From Athens To Tokyo: Running From Alzheimer's
A couple is defying the odds, running marathons and traveling the world, testing their physical and mental limits
Anthony Copeland-Parker and Catherine Elizabeth Popp, known as Tony and Cat, have captured people's hearts worldwide with their astonishing stories of resiliency. The pair remade their lives in their 50s as endurance athletes and inspired numerous people as they set out on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to run across the world.
Tony and Cat's "travel-thon" began in 2014 when he found out he needed an aortic valve replacement, and she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at 53. Their reaction to this life-altering news surprised everyone, including themselves.
"Why not sell it all and travel from country to country like nomads?"
They started mapping out what they wanted to do and where they wanted to be, and the answer was always: running marathons worldwide. "We asked ourselves why we need a house, car, and all the material stuff. Why not sell it all and travel from country to country like nomads?" Tony says. "By being together 24/7, I would be able to pay closer attention to the changes in Cat's physical and mental condition."
Despite the bold decision, Cat's diagnosis scared them because her father died within two years of being diagnosed with vascular dementia.
"We have no idea how much time we will have together, but through my online research there was a lot of information about the benefits of exercise to slow down cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's," recalls Tony.
After Tony retired as a management pilot for UPS and Cat went on disability from her position with the Transportation Security Administration, they sold their condo in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and gave away many of their belongings.
"We cross the finish line at most of our races hand in hand."
They packed two suitcases and started their adventure by flying to Japan to run the Tokyo Marathon – one of six races designated as a World Marathon Major.
First Race Together
They met in 2000 after completing a race in Louisville, Kentucky, where runners race through the Louisville Zoo. Tony overheard Cat talk about how she wanted to run marathons in all 50 states and how she was training for the New York City marathon – something he always wanted to do because he grew up in New York.
He asked her to help him get ready, and through the regular training, they realized they were both falling in love. Tony and Cat ran together at the marathon – the first of more than a hundred races they completed. "We cross the finish line at most of our races hand in hand," he says.
Together, they have traveled to 82 different countries and run at least half-marathons in thirty-five countries and on all seven continents. They ran all six major marathons, including New York City, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, London and Tokyo.
Tony wrote about their adventures in his book, "Running All Over The World, Our Race Against Early Onset Alzheimer's."
The book is part travel memoir transporting readers to exotic places like Malaysia, Bhutan and the Great Wall of China and an inspiring resource for healthy living while facing Alzheimer's. Tony first wrote about their adventures through his blog.
They experienced some health setbacks during their travels. During a trip to the Tahitian Islands, Cat fell down a set of stairs on a cruise ship and broke her ankle.
With complete determination, six weeks after her ankle healed, Cat walked for 13.1 miles in the half-marathon in the Outback Race near Ayers Rock in the middle of Australia.
Two weeks after that, in Bordeaux, France, she joined Tony and was back to running marathons – this time through 59 vineyards that offered wine-tasting stops.
Going the Distance
On her 60th birthday, seven years after the diagnosis, Cat was still running races but needed more guidance and assistance and could not be left alone anymore. "Cat is now 62 years old, and we're thinking about where we will be by the time she turns 65," says Tony, who is now 68.
"I think the endurance running has kept Cat in good physical shape and preserved some of her cognitive function."
"I have no medical proof, but I truly think the endurance running has kept Cat in good physical shape and preserved some of her cognitive function," he notes.
About two years ago, Cat started experiencing seizures about every two to three months, and then she had two in one day out of nowhere that landed her in the hospital. Because of the seizures, Cat cannot run a complete marathon, so they have opted to do half-marathons.
Always the goal setters, Tony and Cat are aiming to complete half marathons in all 50 states by the end of the year. Tony will push her in an adult-size stroller, aka the "CatMobile," for about 10 miles, and then Cat will walk a half mile at a time for about three miles during the race.
They have abandoned the nomad lifestyle as international travel has become too demanding for Cat. The couple has put down roots after Tony chose a senior living facility in Roswell, Georgia, near his daughter and her family.
The couple lives in an apartment in the independent living section, with nearby memory care facilities. There are plenty of outdoor sidewalks and over two miles of indoor corridors for walking. Cat still walks about six to eight miles every day.
"I promised Cat a long time ago that I'm never going to leave her side," says Tony.
Every step they take is marked by what new experience they will have and what new goals they will conquer. "We will walk together hand in hand for as long as we can," he says.