOrio has performed at a benefit for the nonprofit Maddie’s Promise last year. That has also led to his unique fundraising idea. For pledges of $25 or more, he records requests for his marathon playlist. He’s raised $6,500 so far – at least $2,000 has come from the playlist requests. Because he was a late entrant, MGH only required him to raise $500, but his personal goal had been $2,000. A lot more donations typically roll in during the last week before the race.
Donations can be made until Oct. 22 at givengain.com.
Some donors had asked for inspirational music, but others have been playing with his brain – asking for some songs that make DiOrio cringe. Some have chosen “Let It Go,” from “Frozen,” for example. His wife, who holds a degree in vocal pedagogy, found a musical based on “Silence of the Lambs” and requested a song from that. It was another friend who requested the extended-play earworm “It’s a Small World.”
“If you want to make me hate this run, I’ll take your money,” he said. “MGH is going to benefit. … I don’t care. My minor time of suffering through your garbage song is going to pale in comparison to some kid going through chemotherapy.”
“Guys and Dolls” is his favorite musical, though.
For the last week of his training, DiOrio is alternating between 12- and eight-mile runs maintaining his marathon goal pace as he tapers distance, having run 20 miles the Saturday before. He also does some treadmill work, including a program that mimics the hills.
There were off days on Wednesday and Friday – when he walks.
Listening choices range from podcasts on walks and everything from Beastie Boys, TLC, and Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters on runs.
“What I have found out, over time, is there are some songs that fit perfectly into my pace,” he says. “The mental stuff will come. Every marathoner I’ve spoken to says, ‘If you can run 20 [miles], you can run 26.’ But, with Boston, 20 is at the base of Heartbreak Hill.”
Nutrition is a challenge for any marathoner, but as a gastric bypass patient, DiOrio has to find big benefits in small amounts. Hyrogels, which are glycogene support gels, are one of those keys, as are “Clif Bloks”, 90-calorie glucose chews.
Carbo-loading before the race is also out of the question. He had also consulted his MGH gastric surgical team about whether the gels were tolerable for nutrition. They had to have a meeting about it before advising him which nutritional gels would work best for him.
“I’m learning,” he said. “I’ve already got people telling me about other marathons. My line to folks is, we’ll see if I survive this one.”