Joe Cary’s greatest victory wasn’t in a race; it was beating cancer
PUNXSUTAWNEY — Seventy-nine-year-old Joe Cary, of Punxsy, will participate in the National Senior Games in Houston, Texas, during the last weekend in June.
June 25, Cary will compete in the 5K race — or 3.1 miles — in the 75 to 79 age group, and he expects to be the eldest in the category. In addition, June 26, he will compete in a triathlon that consists of a 400-yard swim, a 12.5-mile bike race and a 3.1-mile run.
To qualify, Cary had to complete other state races and place in the top three, which took place in Phoenix, Ariz. He finished first in a 5K run and in second place in a triathlon.
The National Senior Games is not limited to the running events, but also consists of field events. Twenty-thousand people are expected to participate in the bi-annual event.
Even though he was a healthy runner, Cary was diagnosed with colon cancer, five years ago, although it wasn’t discovered for some time.
Cary said he soon became obsessed with what was unknowingly destroying his body.
While he was overdue on a colonoscopy, it was later found that Cary was infected with Stage 3 colon cancer.
As his operation was being performed, between 12 to 14 inches of his colon, as well as 14 lymph nodes, were removed from his body.
"If I understood right, my entire large intestine was laid on the table and was hand-checked," Cary said.
He continued to run, even though the chemotherapy, which made his body very sensitive to cold weather. And while participating in a New Year's Day race, Cary soon discovered just how sensitive he had become.
"My whole body was so numb after the race," he said. "Not realizing that my throat would also be numb, I took a drink, and as the water went down, I began to choke and was too numb to even cough. I thought, 'I am going to die from a sip of water.'"
Today, as a cancer survivor, Cary continues his running career, which he began when he was 37.
Over the years, he estimates to have run more than 60,000 to 70,000 miles, all the while making each mile a memory.
When Cary was 48, he ran a race in two hours, 36 minutes and 57 seconds. After receiving his time, he was notified that if he had run the race in two hours and 35 minutes, he would have been able to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team.
In the 1970s, Cary competed with Olympic distance runner Frank Shorter. After completing a nine-mile race together, Shorter needed to continue running to train for the day, but needed a group to guide him as he was unfamiliar with the area. Cary and his son, Gary, accompanied him another five miles.
Cary said one of the keys to running a race is pacing oneself. Thus, Cary maps out his pace for a race and wears a watch to check up on his pace.
"A race I ran in Phoenix, I chose not to wear my watch for the first time, and I figured I would just go by what the timekeeper shouted," he said. "But when I got to the mark, the timekeeper was distracted, and I had to continue to run without knowing my time."
Instead, Cary increased in five second intervals until at the end of the race, when he learned he was 20 seconds ahead of what he planned to be.
Throughout the many races that Cary has participated in, he was able to meet many new faces.
When preparing for a race in Tucson, he met a man who wanted to run behind him throughout the race.
"When I reached the two-mile point, I knew I was in fifth place, and he was right behind me," Cary said. "When I reached the three-mile point, I knew I was in second place, and the man was still behind me. Then when I reached the half-mile point, I knew I was in first place, but the man
who had been right behind me took off and was then was in front."
But to reach the finish line, runners had to make a sharp turn. But the man who had been behind Cary froze up, unsure where to go.
"I yelled, 'Turn right,'" Cary said. "I could have won that race if I didn't tell him which way to go, but that is not how I want to win any race."
Cary used to run six days a week, but his training has changed.
Every Monday, Cary can be found at the gym, where he rows, stretches, lift weights and swims. Tuesday, he bikes anywhere from eight-and-a-half to 17 miles, runs a three-mile course, stretches and works out on an aversion platform. Wednesday and Friday, he repeat of Monday's workout, and repeats Tuesday's workout Thursday. He ends his week by choosing either Saturday or Sunday to run a race or bike.
Cary's jam-packed six-by-six-foot trophy case is a tribute to his running career.
"Running has been a tremendous pleasure," he said.