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The Power of Setting Goals: Dr. Maria Loerzel on training for her first marathon while raising awareness for ALS

Published in Family Medicine, For the Health of It Author: Maria Loerzel,MD

Many of us can’t imagine running a marathon, let alone while pushing a 140 lb. individual in an adaptive wheelchair, but that is just what Maria Loerzel is training to accomplish.

In 2016, Maria Loerzel, a family medicine physician in Willmar, lost a dare from her husband. The lost bet took her out of her twenty-year hiatus from fitness and entered her into a Turkey Leg 5K race on Thanksgiving morning.

While preparing for the 5K, Maria was “wogging” (walk/jogging) at a pace of 14:00-14:30 minutes per mile. “I was determined not to walk any of the race,” said Maria. “I managed to finish in a time of 36 minutes and 15 seconds. I finished red-faced and feeling like I had asthma – but I loved it!”

Everything about race day had Maria hooked on running. “I loved mingling with my friends before the race, the nervous excitement of the starting line, and trying to beat the clock at the finish. I love the fact that when I’m running, it is my race and my pace!”

However, Maria did not consider herself a “natural runner.” She had to learn how to cadence breathe (also called rhythmic breathing), so she doesn’t feel like she has asthma while running, which she does not.

In 2017 she went from a 5K to her first half marathon.

In January 2018, Maria ran another 5K and then ran alongside her friends Blake Austin and Chris Douglas at the Charleston Marathon. Chris Douglas is a long-time friend of Maria and her husband from their undergraduate days at North Dakota State University. They were also in each other’s weddings.

Her friend Chris is also living with ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Chris had always been extremely active. He enjoyed softball, downhill skiing, and coached his kids in wrestling. Chris found himself repeatedly falling while running the bases during his softball league games, six months later he was diagnosed with ALS.

In the race that Maria helped crew for her friends, Blake ran while pushing Chris in an adaptive wheelchair. Maria ran alongside from miles 9-26 to provide on-course support for Chris, in case he needed a drink or food. She was also a cheerleader for Blake. She was given an honorary finishers medal by the Race Director.

“One of my mantras is – if a goal doesn’t scare you a little, it’s not a large enough goal. So last fall I asked Chris if he would like to finish my first marathon with me. It guarantees he will finish in front and beat me,” laughed Maria. “He didn’t hesitate at all and said yes! I knew if I trained for it, I could complete my first marathon and it would be an honor to have Chris with me.”

Initially they planned to run the Mankato Marathon in Minnesota for her first marathon, but after Chris moved to Utah Maria had to search to find a relatively flat and warmer marathon course closer to him. The cold weather in Minnesota can cause painful muscle spasms for Chris. This led to the new goal of the San Antonio Rock N Roll Marathon on December 8, 2019.

With the goal and date locked in, Maria went to work training. First, she trained for Grandma’s half marathon on June 22, and on July 1st she began training for her next full marathon.

“I borrowed a double toddler stroller from a close friend and began training by pushing the empty stroller,” said Maria. “Gradually I worked my way up by adding weights to it until I was pushing the stroller with 150 pounds during my long run.”

Pushing a weighted stroller would be challenging for any seasoned runner, and mother nature added another challenge to Maria’s training by sending snow to Minnesota early in November. But like so many challenges, Maria tackled the snowy weather head on.

On December 8th Maria will be toeing the line at the San Antonio Rock N Roll Marathon with a specially designed Team Triumph racing wheelchair to power herself and her friend, Christopher Douglas, to the finish line of her first, and his second, marathon.