Six Weeks After Cancer Diagnosis, Coach Runs Boston

MUR-ATHON
Courtesy of Brett Biebelberg

Just six weeks after being diagnosed with breast cancer, men’s freshman lightweight crew coach Linda Muri ran the 2014 Boston Marathon.

UPDATED: May 7, 2014, at 2:30 a.m.

“One, two, three, four...” Linda Muri was counting steps as she approached the Boston Marathon finish line when she noticed a wave of sound traveling alongside her. Though there were nearly 50 others runners around her, the loudest cheers seemed to be moving in harmony with each one of her steps.

Then Muri saw a shadow behind her and turned her head to see a woman pointing to her and revving up the crowd. Eight weeks ago, Muri would have been just another one of the 35,000-plus runners, easy to overlook amidst all the commotion and excitement on Boylston Street.

But on Marathon Monday, a bright pink shirt and recently shaved head, though hidden partially by a men’s freshman lightweight crew hat, set her apart.Tipped off by Muri’s appearance and the gestures of the woman running behind her, the thousands of spectators who descended upon Boylston Street raised the volume of their cheering and clapping to an even higher decibel.

Their screams and exclamations of ‘Boston Strong’ replaced the sounds of sirens, cries, and chaos that had filled the same air just a year before.

For Muri, the ‘Boston Strong’ slogan seemed especially applicable.

Six weeks before the marathon, Muri was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three weeks before the marathon, Muri started chemotherapy. With the marathon on day eight of her second 14-day cycle of treatment, Muri was not sure she would be able to run the entire course even when the race started. Muri tapped into the wave of cheers that accompanied her as she neared the finish line.

These final steps on Boylston marked not just the completion of a goal she set for herself one year ago, but also an affirmation that even cancer would not stop her.

A week later, the memory of Boylston Street still gives Muri goosebumps.

“There were so many people, I was overcome,” Muri said. “I felt like people were thanking me for being there, but I was thanking them for being there, for coming back and knowing that it was okay to do this.”

FROM 2K to 42K

For Muri, coach of the men’s freshman lightweight crew team and a three-time rowing world champion, the 2K is a familiar distance. 42K? Not so much.

After last year’s tragedy, Muri felt compelled to leave her comfort zone in the water and take to the blacktop. Not only was she standing at the finish line of last year’s marathon before leaving for afternoon crew practice, but she also resides within the 20-block radius of Watertown closed down in the search for the second of the two bombers.

“I wanted to show my support for the people who were…injured and killed and be a part of the resiliency of the greater Boston community,” Muri said.

Muri maintained her fitness level by rowing in a single and running a couple of times a week during the fall. Her running increased in volume as she began an 18-week training program in December.

The coach’s first longer training run of 14 miles fell on her team’s winter training trip in Florida, so after Muri disappeared to run for a few hours, she told her team about her plans to run the marathon.

One member of her team was also making plans to get involved with the marathon. Sophomore Brett Biebelberg had applied to work as an EMT in the Boston Marathon medical unit. After a competitive application process, Biebelberg earned a slot on the medical sweep team.

Biebelberg knew that Muri was running, and she knew that he was volunteering, so they planned to meet up at some point on Marathon Monday.

But on March 14, everything changed. Muri was diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled to begin chemotherapy a couple of weeks later. Over spring break, Muri missed practice for the first time all year for a follow-up doctor’s appointment. A few days later, she told the team about her diagnosis. Recounting the team meeting that day, freshman Ian Meyer remembers that she maintained her poise and even her sense of humor when she shared the news.

“She told us she might need to relax the no buzz-cut policy on the team because she was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Meyer said. “Everyone was just shocked because she didn’t drop a beat in saying it.”

After the announcement, her team members lamented the fact that she could no longer run the marathon.

But Muri never ruled it out. She told her oncologist that she was training for the marathon and asked if she could still do it. The oncologist told Muri that for most people, the answer would be an automatic no, but for her they would base the decision on her response to the first two weeks of treatment. So Muri kept on training.

