David White

David White: Fresno's Dennis Duffy runs through his biggest challenge

Dennis Duffy just stood there in his driveway, all alone with his cancer, an oxygen tank on wheels, and a GPS watch asking him what he was going to do about that 300-meter loop around his northwest Fresno neighborhood.

Duffy couldn't go back in time, when he was 68 years old and healthy and turning a lap around the track in 66 seconds.

He also couldn't just stand there, either, waiting for two forms of lymphoma cancer to run him into the cemetery ground.

The longtime Bullard High running coach did the only thing he knew to do: He double-laced his jogging shoes and hit the pavement, starting with a slow walk from his driveway and finishing with a USATF Masters national championship in his 400-meter age-group final two weekends ago in Salem, N.C.

Of course, Duffy was going to outrun cancer. To see this 71-year-old survivor barrel out of the fourth turn is to understand this guy always runs as if he is running for his life -- which is exactly what he has been doing the past three-plus years.

"Ever since I learned I had this cancer, I saw too many people sit in place and, I'm sorry, wait for death," Duffy said. "My guiding principle was moving forward, keep moving. And then, if you live, you can say, 'Now I can do a 95-second 400.' It's setting goals and gauging how you're doing."

The cancer arrived in January 2011. For six months, Duffy underwent aggressive chemotherapy to attack the Hodgkin's disease, which was the cancer that was going to kill him first. The treatments robbed him of his energy, his appetite, his hair, his running legs.

That last point was the real folding chair to the back of the head. Duffy has run competitively all his life, winning age-group medals at national and world championships since he was in his 40s.

He would rather die running than live sitting. So, he walked out of his house one day, set up a chair in the driveway, parked his portable oxygen tank, mapped out a 300-meter course ... and wondered what exactly he was going to do with it.

"I couldn't run. What can I do?" Duffy said. "It never occurred to me that I could walk. I mean, to me, walking's nothing. But I had to start where I was. I just wanted to see how far I could go.

"So I took a couple of sniffs of air and did whatever I could do ... a 100-meter walk, and then go inside and take some oxygen, then half a lap, go back inside, then I started jogging a lap. I wouldn't call it running; I just considered it my chemo training.

"It was like eating an elephant one small piece at a time."

By July 2011, he was competing in a 100-meter race in Sacramento -- in between chemo visits. By the next summer, he entered a 400 race in Stanford. Last month, he clocked in at 68.5 seconds in the 400 -- his best post-cancer time. Then, the national title, a race from his driveway to the street corner to the Masters finish line.

Stop running now? Over Duffy's undead body.

"I showed up at this race after two years away, and someone told me, 'I thought you weren't competing,' " Duffy said. "I said, 'I'm not here to compete. I'm here to complete.'

"If people with this cancer can just get up and keep moving forward, there will always be hope. It doesn't have to be a championship medal. It's continuing to live."

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