Four years after undergoing extensive treatments for stage four nasopharynx cancer, Dominick Oliviero, an insurance adjuster from Massapequa, had one goal: to cross the finish line of one more challenging race.
During Thanksgiving weekend, with a little help from his friend Ken Jones of Old Westbury, Oliviero did exactly what he had trained hard to do, finishing the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon in Maryland, only a few minutes before the race’s 12-hour cutoff time.
The race Oliviero trained for was first held in 1962 in response to President John F. Kennedy’s efforts to encourage physical fitness. Over the years, it has acquired a storied reputation in the running community, as the country’s oldest, annually held ultradistance race. But Oliverio’s motivation to tackle the 50-miler had more meaning to him than being in good shape or turning 50 last March. Rather, it represented another ultra-step separating him from the tumor of the nasopharynx (the part of the throat that connects to the nose) that was diagnosed in May 2011.
He says he is now cancer free; and his pursuit of what Kennedy called, in a 1961 speech, “the vigorous life,” echoes the philosophy that inspired the creation of the race. “Don’t take it easy, don’t sit around, keep moving,” says Oliviero, who is married, and has two sons, Alessandro, 19, and Mario, 22. “That, I think, is the answer.”
That attitude explains how someone in his circumstances accomplished his quest to be fit so fast. Someone who endured more than four rounds of chemotherapy over six months; 33 rounds of head and neck radiation along with additional chemo; and another 20 rounds of radiation to the left hip where the cancer had spread.
It helped that he was in good physical shape when he was diagnosed. Oliviero started exercising after his younger brother, Maurice, died of leukemia in 2001. Oliviero finished his first triathlon in Memphis as a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in 2005, and his first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the following year. In 2007, he completed his first of five Ironman triathlons.
Still, seven months of aggressive cancer treatments took its toll. By the end of 2011 he had lost about 30 pounds from his 6-foot-tall frame and was down to 145 pounds. But Oliviero was resilient. He was back to riding his bike two months after his treatments were done.
Eighteen months later, in July 2013, he crossed the finish line of the Lake Placid Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. “While I was in a hospital bed [being treated because his blood counts were poor after chemo], I wondered if I’d ever do another Ironman,” he says. “Crossing the finish line was a confirmation. If you really have a goal and want something, it’s possible.”
The goal of completing an ultramarathon — defined as any race longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon — crystallized in the spring, when a friend told him about the JFK race.
“Fifty miles seemed like a real adventure,” Oliviero says.
He told Jones, his training partner, about his new goal. Jones, who is 56, wasn’t surprised. “It’s typical Dom,” he says. “He beat cancer, he conquered the Ironman, now it’s time for the ultras.”
Oliviero’s oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan gave him the green light, as well. “Nobody at Sloan, hearing my history before and after, has ever said, ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ ” he says. With good reason: The consensus in the medical community is that physical activity after cancer treatment can aid and speed recovery.
Epidemiologist Kathryn H. Schmitz, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, doesn’t know Oliviero but applauds his efforts to maintain a high level of fitness since his treatment. “He is proof positive that it is possible to not only survive cancer, but thrive,” she says. “Being physically active is a central part of that story.”
Of course, not everyone has to be doing ultramarathons. Schmitz, author of the American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines on exercise for cancer patients, says survivors should follow the 2008 federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
While training for the JFK run, Oliviero sometimes exceeded the weekly guidelines in a single day of training. He and his coach, Darryn Solotoff, 38, of Centerport, developed a program of longer, slower runs that would allow him to build the endurance needed to cover such a long distance without injury. “We’d have these lengthy conversations about why we were doing things we were doing, and he’d follow it to a T,” Solotoff says. “He’s a pleasure to coach.”
Oliviero followed the program dutifully: Often running 10 or more miles three days in a row (as opposed to doing marathon-length runs in one workout). His training completed, he and Jones — who accompanied him for logistical and moral support — made the 4 1/2-hour drive to Maryland on Nov. 21.
The race started the next morning at 7, in Boonsboro. Fifty miles northeast was the finish line in Hagerstown. Because of the distances involved, ultra-runners tend to break their races into segments, which is exactly what Oliviero and his coach did in their plans for the 50-miler — starting with the 13-mile segment along the rocky Appalachian Trail early in the race, where runners must contend with cold temperatures, an elevation gain of 1,772 feet and a rocky stretch of paths that reduces even the fastest runner to a walk.
“I knew I had to survive the first 15” miles, Oliviero says. He did it, emerging from the trail to find Jones waiting for him with a fresh, long-sleeve T-shirt. After Oliviero changed out of his gloves, hat and vest, Jones got in his car and drove closer to the midpoint of the race. “I got on the course and ran back to pick up Dom, who would have been at about mile 21 at that point,” Jones said. “Then I ran back six miles with him.”
Jones, who thought he’d be company for his friend, was surprised to find Oliviero chatting away with other runners. Oliviero’s coach had told Jones, “You never know what to expect from somebody in an ultra.” Some runners may be crabby or want to be left alone. But Oliviero “was nothing like I expected,” Jones says.
The final part of the challenge was a nail-biter for everyone except Oliviero. Racers must finish within 12 hours of the 7 a.m. starting time. As the minutes ticked past 6:30 p.m., Jones — standing at the finish line in Hagerstown — began to worry. Oliviero’s wife, Maria, texted; then his coach asking where was Oliviero? “Now it’s 6:50,” Jones says, “and I’m like, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
Just then, a familiar figure materialized in the distance. It was Oliviero, calmly crossing the line just six minute and 30 seconds before the deadline. He had been running for 11 hours, 53 minutes, and was one of 825 official finishers; about 30 others missed the cutoff. (The winner of the race, a 25-year-old runner from Arizona, finished in 5 hours, 47 minutes.)
“I did the mental math,” Oliviero says. “I knew I had 40 minutes to finish the last three [miles], and was like, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”
Jones wasn’t quite as nonchalant. “I hugged him,” Jones says. “I was thinking about how, when he was in treatment, he was so weak, I had to pick him up out of his car and put him in his wheelchair. That was November 2011. And here we were, November 2015, and he’s just run 50 miles. It’s so inspiring, it goes beyond words.”