After the first cycle of treatment, and Muri received the green light.

THE LAST 500

Five hundred meters is a distance Muri knows well from the water. It means that the end is in sight, and it is time for a sprint to the finish.

As Muri learned, the 500 meters at the end of a marathon is very different. It is less of a sprint than an absolute last-ditch effort as a runner taps into that final bit of energy to will oneself across the finish line. It is also the point when runners most feed off the energy and support of the crowds.

As Muri made the turn onto Hereford Street, she heard one of her freshman team members, Matthew O’Connor, shouting, “Here she comes, here she comes!” Up ahead, the rest of her team awaited in their knee-high pink socks, holding signs that said “Last 500” and “Sit Up and Go.”

“After seeing them, I knew I wasn’t going to walk anymore,” Muri said.

As soon as Meyer found out Muri planned to go ahead with the race, he started making arrangements. The freshman set up a Facebook group to communicate with the team.

Meyer also planned the logistics of making signs and getting to the finish line on Monday afternoon. He coordinated with Muri’s husband and set up BAA text alerts to make sure they didn’t miss her.

All of Meyer’s efforts and worries about whether or not it would work were overcome with pride the moment he saw her.

“She’s an amazing athlete and an amazing person,” Meyer said. “Seeing her run over and actually take off her hat and wave it to the crowd was really quite something.”

The support for Muri extends beyond just her team and the marathon, but throughout the entire rowing community. All of the rowers at Harvard now race in tall pink socks in her honor.

Members of the Crimson rowing community nominated her for ‘Crew of the Week’ on popular rowing website Row 2k, an award usually given to an entire team or school. Muri blew the other candidates out of the water, receiving 52.7 percent of the vote.

In her team’s race against Yale, the Bulldogs’ freshman lightweight coach painted the white part of the team’s boat oars pink in her honor. A week later, the Georgetown rowers raced in pink shirts.

The outpouring of support from the rowing community does not surprise Kate Woll, a volunteer coach for Harvard-Radcliffe’s women heavyweight team and long-time friend of Muri’s.

“She meets every athlete that she works with head-on and in an upstanding way and works to make them their absolute best,” Woll said. “It’s not about her. It’s never about her. It’s just about them.”

Muri has named Woll her “care captain,” as Woll has taken the lead in processing requests by members of the rowing community to help and lend support. Woll set up a website to process emails from people reaching out to ease Muri’s months of treatment.

“It makes people feel better that they’re supporting me, and that’s what counts,” Muri said. “A lot of people don’t know what to say or what to do. If they have something that they can do that makes them feel better, that’s good for me, because it really helps to have all that support.”

ACROSS THE FINISH

On the day of the marathon, Biebelberg went into Boston around 7 a.m. for meetings with the rest of the medical personnel. The area beyond the finish line was divided into over 20 zones, with specific medical teams assigned to each zone.

Biebelberg was placed in zone one, the area that was immediately after the finish line. He identified runners who looked like they were in distress or were about to be in distress. If he thought they might need medical care, he would approach them to better assess whether they could continue walking or needed further assistance.

As the day progressed, Biebelberg kept watching the clock. He knew Muri didn’t leave until wave four and he realized that the heat was slowing many of the runners down.

As the day approached 4 p.m., he scanned the runners for bright pink shirts and white hats.

Eventually, he spotted Muri 100 feet from the finish line. When she crossed, he immediately shouted her name and they embraced. For both Muri and Biebelberg, words could not capture that moment.

“We’re all just so happy to know her, to know somebody who is as strong as her and who has maintained a smile and a sense of humor in the face of adversity,” Biebelberg said. “In that respect she’s a great role model not just for her athletes but for anyone going through tough times.”

—Staff writer Eileen Storey can be reached at eileen.storey@thecrimson.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: May 7, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the team on which sophomore Brett Biebelberg served during this year's Boston Marathon. In fact, it was the medical sweep team.

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