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Winning the Race

When Mike Waldera laces up his running shoes, every step that follows is something sweet.

An intense competitor who puts in 50 to 65 training miles a week, the Sioux Falls man approaches his life with the focus and passion of a serious athlete. Whether he’s taking an easy tempo run or running killer repeat drills, every run is a gift, he says.

“We only get one shot at life,” Mike said. “It’s our obligation to hone that gift by making the most of it.”

Watching him easily stride along an outdoor trail, it is hard to believe that anything could put this 49-year-old man on the sidelines. However, Mike had overcome an injury that should have ended his ended his running days, only to be diagnosed with cancer last year.

“I love running, it’s just what I do,” he says, as he walks the aisles at Scheels, where he works as an assistant store manager. “It takes a special kind of fool to run a marathon. You just keep on running, even when it doesn’t make much sense.”

A passion for running

Mike started running in his twenties as part of his training as a competitive water skier. Over the years, he gradually moved into road racing instead, training for 10Ks and marathons.

In 2007, he injured his knee skiing, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and doing so much damage to the cartilage of his knee and the ligaments surrounding it that his doctor told him that he’d never run again.

“I told him that I’m stupid and probably would want to try it anyway, and so we started rehab the day after surgery,” Mike says, with a grin. “It would be an understatement to see that it was painful.”

The road back to running really hurt, both physically and mentally. At one point, as he struggled to run just a quarter mile on the treadmill he had conversations with family members about whether all of the pain was really worth it.

Hitting his stride

But he continued on, gradually increasing his distance and endurance until his knee was back to 100 percent. By fall, he placed within the top ten competitors in a 5K race, finishing with a time just over 19 minutes. He went on to run the Fargo marathon in less than three hours in 2009, and had plans to do it again the next year.

“It felt terrific,” he said. “It was a successful leap back to where I had been.”

Then, in February 2010, he had such serious groin pain that he headed home from work. As he rolled in agony on the floor of his living room, he knew something was seriously wrong.

A trip to the emergency room soon showed that he was passing a kidney stone. That unpleasant, but routine condition was a blessing in disguise. While looking for the problem, doctors discovered that Mike was in the early stages of testicular cancer.

He underwent surgery immediately and discussed a plan for follow-up with his oncologist, Dr. Miroslaw Mazurczak. They decided on a one-time treatment of chemotherapy to help ensure that he was clear of the cancer.

Holding out hope

“Throughout all of this, I drew some strength in that Lance Armstrong could have testicular cancer and then go on after his treatment to win the Tour De France,” Mike said, displaying the yellow “Livestrong” bracelet he wears. “I knew there was hope that I could come back out of this.”

Mike ran the day after chemotherapy, noticing no difference, but within a few days he was weak. He took some time off to recover before once again working to increase his strength.

Every six months since his treatment, Mike will visit his doctor for scans to make sure that the cancer has not returned. With a clean bill of health, getting back into fighting form was more important than ever, he said.

In March, Mike returned to competitive running with a 5K race for first time since his diagnosis. Not only did he finish it, but he won. About a month later, he ran a 10K, once again winning the race.

“I don’t claim to be special, but it I felt like I didn’t want to let myself or anyone else down,” Mike said. “I have to say, that was a life experience that was pretty sweet.”

Mike continues to train six days a week. His summer plans include a 191-mile relay race where he’ll be one of six teammates who share the running. This fall, he’ll run the Sanford Half Marathon.

“When people get sick or have an injury, they need to know that there is plenty out there they can do,” Mike said. “I’ve had some of the happiest moments in my life since the cancer.”

Posted Date: June 2011