Going the distance against Parkinson’s

By Mark Baker | Living Here, Sports | |

If you were a progressive, debilitating disease, you might be wise to pick someone other than a McChesney to inflict.
In Track Town, USA (aka Eugene), there’s not much danger in saying that no family better typifies the courage, strength and determination it takes to not only succeed at distance running but also to endure some of life’s harshest setbacks.

The walls of Bill and Marcia McChesney’s south Eugene home are filled with reminders of that.

Both the upstairs and downstairs hallways abound with photographs of their four sons, all standout runners at South Eugene High School in the 1970s and early ’80s, winning one race after another.

Tom, Steve and Bill Jr. went on to great success at the University of Oregon, with Bill Jr. – who lost his life in a traffic accident in 1992, as did his older brother Tom in 1986 – breaking some of the legendary Steve Prefontaine’s records and making the 1980 U.S. Olympic team at 5,000 meters. And Ken, the youngest, ran at the University of Montana, just like his dad, who was a champion miler there in the late 1940s.

Presiding over all this success, even sewing the uniforms for the South and UO teams, was Marcia McChesney, who decided to take up running herself in her late 40s.

And, as if to prove that maybe all that running DNA didn’t just come from Bill Sr., Marcia broke a world age-group record in the two-mile for 59-year-old women in 1989 and completed the four marathons she’s run, including the Boston and New York road runs.

Meanwhile, Bill Sr. was setting his own world age-group records in the mile and two-mile in his 50s and 60s, during all-comer’s meets at Hayward Field, where he and Marcia volunteered as officials for decades, as well as running 17 marathons in his life.

More recently, 87-year-old Bill ran his 40th Butte to Butte road race in Eugene on July 4.

“As long as he comes back”

Marcia McChesney, 85, gave up running years ago. She can’t even take a daily walk, at least not outside, anymore.

She was out for a run about a decade ago and noticed something was wrong.

“I was running up here on the trail,” she says, referring to the nearby Rexius Trail that circles around East and West Amazon drives, “and I got tremors in my left arm.”

The eventual diagnosis? Parkinson’s disease, the progressive, neurological disorder with no known cause and no cure that afflicts an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Americans.

Her mother, Vivian McFaddin, had Parkinson’s and died in her mid-70s.

“In those days, they put her to bed,” Marcia McChesney says, her voice weaker and shakier than in recent years.

Those with Parkinson’s certainly need to get as much sleep as possible, says Dr. Sara Batya of Oregon Neurology Associates in Springfield, the neurologist McChesney sees every few weeks.

But Batya has encouraged McChesney to stay “physically active and socially and intellectually engaged.”

Parkinson’s disease occurs when the brain slowly stops producing the neurotransmitter dopamine. The depletion is what causes a person to lose control of body movement.

To counter that, McChesney takes levodopa six times a day to increase the dopamine levels in her body. Levodopa is the most common drug used to treat the stiffness, tremors, spasms and poor muscle control caused by Parkinson’s.

To replace the running and walking she so misses, she walks on a treadmill in her home about 30 minutes daily.

“Sometimes, I have to stop and rest, even walking for 30 minutes,” says McChesney, who also does balancing exercises and attends physical therapy appointments to stay as strong as possible and decrease the chances she could take a fall.

And she still wears running shoes, a pair of Asics on this particular day.

“I need the support of this kind of shoe,” she says, her arms twitching the more she talks. “Can’t wear the pretty ones anymore – even the flats.”

Her husband of 62 years still goes on his morning runs of 3 to 4 miles – and does his 20 chin-ups on the same bar, stuck between a bathroom doorway, he’s used for decades – but he doesn’t like to leave her home alone.

“She wants me to go,” he says.

“As long as I know he’s coming back,” she clarifies.

“No guarantee of that anymore,” Bill says with a laugh.

Bill has gotten used to playing the role of caretaker but can’t help but worry.

“He does everything,” Marcia says. “He takes me places, he cooks. He entertains me,” she says, looking at him with a sweet grin.

Bill McChesney Sr., a retired Eugene dentist, knows his sense of humor has gotten him and Marcia through some dark days.

One of his favorite lines, which he always delivers with a smile and a twinkle in his eye: “We’re all just dyin’ to get outta here!”

But the reality of that can wait a bit longer.

“This is our life”

She may have Parkinson’s, but she has lived much longer than either of her parents. Her father, William McFaddin, died in 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage in his early 40s.

Marcia McChesney, who over the years worked as a dental clinic manager, medical transcriptionist and as a receptionist and bookkeeper for her husband’s office, also has outlived her older brother and older sister.

And she and Bill have had to deal with something no parent can ever fully comprehend, the death of a child – not once but twice.

Tom McChesney, their oldest son, a 1973 South Eugene graduate, died at age 30 when a delivery truck struck him as he rode his bicycle through the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount.

Bill McChesney Jr., a 1977 South graduate – and still the UO record-holder at 5,000 meters, ahead of such greats as Edward Cheserek, Rudy Chapa, Alberto Salazar and Prefontaine – was 33 when his car collided with another on Highway 20 west of Toledo.

“You don’t have any choice,” Bill Sr. says when asked how they’ve coped all these years.

“You don’t realize, until it happens to you, how many people lose children,” Marcia says.

Their other two sons, Steve and Ken (who successfully battled lung cancer a few years ago, in his 40s, despite never having smoked) have given them five grandchildren, including Steve McChesney’s 10-year-old twins, Bill and Steve, who live with their mom and dad in the Boston area, where Steve McChesney has built a track and field and cross country dynasty at South Newton High School not unlike the one he and his brothers were part of at South Eugene in the 1970s.

“This is our life, as much as it’s been,” Bill Sr. says. “We’ve been pretty lucky.”

Batya, the neurologist, says Marcia McChesney’s prognosis is “pretty good” considering her age.

Always being “an incredibly active person” has benefited her greatly, Batya adds.

“She feels pretty comfortable and confident,” Batya says.

PARKINSON’S RESOURCES