WILMINGTON — Like thousands of other runners throughout the country, Daniel Buckelew was hit with the news last Thursday afternoon that the 2020 Boston Marathon had officially been canceled. The 124th edition of the fabled race, which was originally scheduled for April 20 and then postponed until September 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will now be held as a virtual race only. It is the first cancellation in the long and storied history of the race.
While not exactly a complete surprise, the news still came as a major disappointment to Buckelew and others like him who had put in countless hours of training for the event. For the Wilmington resident, the cancellation was especially painful given what he has been through over the past ten years to put himself in position to compete in the world's most famous marathon.
You see, ten years ago, the idea of Buckelew running the Boston Marathon would have been unthinkable. In fact, at the time, merely walking up the stairs of his home was a challenge for Buckelew, who in 2010 was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
There were years of difficult days ahead for Buckelew, who was 26 at the time of his diagnosis. But through great medical care as well as a tremendous proactive mindset, Buckelew (now 37) had improved his physical condition to the point where Boston was a reality.
“It was definitely a tough blow. It was very disheartening to see it at first postponed and then ultimately canceled," Buckelew said. "They will have a virtual race, but it is not the same. I was really looking at it as the completion of a ten-year journey from barely being able to walk to running 26 miles.”
To get an idea of how far Buckelew had come to be able to compete in Boston, which he would have done as part of the Strides Against MS Team, you have to look back at where he came from. Back in 2010, shortly after being diagnosed, Buckelew, who was living in New Jersey at the time, participated in his first ever Walk MS event in Roxbury, New Jersey. While he was his team’s captain, he was unable to complete the three-mile course with his team.
"I sat at a picnic table feeling extremely grateful for the support of my friends and family, but felt very uneasy that I could not be by their sides on the route," Buckelew said. "This was a real wakeup call for me, and I decided to take much greater ownership of my treatment."
For Buckelew, the diagnosis, and more importantly, the symptoms that went along with it, were a devastating blow. Having been an athlete pretty much his entire life, including playing soccer all four years of high school as well his first two years of his college at Centenary, this new way of life was not an easy adjustment.
Not only was it life changing from an exercise standpoint, the disease threatened to destroy all that Buckelew had worked for throughout his education. He had graduated from Centenary in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in business management, and then pursued his MBA in finance at Centenary, which he received in 2010. But right around that time, Buckelew's future was very much in doubt.
“I had every symptom associated with MS. From blurry vision, to numbness, to cognitive issues, where I was constantly searching for words. I was also dealing with vertigo as well as a loss of strength," Buckelew said. "It was definitely scary and definitely depressing. When I graduated with my MBA, it was just so difficult to walk or to put a sentence together. So, now I had my degree, and all of the loans that came with it, but at that point I didn’t even know if I could get a job in my field.”
It did not happen overnight, but Buckelew eventually began to improve. One year after his disappointing first experience at the MS Walk, he once again participated, and this time he was able to complete the course. More triumphs followed for Buckelew, small at first, and then bigger and bigger. If patience is a virtue, Buckelew may have been the most virtuous man on Earth. The road back to his normal lifestyle was a long one.
“It took years. It really coincided with a new course of action I took with my treatments. I came to realize that there were specialists that deal specifically with MS, so I started to see someone who really helped me," Buckelew said. "Even with him, it took me some time to open myself up to the recommendations he was making. But when I did, that was the turning point. I don’t know the exact time frame, but it was about three years after I was diagnosed."
It was around that time that Buckelew once again began to compete in road races. Having competed in countless 5K's, 10K's and sprint triathlons prior to his diagnosis, often with his father Danny by his side, Buckelew was no stranger to competing. But his first time back on a course during his recovery was a totally different feeling of exhilaration, even if it did not exactly go perfectly.
"That was awesome. I still remember the first 5K I ran. I used to run 5K’s all the time, I had so many t-shirts, I didn’t know what to do with all of them. But this was my first time back running one. I was about one hundred yards away from the finish line, and there was a great crowd cheering me on," Buckelew recalled. "But I was really weak and my vision was not the best, and I kind of stubbed my foot and I almost fell. You could hear the crowd gasp. But I didn’t fall and I managed to finish the race, and that was just a great feeling.”
Around the same time, Buckelew's professional career was taking off as well. Overcoming great odds, he continued to climb the ladder of success at his company, Sanofi Genzyme, advancing first to Financial Controller while he was still in New Jersey, before really making strides once he transferred to Cambridge. Buckelew is now the Finance Director for US Rare Blood Disorders, a position he has held since 2018. Overall, he has been with Genzyme for eleven years.
