2015-08-13 / Sports

Teacher, student run against cancer, not from it

By Al Willman Of The Enterprise staff

BRIAN THOMAS (left) and Brandon Mercado (right), founded Road Warriors Corp., a non-profit that helps cancer patients with the financial burden of fighting the disease. BRIAN THOMAS (left) and Brandon Mercado (right), founded Road Warriors Corp., a non-profit that helps cancer patients with the financial burden of fighting the disease. Two men, one a cancer survivor and the other his student, are running against the disease instead of from it.

Brian Thomas, 36, is the survivor. Originally from Lake Orion and a graduate of Michigan State, he is now a middle school teacher in West Palm Beach, Fla. He has close ties to Leelanau County.

His former student, Brandon Mercado, 21, of West Palm Beach is now his mentee and running partner.

“I was very close to dying,” Thomas, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, said. “I had a very intense conversation with God. I was literally in the fetal position on my bathroom floor, not able to talk. I begged for my life so I could influence my daughter.”

They decided to run across the country in 2012 after Thomas got the treatment that saved his life.

“I would have died if I had not gotten this treatment,” Thomas said. “Once I turned the corner, we sat down and I said we were going to run across the country. I had started kind of run-walking. It felt like a marathon. I called it chemo crosstraining. It was hell.”

He had already run from Michigan to Florida in 2002, but with his new lease on life came a new start on his feet, too.

“We sat down and developed a four year plan,” Thomas said, explaining that he was mentoring another young man at the time. “They had to graduate high school, they had to be on cross country and track, and basically I mentored these two young men for that period of time to the present.”

Thomas and his students came in 2012 to Leland to train.

“I grew up coming here to train,” Thomas said. “It was a very personal place to help train these guys.”

They stayed at DH Day in Empire and went to the Empire Dunes and North Manitou Island.

At the time, they ran for two causes — a girl with cerebral palsy and a woman with colon cancer, while raising money for both. It was difficult, because they were not a registered non-profit.

Thomas said he had his students make him a promise.

“One of the things I made them promise was that within five years, they’d do their own solo runs,” Thomas said.

He said Mercado immmediately expressed interest in running his own route.

“Over 9-12 months we fundraised, we held parties, we went to different events, we told our story,” Thomas said, explaining the founding of Road Warriors Corp. “We became an official 501c3. And then we trained. I started my actual training here (in Leland) last summer. I would get on M-22 and M-204 and just do loops. I continued to train in the (Sleeping Bear) Dunes. I felt invigorated.”

He said they continued training, and ran a trio of long races — 31, 50 and 100 miles, respectively — as a tune up for the big one.

“He (Mercado) ran 1,400 miles from West Palm Beach to Lake Orion, Michigan,” Thomas said.

He said along the way, Mercado met with people who have cancer, hearing their story.

“One of next year’s beneficiaries is from Traverse City,” Thomas said. “We’re definitely going to help pay for one of his medical expenses or a living expense. I’m looking more at his mortgage. It’s pretty hefty. My first dose (of chemotherapy) was $30,000 and I had three treatments a month. Do that math.”

He said advocating for fellow cancer patients is an important part of what the non-profit does.

“Running is our platform,” Thomas said. “We’re helping people battle, anything to alleviate stress.”

Race day

Mercado explained what the days of the race looked like.

“It’s kind of like a go with the flow type of running,” he said. “You’re out there for nine-plus hours and our goal was 30 to 40 miles a day.”

Mercado said he would instruct the people driving the support car to go ahead a number of miles, depending on conditions.

“You’re on edge,” Mercado said. “You’re going through a lot of mental battles as well as physical pain. Sometimes it’s hard to harness that and you’d rather be alone. The focus of the run helps because it helps you stay with the purpose.”

And what is the purpose?

“The purpose is our five cancer patients,” Thomas said.

They both left on the same day from the same place — a school in West Palm Beach. A few days in, Thomas split off and headed towards Washington, D.C. while Mercado continued on towards Michigan.

Mercado’s trip lasted 47 days and some 1,200 miles. Thomas’s took 49 days for nearly 1,400 miles.

Running solo

Mercado shared one of his experiences, a race this past spring where he was completely on his own without a support crew.

“I had to backpack it,” Mercado said, of the 100 mile race which started in Boca Raton, Fla. “I ran 30 miles a day, and the last day was 22 miles which was awesome.”

He said that while not nearly the longest race he’s run, the race was definitely a challenge, coming on extremely short notice.

“I’m not saying it’s not possible,” Mercado said. “The capabilities of the human body are limitless. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s dangerous.”

He said that watching Thomas’s struggle, paired with meeting cancer patients along the way, put his solo run into perspective.

“It was a way of feeling the pain, the burden of what the cancer patients go through,” Mercado said. “I had to see him being faced with life or death, and being so close to death that I had to envision and see that and know that the man who has taught me everything I know is not here anymore. Who’s going to be there for me?”

He recalled one of the people he encountered on his solo run.

“I met a man out there and he said ‘You’ve got a lot of time to think out there don’t you?’” Mercado said. “He said ‘That’s either extremely powerful or extremely dangerous.’ To be honest with you, it’s both.”

Pushing past failure

Thomas compared the act of running more than 1,000 miles with fighting cancer.

“Usually the human body fails after about two to four weeks,” he said. “It’s a psychological thing that kicks in and demands that you move forward. Just like with cancer. I’ve seen people sitting next to me in the oncology wing and the IV rooms. I’ve watched them decide to die. They said they had enough, they pulled IVs out and they walked out.”

Thomas said he wants to continue to help people with cancer, like he was helped as he fought it.

“It was only with my network that I was alleviated from stress,” he said. “$90,000 was raised for me. I want to do that for anyone from Michigan down to Key West. If you decide you want to live, we want to help you.”

For more information about Road Warriors Corp., including ways to donate, go to www.roadwarriorscorp.org.

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