A bond that will keep on running
Friday, Oct. 25, 2013

A bond that will keep on running

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/24/10/16/zoEq.Em.138.jpeg|395
    Wyatt Glen Boughter - COURTESY OF GERALD BABAO
    Gerald Babao, who has adenoid cystic carcinoma, runs in honor of cancer patients he says are facing tougher struggles.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/24/10/16/fvVfW.Em.138.jpeg|421
    Jonathan Vogel is running in the Nov. 3 New York City Marathon as a salute to his three children.
  • Want to go? Gerald Babao’s 2nd annual Wannabe Cancer-Free 5K. When: 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Dec. 7. Where: Ardrey Kell High School. Cost: $20 for 5k, $10 for 1-mile Fun Run. All proceeds go to the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation. Information: 704-287-7859; www.wannabecancerfree.org.

Jonathan Vogel and Gerald Babao don’t run from challenges. They run through them.

The south Charlotte men, who live 15 minutes apart, were among five winners in a national essay contest in conjunction with the Nov. 3 New York City Marathon. Both wrote stories of strength and inspiration that moved the judges at Dove Men+Care to provide the two a free trip to New York including accommodations and expense money, virtual “coaching” by tennis great John McEnroe and elite New York Road Runners coach John Honerkamp, and a chance to meet McEnroe at the finish line.

The win is a bonus for two runners who already were registered for the marathon: one who’s paying tribute to his late mother and his young children following a family crisis, the other the victim of a rare cancer who’s running to salute the courage of other cancer patients who “have it a lot worse than I do.”

The thrust of the contest was for men ages 35 to 50 to write a 100-word essay on why they would be the best ambassadors for the Dove product’s “strong-yet-sensitive campaign.” The feisty McEnroe – who’s not a runner and has never run a marathon – has a spokesman/cheerleading role under the premise of advising participants how to run irritation-free.

“Essentially, as a team we’re spokespeople for Dove Men+Care,” said Vogel, adding that winners were to receive media training about how to talk to people about the brand. “Every guy has a story.”

Some stories are more compelling than others. Vogel, 43, who lives in the Arboretum area, has been a runner for almost two decades. He wrote about how he ran his first NYC Marathon in 1997 in memory of his mother – a three-time NYC Marathon finisher – who had passed away unexpectedly a year earlier.

Sixteen years later, he’s returning in honor of his three children and their strength in the face of what he called a “recent, heartbreaking” divorce.

“To deal with it, I went running,” he said. “I did a lot of running to deal with it physically, emotionally and to gather my thoughts. I did that a lot. It was kind of my salvation, like it was many years before after my mom passed away.”

His original plan was to run last year, but the marathon was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy. Vogel was undaunted: “I’m so proud of my kids. They’ve been so strong,” he said.

After he learned that another winner in the contest lived nearby – “a crazy coincidence,” he said – he recently met Babao for the first time. They immediately found strength and comfort in one another’s life stories.

Babao, who lives in Ballantyne, was diagnosed with the rare cancer adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2008. Before that shocking diagnosis, “I wasn’t out of shape but I wasn’t active, either,” said Babao, 39.

With the support of his wife, Christy, 6-year-old daughter Isabella and local running groups, Babao since has taken up running, cycling, swimming and triathlons. Now he’s running his first marathon.

“I’m still fighting it,” he said of the cancer. “I spend my free time encouraging people, including my family, to do the same.”

Although he has a slow-growth cancer that he says never goes into remission, “I find the strength to run in being healthy, and with my friendship with others.”

The cancer worsened a few years ago; he had a tumor removed from his head and neck area.

“Fortunately, it didn’t cause much damage to the area,” he said. “Adenoid cystic carcinoma is notorious for causing disfiguration of the face because there are a lot of facial nerves taken out. It’s very destructive physically, from an appearance standpoint.”

Last year, Babao organized the Wannabe Cancer-Free 5K in the Ballantyne area to raise awareness and funds to combat adenoid cystic carcinoma. The second annual event will be Dec. 7 at Ardrey Kell High School.

The end of the year will be busy. “Two weeks after the New York City Marathon I’m running in a Richmond marathon on Nov. 16, also to raise awareness for this type of cancer,” he said. “Everybody thinks I’m totally crazy.”

Both Babao and Vogel knew of McEnroe. Vogel said he had a poster of the tennis star on his wall as a boy and that “I’m really excited to meet him. He’s one of the true greats.”

They’re also aware of McEnroe’s penchant for unpredictability, which could make for an interesting scene at the finish line.

“I don’t know what he’ll do,” Babao said. “Maybe he’ll throw water on us. Because it’s John McEnroe, they might have something unusual planned.”

Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at reidcreager@yahoo.com.

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