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Runners embark on a 500-mile journey for cancer awareness

Julie Tyson Westcott was 31 and training for her first marathon with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training when she was diagnosed with Leukemia. She started a blog called Cures Rock! to write about her treatments and her fight with cancer.

“Chemo is like a marathon; like an endurance sport,” Westcott said. “Initially the blog was a way for me to inspire people; to share and talk from a positive approach about what I was going through. And a way to let people know, I know they’re doing their own endurance races with their treatments.”

Now, more than two years later, the Cures Rock! blog has morphed into a philanthropic organization supporting the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

And, Westcott, with her good friend Mike Sheehy — an endurance sport enthusiast — and a team of marathoners are about to embark on a 500-mile journey to create awareness and raise critical funds for the LLS.

“We wanted to do something big; the runs and the marathons didn’t seem big enough,” Westcott said. “We wanted to do something ultra challenging, something insane, as much for ourselves as to support Cures Rock!”

The Cures Rock! Ultra Run Tour team — with Sheehy in the lead scheduled to run the full 500 miles — will race from San Diego to Phoenix. The team will leave Cancer Survivors Park on North Harbor Boulevard on Jan. 1, and finish on Jan. 17, running in the 2010 PF Chang’s Rock n’ Roll Arizona Marathon.

Sheehy will run 17 consecutive ultra-marathons, about 31 to 36 miles each day, through 30 cities and two states. Along the way, he and his support team will stop to meet with families affected by blood cancers. They will deliver a simple message: there’s hope. Three of the Cures Rock! team members are cancer survivors.

The Cures Rock! crew also hopes to raise $100,000 for the LLS to support blood cancer research and treatments.

“That 18th day, there are still going to be families fighting the fight,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy — a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger — started supporting the LLS when Westcott was diagnosed in 2007.

A lengthy hospital stay sidelined Westcott’s training for the 2007 San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon, which would have been her first. She had been working with Team in Training, an LLS program that trains people to run marathons, and mobilizes them to fundraise.

Sheehy stepped in to run and fundraise for the LLS on behalf of Westcott, without her knowledge. He asked friends to bring Westcott to meet him at the finish line, where he made her promise the next year they’d train together. In 2008, she raced the Rock n’ Roll Marathon with Sheehy.

Sheehy devised the idea for the Ultra Run Tour after Westcott had a recurrence of cancer this year. A support team assembled quickly. Whether through friends, family members, or teammates, each of them knows someone who has battled blood cancer.

Greg Dowell’s wife was diagnosed with Leukemia four years ago this month, and she survived. Dowell said it was a life-changing experience that gave him new purpose.

“You’re bumbling along and everything is normal; I didn’t even know what Leukemia was,” Dowell said. “And all of a sudden, your world revolves around this, and the first concern, the primary concern, is survival. And when things get settled, you decide, ‘I’ve got to find a way to make a difference.’”

Westcott, Sheehy and Dowell are touched by the amount of support they’ve received and the number of hours volunteers have clocked. They say a common goal — supporting research to find a cure for cancer — binds them.

“All of the volunteers are happy to be here; there’s no multi-million dollars backing us,” Sheehy said. ” Our motivation is helping find a cure for cancer.”

For more information on Cures Rock! or the Ultra Run Tour, or to donate, visit curesrock.org or curesrocktour.com. Or, find Cures Rock! on Facebook and Twitter.

Joseph Peña is SDNN lifestyle editor.