Marc’s marathon: A race to beat ALS

Human Interest

The Olson family of West Linn is racing to defeat ALS in honor of their father and others with the disease

Neil, Gina, Marc, Leah and Bradley Olson have rallied together to fight ALS. (Courtesy of Olson Family)

PORTLAND, Ore. (WEST LINN TIDINGS) — From Portland to Boston, West Linn resident Marc Olson, 59, has 35 marathons under his belt. But no marathon he’s ever run has been as critical as number 36, his race to beat ALS.

Marc’s wife and three kids are doing everything they can to help him win the race against the life-threatening disease. His youngest, Leah Olson, is even running a marathon of her own to raise awareness and donations for ALS research and support for people battling ALS (a disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which kills motor neurons responsible for voluntary muscle movement). She’s running in the Portland Marathon Oct. 6.

“We’re both tangentially running a marathon. It’s just different physically and different mentally but there’s a lot of similarities in the process,” Leah Olson said. “You have a goal in mind, and you’re trying to reach that goal and you have to work hard at it. It’s going to be challenging and you’re gonna hit roadblocks, but you have to keep going to finish the race.”

Marc Olson ran the Capital City Marathon in 1986. This was just one of 35 marathons he’s ran in. (Courtesy of Olson Family)

Leah Olson, a 2016 graduate of West Linn High School, grew up watching her dad run marathons and dreamed of attempting her first one with him. Though her dad cannot run the marathon with her, Leah Olson said she looks forward to walking across the finish line with him.

Marc Olson was diagnosed with ALS in February and Leah Olson said when her family learned the news, they immediately jumped into action.

Her older brother Neil Olson took three months of leave from his job in California to move back to be with the family while he researched different approaches to ALS from the last 10 years. Her mom, Gina Olson began working to make sure they had the necessary insurance coverage. And Leah Olson began advocating on behalf of people with ALS to lawmakers in Salem and Washington D.C. and coordinating with the ALS Association to raise money and awareness for the disease by running the Portland Marathon.

Leah Olson has spent the summer training to run in the Portland Marathon in October. (Courtesy of Olson Family)

Marc Olson is currently participating in what his daughter called one of the most promising stem cell research trials in the world. For these treatments, the Olsons travel to UC Irvine every few weeks.

“He got 8 tablespoons of bone marrow taken out of his pelvis and they cultivate that and find, essentially, the warrior stem cells and propagate them and reinject them, if you’re not in the placebo group — there is a 50% chance you’re in the placebo group — and they’ll reinject them back into your spinal cord and those stem cells go to your motor neurons,” the youngest Olson explained.

In addition to the trial treatment, Marc Olson is also undertaking alternative approaches to the disease — dietary supplements, coconut oil massages and meditation. He’ll try anything that might improve his chances in the battle against ALS.

Leah Olson described her dad as adventurous, intelligent, fun-loving, incredibly hardworking, determined, independent and having a great sense of humor, traits which she seemed to inherit most of.

Her work ethic and determination were factors in her decision to run this marathon for her dad, despite not having much running experience.

“I hadn’t run longer than five miles — I’m sure in soccer games I had — but longer than five miles straight until the beginning of this summer,” she said.

She noted that the hills of West Linn have made training challenging, saying no matter what route she goes, she always has to climb a hill at the end to get home.

“He (Marc) used to run every day and I used to want to go running with him. I remember running my first three miles with him,” Leah Olson recalled. “I was in maybe fifth grade or early middle school and I’d get out and I’d be running and then I’d tell him I had to walk, so then we’d walk a little bit and then we’d go keep on running. The hills were so much bigger then.”

Marc, Neil, Bradley and Leah Olson together after Marc ran the 2002 Portland Marathon. Leah said her dad would give her his rose after every Portland Marathon. (Courtesy of Olson Family)

She is supporting her father and others with ALS not just by running the marathon. She has also found opportunities to use her education and chosen career field to advocate for people with ALS.

Leah is a political science major at Willamette University and this summer interned with the ALS Association, which gave her the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. She spent her time on Capitol Hill lobbying for several ALS-related bills.

In the spring, her family joined her to give testimony in front of the Oregon Legislature on behalf of the family medical leave bill, which eventually passed.

Even though she’s named her fundraising efforts “Marc’s Marathon” after her dad, she made it clear that all she and her family are doing is not just for him.

“We’re raising money for ALS to help Jerry and Terry and all of these other people that we’ve become friends with who are living with ALS too,” she said. “That’s the way my dad has seen his involvement with the stem cell treatment too. He said, ‘Even if I’m in the placebo group, I want to help get this study filled, keep it moving, get it through the FDA so that maybe I can use it later on, but more importantly so that everybody living with ALS has it as a treatment option.'”

The Olsons are also participating in Portland’s Walk to Defeat ALS Sept. 29, where Leah was invited to give a keynote address.

So far the family has raised over $24,000 for Walk to Defeat ALS. Leah said they are going to have to raise their goal from $26,200.

The West Linn Tidings is a KOIN 6 News media partner.

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