By Jerome Tharaud
Two years ago, Margaret Kucera didn't expect to be running marathons. She was making other plans. Half of her ashes were to be scattered in the mountains of Montana, the other half into the Pacific Ocean from California's Hurricane Point.
All that seemed very far away earlier this month as the lean 41-year-old sat in the pleasant afternoon light shining into the living room of her parents' Havre home. On the table in front of her was a page from her training log: six miles on Monday, eight miles on Tuesday, five miles on Wednesday, 13 miles on Thursday, six miles on Friday, 16 miles on Saturday. Beside that was a clay medal the size of an ashtray. A slight redness from exposure to wind and sun and snow sat on her cheeks. On the eve of her graduation from Montana State University-Northern, Kucera had more life experience to reflect on than the average college grad.
In March of 2001, after years of nagging health problems, rapid weight loss and inconclusive tests, a CT scan revealed a tumor in Kucera's chest. Doctors prepared Kucera for a fight with lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, and for open-heart surgery.
"I ended up being scheduled to have my chest cut open because it appeared that the tumor was attaching to the aorta," recalled the Havre native, who graduated from Havre High School in 1980.
The surgery was scheduled for June. The hike Kucera had planned with her brother Mike in Glacier Park later that month would have to be postponed. Life would be very different for a woman who five years earlier had spent Saturdays playing one-on-one basketball with her male students in the housing projects of Tennessee - and winning. She had never been a runner, even though Mike had often urged her to start. Now, it seemed, that might never happen.
The outcome of the surgery was not what Kucera expected.
"I was up in my room in recovery by myself because I had been that way - wanting to go through things on my own," Kucera recalls. She insisted on always going alone to Great Falls for her bone biopsies.
"I was in recovery and the nurse came in and said, 'We didn't have to cut you open.'" The tumor had been encapsulated in the thymus, a gland in the chest, rather than attaching to her heart. Doctors had been able to remove it without sawing open her chest.
Kucera remembers the moment her life changed as she lay there, alone in the afternoon.
"It was this sudden feeling that came over me. I pledged that I was going to have stronger relationships with other people, and I wasn't going to take my health for granted, and I was going to start running. That's when I decided.
"It turned my world around pretty much," she said.
Ten days later Kucera was hiking in Glacier Park, feeling lucky to be there. "From that day on, life is more of a gift. Prior to that I took my health for granted." She has been healthy ever since. And she kept her pledge.
It didn't happen all at once, or without help.
"It's really wierd how people come into your life," Kucera reflects. The summer after her surgery, while working at Montana State University-Northern as director of a reading and tutoring program for elementary students, Kucera met long-time runner Terry Blosser, who had just moved to town after being hired as a professor.
They started training together that September, but a marathon was still not in Kucera's plans.
"I remember running my first two miles," says Kucera with a little smile, like someone a hundred years old remembering a sunny afternoon from childhood. "And we kept on it." Eventually Kucera and Blosser were running together six days a week.
Meanwhile, Kucera decided to use her interest in physiology to learn more about her running. She did her own research on training styles, analyzed her heart rate and other data on the computer, and even tested different sports products in a laboratory.
Months later the two friends were still training together regularly. Last June, Blosser, a veteran marathoner, suggested they raise the bar. Kucera was game.
"I decided, 'Hey, if I'm going to do this, I might as well take it up a notch and do a marathon,'" she said.
They decided to do it in style, training for what has been called the prettiest marathon in North America and also one of the three toughest: the Big Sur International Marathon that she run in April along California's coast near Monterey.
They began to train through a second bleak Hi-Line winter, running 10, 15, 20 miles at a time through the white void toward visions of California.
In January, Kucera was sponsored by Hammer Nutrition and E-Caps, a Whitefish-based company that makes products and supplements for endurance athletes, including the HammerGel that Kucera uses for energy during long runs.
In late February she and Blosser were running 50 to 60 miles every week. Once they ran 18 miles when it was 20 below zero.
"People look at us in the winter and just shake their heads at us," Kucera says with a laugh. "There's nothing fun about training for a marathon."
Over the whole winter, Kucera and Blosser missed only five days out of 21 weeks. All the pieces were in place. All except the race itself.
The marathon begins in the redwoods. From the village of Big Sur the runners head north, emerging from the trees four or five miles later to see the Pacific Ocean stretched out on their left. Then they begin to climb toward Carmel, still more than 20 miles distant, along one of the country's most scenic highways.
The Big Sur marathon is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan affair: along the way partial orchestras, a pianist at a baby grand, high school bands and African drummers perform along the side of the road.
As the runner sinks further into fatigue with each mile, all that passing show wavers and fades. It is unsympathetic color and noise. The sky and the ocean are no longer beautiful. Friends become foreign. Though surrounded, the runners are completely alone in tests of their own making.
At mile 18, the race was going well. Kucera was on pace to finish at 3 hours and 41 minutes, very close to her goal of three-and-a-half hours. At mile 21 she left Blosser to chase the time.
Two miles later her knee locked up.
"I said, 'I hate this. This is stupid. I'm never doing this again.'" She was tempted to walk.
"I thought, uh-uh, you didn't work your tail off for 21 weeks to walk this marathon."
Kucera finished the race running. Her time of four hours, three minutes, and 51 seconds was good enough for 36th in her age group, and ninth among women who trained in winter conditions. She was the second fastest marathoner from Montana in the race - this in a race with about 4,000 runners.
Kucera had hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which requires an entry time of just under four hours. She was about 10 minutes shy.
"I was disappointed for a split second, but then I thought, 'Geez, I'm finishing in front of thousands of people,'" she said.
The next day, her body paid the price.
"I got up in the morning and got out of bed and my quads were just screaming. ... I couldn't walk. I mean I could, but it was ever so painful."
Yet Kucera says it was all worth it, somehow.
"It's so mental," she explains. "To run a marathon, it isn't fun. Just like in life, you cross that finish line and there's no greater reward."
Kucera took a week off and began training again for the Chicago marathon on Oct. 12, hoping to qualify for Boston there. This time, Blosser's summer schedule means that much of Kucera's training will be alone.
"I couldn't have done the thing without his knowledge," Kucera said. "As hard as it was, it was a really neat thing to share."
Kucera is moving on with her life. She graduated May 17 with a degree in health promotion, and plans to move to Madison, Wis., this summer, where she eventually wants to go to graduate school in physiology. Her health problems, she says, seem very far away.
"It's amazing how two years of running has physically altered my being. I've lost so much fat since the beginning of the training."
Some people doubted her decision early on.
"I've had a lot of nonscience and nonmedical people really worry. 'Margaret is too skinny. You sure she isn't sick again?'"
Kucera says bloodwork taken before and after she started running tells the tale. Last August, she had never seen her hemoglobin and red blood cell counts so high.
"It's just a whole different world being healthy," she said. "I've never felt this healthy in my life, just mentally and physically. It's pretty satisfying."
Kucera remembers back to the middle of her race, when she came around a bend and found herself on a bridge with the ocean stretching away to the horizon on her left. And then, a chilling moment of recognition. Behind her was Hurricane Point. She was running across the Bixby Bridge, over the glittering water where her ashes were to be scattered.
She thought back to her lowest point, when life itself was uncertain.
"It was pretty awesome. It was pretty hard for me to put into words what I felt and what I still feel. ... I had no idea that some day I would be running there."