In an ironic twist, MS actually played a large role in his career advancement at Genzyme, as he originally decided to transfer to the Boston area in 2015 in order to join Genzyme's MS franchise which is headquartered in Cambridge.
While nobody would of course wish to be diagnosed with MS, Buckelew and his wife Tiffany have come to appreciate the positives in their lives, and have accepted MS as an important part of it.
“My wife and I were talking about it, and as strange as it sounds, it’s almost like MS was the best thing for us. We think back and reflect on what life would be like if not for MS. For one thing, we would not be in the Boston area. Working with the MS Association is what brought me to Boston in the first place," Buckelew said. “From a career standpoint, I have been able to accelerate my career by working on Boston, so that has just been amazing."
As his health continued to progress, so did Buckelew's physical activity, as he continued to compete in 5K's, 10K's and eventually Tough Mudder endurance events, which feature a 10-12 mile long obstacle course.
All the while, Buckelew continued his treatments for MS. While there is no cure for the disease, treatments can help manage it. In another ironic twist, Buckelew's treatments led to his inspiration to begin training for the Boston Marathon.
One of his treatments was a two-year program where he would receive intravenous infusions for five consecutive days initially and then for three consecutive days one year later. Buckelew had his first set of treatments three years ago, and the timing could not have been better.
“Three years ago, I was at UMass Medical Center in Worcester for my first treatment," Buckelew said. “My first day of treatment happened to fall on Patriots Day. My wife and I were sitting there watching the Boston Marathon, and I just thought, how great would it be if three years from now, (once his treatments were over) I was able to run the Boston Marathon. I set it as a goal and I was very happy that I was going to be able to accomplish that.”
Of course, it was not quite as simple as that, as he first had to apply to run for the Strides Against MS Team. Once he was selected among over 100 applicants, the real work began, both with training and with fundraising. With three young children at home, along with a full-time job, training time was at a premium. But Buckelew did not let that stand in his way, as he began training with the MS Foundation.
"With the foundation and the MS Team, you have access to trainers that schedule your long runs and your training program, starting sixteen weeks out from race day. Depending on your level of ability, they will put you on a different program so you can decide what works best for you and to see if you can fit your training into the rest of your schedule," Buckelew said. “I did not want it to impact my family, so I would be up very early every morning and go for a run, and then go into the office and shower up, and still be at my desk before most people got there.”
Buckelew also undertook a tremendous fundraising effort, raising nearly $9,500 for MS thanks to generous donations from friends, family, coworkers and even anonymous donors. All seemed to be going as planned.
But then of course, came Thursday's news that the marathon would be canceled. There is no word yet as to whether or not Buckelew will be able to run again next year, as there is a long list of volunteers who would like to run for Strides Against MS every year. On the other hand, Buckelew and others like him have already put in the time and effort, not only with their training, but also with their fundraising. It hardly seems fair that they should be denied their opportunity to run.
When and if Buckelew does get to run Boston, he knows that he will have the full support of Tiffany, with whom he will celebrate his ninth wedding anniversary on October 1 of this year, along with his three children, daughters Willa, 7, Sloane 4 and son Reece, who will turn 2 on July 3.
Tiffany has been nothing short of a rock of support for Daniel, from the time he was first diagnosed, to their wedding day, right up until today.
“She has been amazing. First of all, she married me, even when I was going through everything. Her commitment says a lot. She would come to all of my appointments with me, and to all my infusions," Buckelew said. "She was with me the day that I was watching the marathon and set my goal of running it in three years. She would just sit with me all day and we would spend time together.”
Another great source of support for Daniel has been his father, Danny. Whether it be competing along with him, encouraging him, or seeking the best course of treatment for him, Dan Sr. has been there every step of the way for his son.
“His help has been huge. He was the one who kind of broke ground just to give me the courage to express myself and what I was going through," Buckelew said. "He knew how sensitive I was about letting people know my condition and he helped me out, checking out different treatments. He did all the investigational work and set me up with so many things”
Along with his family, there is one other thing that he and Tiffany are very thankful for, and that is their move to Wilmington five years ago. He has settled into his town like a lifelong resident and has never looked back
“We live in the best neighborhood ever in Wilmington,” Buckelew said. “We go on vacation with our neighbors, and our kids are always playing with their kids. The relationships we have built from moving to this neighborhood have been amazing. We are so lucky to have ended up in Wilmington.”
If you would like to donate to Daniel’s cause and help him in his fight against MS, please visit us fundraising website at: https://secure.nationalmssociety.org/site/TR?fr_id=31006&pg=personal&px=14853787.