Ultra support for multiple sclerosis research
To say Hien Wang is going the extra mile for multiple sclerosis patients is an ultra understatement.
On Friday, April 9, Wang, a Portland-area pharmacist, plans to run a marathon as part of a national effort to raise funds for MS awareness and research. On April 10, she'll run another one.
In fact, over six days, Wang plans to cover 164 miles on foot. She is the first of 19 runners chosen to run a portion of the 2021 MS Run the U.S., a 3,260-mile relay footrace from Santa Monica, California, to New York City.
Touched by the plight and the spirit of MS patients she works with as a pharmacist at a Portland area neurological clinic, Wang went looking for a way to support MS research. A disease of the central nervous system, more than one million Americans are living with MS, according to a study funded by the National MS Society, more than twice as many of them women as men.
A challenge the magnitude of MS Run the U.S. was not Wang's plan when she was seeking a way to help her patients, but once she learned about the relay, she kept returning to the event's website and eventually applied to participate.
Her reaction when her application was accepted, she said, was one of excitement — mostly.
"I signed up for something that to me is almost impossible," she said.
Her apprehension is overshadowed by inspiration thanks to the 18 other runners who make up the cross-country relay team. Wang is particularly inspired by the eight teammates who themselves are living with MS. If MS patients can run/walk 26 miles per day for the better part of a week, Wang said there is no reason she should be intimidated by the challenge.
"I would not say I'm a hard-core runner," she said.
Wang was a runner in high school, competing in cross country and track. But she did little more than jog occasionally while in college at UCLA.
Wang's marathoning experience consists of finishing the Portland Marathon in 2018 and in 2019. She has done a number of half-marathons and, in 2020, virtually completed both the Portland Marathon and the New York City Marathon.
The experience in front of her will be an intense one. But Wang said she was more nervous about raising the minimum required $10,000 for the MS Run the US charity than she was preparing to run 164 miles in six days.
"The training I can control, but I can't control who is donating," she said.
She has surpassed her fundraising goal, but doesn't want to see that support slow down. As of March 17, she had raised more than $10,700, money that MS Run the U.S. donated to support research and to help MS patients who need financial assistance.
Wang said the challenges for MS patients can include affording medicines they need, a situation she said has worsened as a result of COVID-19 because numerous fund-raising events were cancelled in 2020.
As daunting as the physical test of going about 26 miles per day for six consecutive days will be, it is the mental challenge that most intimidates Wang. When she signed on to run the first leg of the MS Run the US relay, Wang figured some of her many friends and family members who live in Southern California could spend time running alongside her. COVID-19 restrictions prevent that.
"I'm worried about the loneliness and the mental challenge that comes with that," Wang said.
But, she said that thinking about MS patients she knows on a personal level through her work has helped her get through the most challenging training days. Focusing on those patients will keep her going up and over the mountains between Santa Monica and Barstow.
Relay participants are supported by a two-person crew. Running coach Haley Halvorson is in charge of supporting the runners from coast to coast, including preparing meals. Videographer Malcom Villanueva is charged with documenting each runner's experience and of sharing that experience on social media.
The support from relay organizers began long before the 19 volunteer runners hit the road.
Wang has followed a training plan devised by Kaitlyn Yonke, an accomplished ultra-marathoner and mountaineer from Colorado.
"We definitely do have a lot of support," Wang said.
Much of it is in the form of video conferences with Yonke, event organizers and fellow participants. Wang said that Yonke has stressed that runners should not compare themselves to their relay teammates because they all have different abilities and running experience.
She said that Yonke also taught her how to distinguish between physical fatigue and mental fatigue during training and shared tips about how to overcome each such challenge.
She also has plenty of support from husband Lih — who Wang said often tells her that she can accomplish any goal she puts her mind to — and from 7-year-old daughter Nora, who joins Hien twice per week for the first four miles of a training run.
Wang's training was briefly interrupted in February by a knee injury, but as of mid-March she was back on track running at least 50 miles per week, with plans to push close to 60 miles per week before tapering off in the 10 days before the event.
Other than the knee injury, Wang said that the big challenge has been leaving her Bethany home for training runs during dark, wintry days.
But she said she loves living in Oregon. She and Lih moved to the Portland area in 2013 without jobs because they enjoyed the people, the active lifestyles and the environment they experienced during a vacation to this region.
A UCLA grad, Wang is excited about starting from the Santa Monica Pier on April 9. Six days, 164 miles and more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain later, she will pass the baton at Barstow, California, to Ed Madison, who over eight days will cover 220 miles to Las Vegas, Nevada.
The 19th and final runner is scheduled to reach New York City on Aug. 20.
This is the eighth edition of the MS Run the US relay, which was first held in 2014. The 2020 edition was virtual, with each runner completing their miles in her or his hometown.
A "Star Wars" fan, Wang's photo on the MS Run the US webpage shows her in an R2D2 costume with Mickey Mouse ears. Ultimately, it was the urge to do something positive during a challenging time that convinced Wang that MS Run the US was for her.
"There is a lot of negativity with COVID. I just want people to know there are things you can do to help your community," she said, explaining that it might be something as simple as checking on a neighbor — or something as outrageous as, for example, covering 164 miles on foot in six days.
Over seven years, the MS Run the US relay nonprofit has raised $2.3 million, which it distributes to organizations researching MS and as financial aid for MS patients.
To learn more, or to donate to Hien Wang's efforts, visit www.msruntheus.org and go to the ultra relay link under the Get Involved tab.
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