Patty Jansen just finished one 5K race and will begin another in a few hours. This is nothing for a woman who has run back-to-back marathons. One of the most committed members of the Michelob Ultra Running Team, she views hours of running as part of her daily routine, but those hours will take on a new significance when her team participates in The Longest Day® on June 21.
On June 21, 2013, the longest day of the year, teams around the world will honor those affected by Alzheimer’s disease by participating in The Longest Day, a sunrise-to-sunset relay event to raise funds for the care, support and research efforts of the Alzheimer’s Association.
For four hours and over 20 miles, every step Jansen takes will be dedicated to her mother, Marie Bloemer, who lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease last October at the age of 85.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, advancing through the brain over time to destroy memory, thinking and behavior. According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2013 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Report, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more Americans each year than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America that currently has no way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression. “They always say that with Alzheimer’s, you lose them twice,” Jansen said. “I didn’t understand that until my mom couldn’t recognize me.”
Jansen, 47, remembers her mother as a powerhouse. “Her motto, though she would never say it out loud, was ‘Whatever you do, do it hard,’” Jansen said. For Bloemer, that included farming, dancing, raising 15 children, and playing the harmonica and accordion, all with the same inexhaustible energy.
Her vitality made it hard for her doctor, and some of her children, to recognize the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease when she was 74, but Jansen knew something was wrong.
A longtime baker, Bloemer began forgetting to add sugar to her pies and sweet rolls. When she went to the pool, she could not find the locker room. She bought $300 of quilting material, then returned to the shop the next day and bought the exact same thing. “People would call us and say, ‘We saw your mom driving on the wrong side of the road,’” Jansen said.
Jansen remembers weathering her mother’s paranoia and anger as the disease progressed, struggling to stay calm as Bloemer accused her children and even young grandchildren of starving or poisoning her. “You had to pick your battles,” Jansen said. “If it was irrelevant to safety, you had to just let it go.”
One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, a terrifying statistic, especially when Jansen thinks of her siblings. “Of 15 of us, how many will have Alzheimer’s?” she said.
However, every advance in research gives her hope.
“I really do think we will find a cure,” Jansen said. “We have won against so many diseases—polio, diphtheria… Every time I read something about Alzheimer’s research, I think, ‘Yes! They’re still working!’”
Throughout her mother’s battle, running gave Jansen an outlet for her frustration and grief. “I prayed a lot on runs,” Jansen said. “I found that if the miles or hills or whatever were hurting, if I thought about my mom, what she was going through, I could do it.”
That will be Jansen’s strategy during her 11 a.m.–3 p.m. shift on The Longest Day, when the Michelob Ultra Running Team will honor all those facing Alzheimer’s disease with a 16-hour relay in Forest Park.
“We are excited that the Michelob Ultra Running Team decided to take on this challenge,” said Sara Krenski, Communications and Marketing Director for the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter. “Running truly is the perfect metaphor for caregiving. You must take what the day gives you, what your body will permit, and what your spirit can endure.”
The grueling relay reflects the constant strain that more than 15 million caregivers face and that Jansen remembers well. “You couldn’t leave their side,” she said. “You couldn’t trust what the Alzheimer’s might make them do.”
Jansen is grateful for her team’s support, but unsurprised. “It’s such a bonded team, they don’t care what the cause is— if someone on the team is going through it, they run for it,” she said. Fellow Michelob Ultra Running Team members affected by Alzheimer’s include Rae Mohrmann, who has run over 60 marathons, and Don Dowling, an elite wheeler. Ultramarathoner David Pokorny will begin the relay at dawn with 26.2 miles before work.
Jansen’s motivation comes from her mother in more ways than one. “She made us really competitive,” Jansen said with a laugh. “She did a couple Turkey Trots and would go up to the race official and say, ‘I was the only 70-year-old, I should have a trophy!’”
What would Bloemer think of The Longest Day?
“She would probably say, ‘That’s really too many miles,’” Jansen said. “But secretly, she would be proud.”
-------To support local families battling the Alzheimer’s epidemic, the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter is partnering with St. Louis’ top media outlets on The Longest Day to host a sunrise-to-sunset caregiver phone bank (call-in number: 800.272.3900). For additional information or support, or if you would like to donate to The Longest Day Michelob Ultra Running Team, visit www.alz.org/stl, or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.