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Racing to Raise Money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

by Janelle Hill Mar 13, 2018

PA Program medical director and his family raise thousands of dollars for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

It's 2:00 on a bitterly cold Orlando morning and Dr. Eugene Decker is just waking up. The biggest race of his life is now only hours away. Decker is no stranger to the starting line. He's competed in more than 500 races over the years. But this one is different.

"It's not just another race," says Decker, medical director for the DeSales Physician Assistant Studies program. "It's a race about real people who have real problems. You're putting your feet to good use in a sense and earning money for them."

For Decker and his family, race day was two years in the making. He, his sons Eric and Dylan, and daughter-in-law Stephanie had signed up to run in the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in January of 2017 as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's (LLS) Team in Training.

To guarantee spots in the immensely popular race, each team member had to pledge to raise $1600. Decker, an avid runner and self-professed Disney nut, spent countless hours sending out hundreds of emails and knocking on more than 200 neighborhood doors. When all was said and done, the team had raised $11,763.

Decker's wife joined the family as they flew down to Florida and took part in LLS' inspiration dinner the night before the big race. They listened to survivors of all ages share stories of loss and hope. Then, they got the news no one expected. Strong storms were in the forecast and organizers decided to cancel the race.

"My wife said to me, 'the look on your face when that announcement was made, I've never seen that before. It looked like somebody had ripped your heart out.'"

Undeterred, the Decker family vowed to come back and finish what they started. Even before they arrived home, Decker was thinking of ways to raise more money. He could only send out emails and knock on the same doors so many times. So he decided to go bigger.

He spent the next few months putting together the LLS/Team Decker 5K Run/Walk and One Mile Kids Run at Notre Dame High School Green Pond, where he's coached track and cross country for more than two decades. But he wasn't seeing the type of turnout he had hoped for.

"Two weeks before the run, I didn't think it was going to go well," Decker says. "I had 60 people signed up and that wasn't going to generate a lot of money. Putting six months of work into it, honestly I was depressed."

On top of the lower-than-expected registration numbers, Decker woke up on race day to another setback — the weather. "It was pouring rain, thundering, and lightning; déjà vu all over again."

But an hour later, a little miracle — as Decker calls it — happened. The rain stopped and the sun came out. What's more, he went from 60 runners pre-registered to 212 on race day, and raked in $7,600.

By January, it was finally time for Team Decker to return to Disney and make its mark. The Disney half marathon isn't your typical race. Nearly 21,000 runners from all over the world converge on the happiest place on Earth, weaving their way from Epcot through Magic Kingdom and back again.

The night before the race, the family once again attended LLS' inspiration dinner. They heard from a woman who battled leukemia as a toddler and whose father went on to found Team in Training.

They also heard from the mother of a nine-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with leukemia several years ago. Despite years of treatment, chemotherapy wasn't working, and the woman told the crowd that her daughter would not be a survivor.

"You have this little girl and she's up there in a little princess dress," Decker says. "As her mother's talking about her, she's waving to the crowd, smiling. She has endured so much and gone through so many experimental treatments but she won't be saved. What do you take away from that?"

Decker used that little girl's story and countless others as inspiration. He woke up at 2:00 a.m. on race day and by 3:15, the family was catching a bus to Epcot. Once again, Mother Nature was a factor.

"In Florida, the average temperature that time of year is 72 degrees," he says. "It was 37 degrees by the time the race went off. This is the coldest race I've ever run and it's Orlando, Florida."

Decker and his family wore gloves and garbage bags to keep warm, tossing them aside just before they started running. A giant fireworks display signaled the start of the race at 5:30 a.m.

Throughout the 13.1 miles, his thoughts trailed back to his patients and to the list of more than 100 names he brought with him. Some of the names he knew, others were given to him by people who supported his cause. In the end, Decker ran for each and every one of them.

"It was a triumph coming across [the finish line]," he says. "And it was a very emotional moment for me. I didn't realize my children were feeling the same thing until after the race. What was really a passion for me became a passion for my kids too."

When all was said and done, Team Decker raised a whopping $16,506.40 and came in 14th in the country for fundraising. Decker's son Eric '11, who competed on the track and cross country teams during his time at DeSales, finished 21st overall and second in his age group. Dylan came in 32nd overall and fourth in that same age group.

Team Decker's next 5K is already on the calendar — June 23, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. at Notre Dame Green Pond High School. Decker may be planning ahead but his thoughts often drift back to that freezing Florida morning — running through Cinderella's castle and watching the sun come up over the Epcot globe — and to that nine-year-old little girl who won't be a survivor.

"I see that little girl every day," he says. "And that inspires you. You go through this wonderful weekend and what do you take away from it most of all? You take away thoughts like that."