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Courtesy Lunstad Family
Nathan Lunstad walked laps in the cancer ward at LDS Hospital last year and will run the 2012 Salt Lake Marathon.

SALT LAKE CITY — It was the morning that Nathan Lunstad had been training for all year.

The 42-year-old father of two young boys pinned the bib number to the red Salt Lake Marathon T-shirt that he'd slipped over his yellow hospital gown. Then he placed the mask that protected him from germs in the LDS Hospital's cancer unit over his mouth and nose. And finally, he slipped on his running shoes and shuffled out the door of the room where he'd been battling for his life for the last three weeks.

It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday in April 2011, when he started walking a route that he'd come up with once doctors determined that his abdominal pain was actually Burkitt's lymphoma, an aggressive cancer in which the tumors can double in size within 24 hours.

In treating Burkitt's, doctors engage in an equally aggressive chemotherapy treatment that leaves patients so weak and susceptible to disease that they must stay in the hospital until their therapy is finished.

So instead of running his first marathon last April, he walked 26 laps around the hospital's cancer unit. And while doctors said his feat, which he estimates equaled approximately two miles, was more difficult than running 26.2 miles as a healthy runner, Lunstad is excited to be preparing for this Saturday's Salt Lake Marathon.

"Last year I was just going to run for myself," said the Draper man. "But this year, I feel like I'm walking for a lot of other people, cancer patients, who can't run a marathon."

The route Lunstad walked last year on the same day that thousands of runners navigated the Salt Lake Marathon's course, was one he started walking almost as soon as he was admitted in March of 2011.

He said the walking helped him keep the fear at bay.

"It was very scary," said Lunstad. "I felt like my life was falling apart. When you think of cancer, you think death."

The former high school football player and trathlete ran to stay in shape. He ran a half marathon near his home in Suncrest and decided if he could do that, he could do a full marathon.

So he signed up for the 2011 Salt Lake Marathon and began training in earnest.

"I had no problems, no pain," he said. And then he woke one night in March with crippling abdominal pain. He assumed it was kidney or gallstones, and the initial exam by an emergency room doctor indicated he might be right.

But then a CT scan showed something on his intestines.

Less than a week later, he was listening to doctors explain how he'd be admitted to LDS Hospital for several rounds of chemotherapy each day.

"I was just scared," he said. "There was a lot of fear; I was afraid for my family, for my boys."

He woke a few days into his stay, and even tethered to a catheter, he decided to go for a walk. He walked several times a day and he began thinking about the race he couldn't run.

"I felt like I'd been sidetracked," he said, "that I was doing a different type of marathon. It was just a marathon to save my life."

It was a few weeks into his treatment, after a friend offered to pick up his shirt, bib number and medal that he decided to walk his own marathon on the same day that thousands of other runners were running the traditional course.

It took him from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., and he said he had plenty of encouragement from staff and visitors.

Dr. Julie Asch said what he did was a "huge" accomplishment.

"We're happy when people walk around their rooms," she said. "We think it helps them recover faster."

She said part of the key in fighting cancer is winning the mental battle.

"I think there is something to be said for not assuming the sick role," Asch said.

Lunstad said he never questioned why he had the disease or struggled with self-pity, only focused on how to beat it.

"I have always been a pretty optimistic person," he said. "Battling cancer, with chemotherapy, there are lots of lows. It's tough."

But Lunstad's marathon training and experiences as a competitive athlete gave him an edge.

"I think there is a mental toughness that comes from battling through pain," he said. "A lot of those (sports) experiences helped in the battle with cancer."

It has also helped him in training for this year's marathon, something he began doing in late summer when he decided to run a half marathon relay in Suncrest.

"The first time I tried to run, I couldn't even do two strides," he said, acknowledging that the support of his family, friends and LDS ward made his battle much easier. "My body had deteriorated so much."

But he stuck with it and he's on track to finish — even if he has to walk — this weekend's ninth annual Salt Lake Marathon.

Lunstad said he feels a little overwhelmed when he trains these days.

"There are times when I get emotional out running," he said as he retraced his route at LDS Hospital on Thursday. "I can't believe I'm here. I can't believe I'm doing this."

This Saturday, when he pins that race bib to his shirt, he won't be wearing a hospital gown. Instead, he'll be wearing a smile, and a new pair of running shoes.

"I feel very blessed," he said of how he feels about running the marathon. "I think it's kind of a miracle."

Quality of Life Expo resumes today

Runners can sign up for any of the event's races (marathon, half marathon and 5K) as well as the Bike Tour during today's race expo at the Grand Hall at Union Pacific Depot, 400 West South Temple.

The expo will open at 11:30 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

The marathon starts at 7 a.m. Saturday and ends at South Temple and 300 West.

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com