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At 71, This Marathoner Is Running With a Purpose

Miami cardiologist to compete in his 18th New York City Marathon to raise money for pediatric cancer patients

Atleta Rafael Sequeira

— Courtesy of John Sequeira

Why would a septuagenarian with a pair of high-mileage knees subject them to a grueling marathon through the streets of New York City, in the company of some of the world's premier long-distance runners?

In the case of Miami cardiologist Rafael Sequeira, 71, the answer is equal parts joy and pain. Those conflicting feelings will fuel his 26.2-mile odyssey through New York's five boroughs during the 2010 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7.

The pain stems from losing his firstborn, Raphael, to cancer 21 years ago. The joy flows from being able to raise money for other children currently confronting cancer.

"He was an incredible kid," Sequeira says of his son, who was afflicted with lymphatic leukemia for more than a decade before dying of the disease at 13 in 1989. "We had a special bond."

Instead of cycling through the five Kubler-Ross stages of grief, Sequeira got bogged down in rage. From the time of Raphael's death until 1991, Sequeira competently carried on with his responsibilities as a doctor, husband and father to his two remaining sons. But he also struggled to control the overwhelming anger that was eating away at him.

Physician on a mission

A recreational jogger, Sequeira finally resolved to run his demons into the ground. He began running longer and longer distances, and his two-year funk gradually dissipated. Buoyed by the serenity running brought him, Sequeira became a physician on a mission, one involving the Big Apple.

During the summer of 1993, at age 54, Sequeira set his sights on entering and completing that year's New York City Marathon, with an eye toward raising money for needy pediatric oncology patients being treated at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, where Sequeira works.

He forwarded "begging letters" to friends and colleagues asking them to back his New York marathon jaunt with financial pledges. He also created the Raphael Sequeira Bone Marrow Fund, which helps defray non-medical costs such as accommodations and transportation for pediatric cancer patients and their parents.

There was only one problem. Because he'd never run competitively, Sequeira arrived in New York City significantly undertrained for the grueling race. Determined to honor his son's memory, and to raise the maximum amount of money possible, Sequeira willed himself to the finish line.

Along with blisters on his feet, the cardiologist had $11,000 in pledges to show for his determination. Thus began an annual ritual that has seen the native of Kisumu, Kenya, compete in 17 consecutive New York marathons. "So far, I've raised more than $160,000," Sequeira notes proudly.

Beating the clock

He'll be at it again on Nov. 7 for his 18th marathon, panting through the streets of New York clad in a T-shirt bearing his late son's picture, birth date and date of death.

Sequeira's wife, Kathleen, 61, was also a runner before heeding the protests of a surgically repaired knee. However, that won't prevent her from traveling to New York City to support her spouse, as she's done since 1993.

"This is all inspired by our son's death," she says. "I think nobody gets over the death of a child, because none of us wants to outlive our children.

"A lot of people say to me, 'I don't know why you continue to let him run that marathon,' " Kathleen says with a laugh. "This is his love! He'd be the happiest person in the world if he died during the New York marathon. You can't stop someone from doing something they enjoy."

A decade ago it was quite unusual to hear of marathoners in their 70s or older, says former Olympic long-distance runner Jeff Galloway, 65. "The whole perception of what an older person is physically able to do has totally changed," observes Galloway, author of Running Until You're 100.

Sequeira is looking to take around 5 hours and 20 minutes to finish on Nov. 7. The fastest man in last year's contest, Mebrahtom Keflezighi, clocked a 2:09 at the age of 34. The New York marathon's oldest finisher, Josef Galia, turned in a 7:59 in 1991 when he was 93.

Sequeira acknowledges that his training gets a little more difficult every year, but he refuses to gripe. "Raphael never complained during his illness," Sequeira says. "If he could do that, why should I complain?"

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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