If all goes according to plan, Julie Weiss will cross two finish lines when she completes the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.
The race will mark the end of a quest to run an average of one marathon a week for 52 weeks to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer, the disease that recently took her father's life, and to raise money for a cure via a donation button on her website, Marathon Goddess.
"It's going to be overwhelming, I know there's going to be exhaustion and tears, a lot of tears," said Weiss, 42. "I know I am going to be thinking of my father. He is going to be with me every step of the way; he is going to be the wind at my back."
About six years ago, Weiss was an overweight single mom relying on medication to help with depression. A friend gently encouraged her to try exercise. Weiss went for a run on the beach and noticed something: It felt great. So she went for another run, and then another. When someone suggested she try training for a triathlon, she signed up. It wasn't long before she'd shed 25 pounds and the antidepressants.
Her father, Maurice, was her biggest fan, and the first call she'd make after every race was to him. "If he could, he'd be there, cheering me on," she said. And when Weiss decided she wanted to run a marathon fast enough to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, he helped her train.
The day after Weiss' 18th try — yes, her 18th try, and she fell short by two minutes — she got "jaw-dropping" news: Her father had pancreatic cancer and was given just weeks to live.
Her father insisted Weiss stick to her training, and she did, often stopping at his bedside before and after a run. He died Nov. 24, 2010. One week later, on her 19th attempt, she qualified for Boston.
"I truly believe I would not have qualified if he wasn't there, in spirit, pushing me," she said. "When I crossed the finish line, it was such a bittersweet moment. I thought, there has to be something else I can do."
She decided to use running to raise money. An accountant by day, by night the Santa Monican turned to her website and Facebook to benefit the Manhattan Beach-based Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. So far, she has raised more than $168,000. ("All donations go directly to the network. I do not touch the money," she said.)
The 52-marathon quest started one year ago. Since then she has run marathons coast to coast, and in Rome and Canada. A typical weekend for Weiss looks like this: She leaves work Friday afternoon for the airport, runs a marathon Sunday morning and then flies home to be back at work Monday morning.
She spends Monday through Friday focused on rest and recovery, including massages, therapy, stretching and "Jacuzzi time."
Surprisingly, there have been few snafus. One came last year when the New York Marathon was canceled because of the damage from Superstorm Sandy. Weiss was already on the East Coast. "I said, 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to find a marathon?'"
A frantic call to the airlines put her on the first plane back to Los Angeles; there was a marathon slated for that Sunday in Santa Clarita.
When you are running one marathon a week, the finish time is an afterthought, Weiss said.
"Its a lot of travel. It's very tiring," she said, adding she couldn't do it without the support of her fiancé, her now-grown children and her mom. "But I'm inspired by this greater purpose. "Every race I run, I dedicate to someone who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," and she wears memory bracelets in their name. "When the race gets hard, I think, 'This is nothing' … I look at the picture of them [on the memory bands], and I think, 'OK, we can do this.'"
But Sunday won't be the end of her story.
Weiss plans to run another 52 marathons — although not all in one year — to reach her goal of raising $1 million. She said she hopes this more flexible timetable will allow her to focus on fundraising.
"I'm not going to stop," she said. "I'm just getting started."