Michael Westphal

Michael Westphal: A Special Runner With An Extra Special Story

With the induction of Great Cranberry Island’s Michael Westphal, the Maine Running Hall of Fame gets not one great story…but two. There’s the Westphal who blazed his way to victory on the roads of Maine, taking 10 of the 20 races he entered in 1980 after being the second Maine finisher in the Boston Marathon in 1979, with a time of 2:30:16.

And then there is the Westphal who, more than 30 years later, returned to running, to challenge himself in the face of coping with a deadly disease and, in so doing, inspired people in Maine and all over the United States and Canada to join in the fight to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Westphal’s running career began at Mount Desert Island High School, where he helped pace the cross country team, in 1973, to a Class B State Championship and a 5th place finish at the New England championships. Individually, in 1975, he took 2nd in the 2-mile at the Eastern Maine Indoor Track Championship and 4th in the same event at the State Class B Indoor Track Championship.

Cherishing quality of performance above winning, Westphal says a favorite memory is finishing…7th…in the 2-mile, in June of 1975, at the State Class B Outdoor Track Championship, with a time of 9:57. Westphal remembers it as “a loaded field” that included the likes of future Olympian Bruce Bickford, 1st, as well as Cheverus High School ace Jim Doane, 2nd, and future MRHOF member Sam Pelletier, 4th.

From 1975-79, Westphal ran for the University of Maine cross country and track teams, setting his 1-mile PR, in 4:19, for the latter. In March of 1979, he placed 2nd in the 1-mile and 1st in the 2-mile at the AAU State Indoor Track Championship held at Bowdoin College.

Regarding himself “as a good, not a great runner,” Westphal often fondly remembers respected opponents he matched steps with, both besting and falling short of, whenever he recalls his road racing career from 1979 to 1993. For instance, it was Andy Palmer he followed as second Maine finisher at the Boston Marathon in 1979.

Among those career-best 10 road race victories in 1980 are these highlights:  Tour du Lac 10-miler, in 53:19; the Paul Bunyan Marathon, in a PR of 2:29:32 (the second fastest time for the event, after Bobby Doyle’s 2:28:30 in 1978); Northeast Harbor 5-miler; the Bangor Labor Day 5-miler, in 25:51 (2nd fastest time on the old 5.2-mile course, topped only by Ralph Thomas, and it was Kurt Lauenstein who was 2nd that day, 10 seconds behind him); and the Augusta Elks Club Veteran’s Day Half Marathon.

Some of Westphal’s fastest times ever occurred in 1983, including: Southwest Harbor 10-k, 31:16; Mad Witch Half Marathon, a 1:10:50 clocking and win; Great Cranberry 5-k, 15:11; and Tour du Lac 10-miler, 51:41 (a 2nd-place finish behind Gerry Clapper’s 51:35, setting the 2nd of the three fastest times on the course up to that date).  In 1984, he also finished in 2nd place, to Peter Millard, in 2:29:50, at the Sugarloaf Marathon.

Westphal remembers that from 1993 through 2004, he dealt with a series of injuries and mostly ran to keep fit.

During this period of his life, he recalls being “more focused on expanding my construction business” (he has built 10 homes, remodeled and done additions on many others, and serves as caretaker for 35 summer homes) and raising a family.  That family, today, includes: wife, Jennifer; son, Gabriel; son, Brendon; Brendon’s wife, Shannon; and granddaughter, Maeve Grace.

Westphal coached his two sons’ Little League teams for a number of years and also followed their school team sports. He was part of a fund-raising committee that successfully raised over $400,000 towards a new sports facility and all-weather track at MDI High School.

In 2005 the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease were becoming a problem, but he didn’t know the cause. “My left arm was always sore and would not swing when I was running, which made my form very awkward. I became discouraged and stopped running because of the way I looked and felt,” he recalls.  He received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in November of 2006.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that Westphal determined he wanted to make another attempt at running and competing, so he trained six weeks for the Northeast Harbor 5-miler. He states: “I found my arm soreness had lessened and my arm swing had improved. I surprised myself with a 22nd-place finish in 35:37. I still didn’t feel comfortable being in public view though because of my excessive movement, so I didn’t compete again until the next year when I ran three road races in the fall of 2014.”

Ultimately, Westphal made this decision that came with a startling outcome: “I finally determined that it didn’t matter how I looked in public: I was going to just get out there. I also, surprisingly, found that the further I ran, the more my symptoms subsided and the better I felt.”

He then set his sights on running a marathon, starting serious training in late February of 2015, and competing the Great Run Marathon in June. He finished in 2nd place, in 3:32:56…and that qualified him for the Boston Marathon. It was also learned that Westphal’s time was 6 minutes faster than the unofficial world record for someone with Parkinson’s competing in a marathon.

At the same time Westphal also raised over $38,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease Research. Partly because of his success at getting donations, he was asked to be the guest speaker at the Team [actor Michael J.] Fox MVP Awards dinner for top fundraisers in April of 2016.

Besides the Great Run Marathon in June, he has run over 25 shorter races in 2015 and 2016, regularly finishing in the top three in his 50-59 year-old age group. These races include: 2015 Tour du Lac, 20th place overall; 2015 Bangor Labor Day Race, 18th place overall. He has also completed three more marathons: 2015 MDI Marathon, 3:44:20 (where he unknowingly ran the race with a fractured pelvis); 2016 Boston Marathon, 3:38:59; and 2016 Great Run Marathon, 3:39:08.

Thus far, he has raised another $23,000 for the MJ Fox Foundation in 2016….with plans to continue his running and fund-raising.

Westphal concludes: “Today, I see my life as being about rising to the challenges that are put in front of me and how running  and being a part of the running community in Maine has helped me with my battle with Parkinson’s.  And if I inspire others with how I’ve dealt with this disease, I’ll feel like I’ve done my small part in this short life.”  

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