Dale & Dale ‘Run for the Memory’

Alyson Aiello

Dale Eckert and his wife, Dale Ann Granger-Eckert, have something important in common, and it’s not just their names.

The two Dales, as they are sometimes called, are both marathoners. They’ve run six marathons together and hope to complete their seventh on Monday when they tackle the 112th Boston Marathon as part of the Alzheimer Association’s “Run for the Memory” team.

 This will be the third consecutive year they’ve run with the Alzheimer’s team in the marathon, a team that is only 3 years old.

 The Newburyport couple, who only began running in 2001, will again run in honor of Dale Ann’s mother who died at age 87 after a 13-year battle with the disease. Dale Ann’s father, who is now deceased, was able to fully care for her mother up until the end, which is unique for caregivers. Dale Ann runs for both of them, she said.

 “I found my parents to be the gold standard of how to live through adversity,” she said. “They took each day with dignity and perseverance.”

 According to the Alzheimer’s Association, roughly 120,000 people in Massachusetts have Alzheimer’s. From diagnosis, Alzheimer’s can last eight to 10 years.

 “People often don’t understand that Alzheimer’s is not simply a part of aging. In fact, we’ve all heard jokes about Alzheimer’s and forgetfulness. It’s a fatal disease that begins with memory loss and progresses until the brain forgets how to maintain basic functions like breathing,” said Betsy Fitzgerald Percoski, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

 Alzheimer’s is typically associated with age. Nearly half of people who live past age 85 are at risk, Percoski said. But, early onset Alzheimers can appear in people as young as age 30.

 “There are very limited treatments, and the ones that are available are most effective in the early stages of the disease. There is currently no cure,” Percoski said.

 Dale said he feels he has a responsibility to use the tools he has to make a difference, and his tool is running.

 Although Dale qualified for the race independent of the charity, which means he earned his number and does not need to raise funds, he has been campaigning with his wife to raise more than $8,000 (only $3,000 is required). So far this year, the Eckerts have raised over $6,000 for their team.

 One hundred percent of the money raised goes to the charity and helps fund research, establish hotlines for families when Alzheimer patients go missing and services to call when caregivers need help or advice on treatment and medication and provide counseling services for patients and families.

 “We must increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. If no cure is found, 10 million baby boomers will get Alzheimer’s disease. Our nation’s health care system cannot handle that challenge. It can be a devastating disease for families, emotionally and financially,” Percoski said.

 All 37 runners on the “Run for the Memory” team have had a personal experience with Alzheimer’s in their families. They come from all levels of ability and all ages but train as a team.

 During the training period, the Alzheimer’s Association hosts informational team meetings and organized runs, develops individual training programs, prepares runners through team meetings, Web and telephone support, provides team uniforms and running equipment donated by New Balance, and organizes other activities to help the team learn from each other while enjoying the process.

 Rich Schilder coaches the team and has created a strict training schedule that includes a weekly team run, often held on Saturday mornings. Schilder, who also coaches the Heartbreak Hill Striders and Bedford High School’s indoor and outdoor track teams, said the group workout allows runners to connect as a team. The Eckerts’ passion for running has helped make that connection even stronger.

 “Their enthusiasm remains infectious. A weekend long run without them is a lesser run. They fill up a room with their friendship, laughter and stories,” Schilder said. “Dale Ann has been very helpful watching over lesser-experienced team members during long runs and races, giving me an insight into how they were doing and giving them advice on how to best complete (or not) their runs.”

 Although the two Dales have run more than 150 races together, they haven’t run them side by side — Dale Ann says her husband is the faster of the two and always crosses the finish line first.

 “We don’t exactly run ‘together,’ but we instigate the challenges, support each other and share the experience,” Dale Ann said. “He tries to save me a bottle of water and a cookie at the end of the races.”

 As for Dale, who has adopted the name Dale Bob to differentiate himself in from his wife, he’s not sure what to expect from himself at this year’s marathon; he’s just hoping to finish. He was diagnosed in May 2007 with esthesioneuroblastoma, a rare cancer that attacks the sinuses and brain, and has undergone chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and — what he said was the worst part — a life-threatening infection that settled in after surgery.

 He compares the ordeal to training for a marathon.

 “It required following a schedule and making it to the finish line,” he said.

 He was unable to run while undergoing treatment due to the risk of injury. In December, when his infection had cleared, one of the first things he did was participate in the Hangover Classic 5K and plunge.

 “The first time I ran 3 miles, my body hurt for two days,” Dale Bob said.

 Since then he’s gotten stronger and feels ready for the challenge. After all, he didn’t have much of choice. He made a promise to Dale Ann that he’d be by her side in Hopkinton on race day.

 “Some people have to deal with cancer; it has to deal with me,” he said.

 By all accounts, Dale Bob is winning the race, but his experience left the couple with an interesting dilemma this year: Should they continue to run for Alzheimer’s, or should they run for Dana Farber, where Dale Bob received treatment and support throughout his illness? One of Dale Bob’s specialists even hinted that he might want to change teams this year. Their decision, however, was to continue to support the Alzheimer’s Association.

 “Look at the marathon and compare the size of the Dana Farber team with our Alzheimer’s team,” the couple wrote in a testimonial for the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s a reflection of the progress of cancer resources, treatment and research. When Dale runs the marathon in April he will be one of hundreds on the course who are cancer survivors or living with cancer. There will be no one running as an Alzheimer’s survivor.”

They hope their work will someday make that possible.

To contribute to The Eckerts’ fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Association, make checks payable to the Alzheimer’s Association and mail or deliver to 89 Lime St., Newburyport, MA 01950.