Mark Russell will wake up during the dark, morning hours of Saturday, June 8 to lace up his running shoes. By 4 a.m., he will be slowly circling the South Lakes High School track. And by 1 p.m., when hundreds of cancer survivors take the track for the opening lap of the Reston Relay for Life, Russell will have already been running for nine hours.
But Russell, from Herndon, won't stop there. He will keep moving around the track — sometimes running, sometimes walking, taking breaks every few hours — until 4 a.m. Sunday. He hopes to cover 100 miles during the 24-hour period.
"My interim goal is to go 80 miles in 18 hours," Russell, 43, said. "If I can do that, then I have a shot at 100 miles. It is very difficult to focus on 100 miles in 24 hours. It's easier to focus on 80 in 18. I'll take a reality check at 18 miles, to gauge whether or not [100 miles] feels like too much to do."
Russell, who has never run more than 50 miles at one time, is attempting this feat in honor of two people: his wife's nephew Patrick Wheatley, a five-year-old who died of cancer in the early 1980s, and Elaine Joyce, Russell's predecessor as executive vice president of The Ark Of Northern Virginia, who also died of cancer.
BUT RUSSELL will not be the only person with a compelling reason for participating in the Reston Relay for Life. Almost every person coming to the event has known someone with cancer, or has personally survived the disease.
Organizers are hoping 150 teams, of between eight and 15 members each, will show up for the relay. Teams are asked to raise at least $1,000 each, and must have one member walking on the track throughout the 18-hour event.
Fourteen-year-old Jonathan Nussbaum from Annandale has been organizing Relay for Life teams for the past five years. So far, his team has raised $20,000 toward this year's relay.
"We come out every year and try to do the best we can," Nussbaum said. "Luckily we've raised more money each year."
Nussbaum's mother Debbie Rachlin is a cancer survivor who has been through four separate battles with cancer since Jonathan was two years old. She is currently fighting the disease.
"But that's not what it's about when we come out here," Rachlin said. "Our family doesn't like to talk about cancer. This gives us an easier way to deal with it. You can't ignore it, but this is a positive way to acknowledge it and do something about it."
Nussbaum usually spends most of his time at the relay socializing with friends. But, he always sets aside a few moments to spend with his mother.
Rachlin is organizing a team of family and friends for the relay, centered around the theme of celebration. Every hour, the team celebrates a new holiday, handing out Mardi Gras beads one hour then birthday hats the next. Rachlin said she has a lot to celebrate.
"I'm on new medication that is keeping me alive," she said. "It's all of our efforts, at relay, that are keeping me alive. Without all this, I would have been bye-bye a long time ago."
AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY specialist Shari True, who organizes relays throughout the area, compared Relay for Life to a two-day party. Most teams decorate their campsites according to a theme, and sell fund-raising items relating to that theme. Last year, a team from the Reston Hospital Center dressed up in fatigues, like the characters in "M*A*S*H." This year, Reston Hospital Center staffers will be wearing medical scrubs, in tribute to popular television show, "E.R." One year, the boys on a high school track squad chose Prom as their theme, and ran around the track in ball gowns.
But at 9:30 on Saturday night the crowd will take a break from the party for the luminaria ceremony. At that point, relay participants will set up candles around the track, each candle in memory of a cancer victim. True said the luminaria ceremony is what keeps bringing many people back to Relay for Life year after year.
"For some people, its really hard," True said. "You go from all this partying to, boom, really emotional. The other day somebody was telling me a story about a family who had lost a young mother, and they were sitting by the candles all night, just talking and remembering her."
True said she did not fully understand the importance of the luminaria ceremony until she was touched by a personal experience. Her father died in 1998, and when she later attended a Relay for Life event, her five-year-old daughter asked to buy a candle. True had not thought to buy a candle, because her father did not die of cancer.
"But I said, OK,' and we bought one," True said. "The second [my daughter] put the candle on the track she burst into tears. She needed that. She hadn't been able to go to the funeral. That gave me an idea of the power of the ceremony, of what it can do to help people. I've known people that died of cancer, but it never hit me like that."
BOTH THE LUMINARIA ceremony and the opening lap of the relay, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, are open to the public. There is also a survivors luncheon, open to all cancer survivors in the area, on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in the green cafeteria at South Lakes High School. Last year, the Reston Relay for Life raised more than $388,000, and organizers hope to bring in over $400,000 this year. If teams are motivated to do some quick fund-raising, there is still time to register for the Reston relay. There are also other relay events in the weeks following the Reston event. For more information, call True at 703-937-1903.
The American Cancer Society puts more money toward cancer research than any other entity in the United States, beside the federal government.
"Our goal is that cancer is not so scary, that it's not a death sentence, that it's something you can get treatment for," True said.