This Couple Races Around the World, Fighting Alzheimer’s Along the Way
When Catherine Popp was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 53, her partner quit his job so they could make the most of their time together, by traveling and running.
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Earlier this November, Christie Popp, 42, went on a four-mile run with her mother, Catherine Popp, 60, and Popp’s partner, Anthony “Tony” Copeland-Parker, 66. It was on a trail near her Bloomington, Indiana, home, and the weather was perfect: 50 degrees, no wind, no clouds in the sky. It was the first time the mother and daughter had run together in six years. It was also the first time in a long time that Catherine could recall memories of running with Christie when she was in college.
In 2014, Catherine was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a less common form of memory loss that affects people younger than age 65, according to the Mayo Clinic; it affects about five to six percent of people with Alzheimer’s overall. An estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 or older live with Alzheimer’s, and almost two-thirds are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
During their recent run, the mother and daughter reminisced about how Christie would wake up at 4 a.m., just as her mother would arrive home from her night shift as a scheduler at UPS, and the pair would head out together for marathon training.
“It was kind of nice to have a real conversation with her again,” Christie says. “We don’t get to talk like that much anymore.”
Tony has to help Catherine get dressed and undressed, take showers, and find her way around, he says. She struggles to answer questions and engage in conversation. But running “seems to be one of those things that is so deeply ingrained in who she is that it’s like second nature to her,” says Christie.
“She has such trouble functioning in so many ways, but she can still run, which is really amazing,” she says.
Over the course of her decades spent running, Catherine has completed 83 marathons. Tony has run 68—including 16 since he had open-heart surgery in June 2014, just a few months after Catherine received her diagnosis.
Since then, the couple has sought to make the most of the time they have by running and traveling the globe: they’ve completed 60 marathons and half marathons and visited 82 countries, running at least a half marathon in 35 of those countries. They’re constantly traveling, making pit stops at a storage unit in Atlanta every few months to leave their marathon medals and grab new clothes. They fill their calendar with plane rides to races ranging from 5Ks to half marathons. Tony chronicles the couples’ adventures on a blog, which served as inspiration for his book, Running All Over The World: Our Race Against Early-Onset Alzheimer’s, published in June.
Their lifestyle “takes us away from the day-to-day tasks and trials and tribulations of Catherine’s disease, and takes my mind off thinking whether my heart’s going to stop,” Tony says.
They prefer to focus on the challenges that they can control, he adds, rather than the ones they can’t.
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A relationship built on running
The couple met in 2000, at a 5K race in Louisville, Kentucky, Tony says. Before the race began, Tony overheard Catherine “talking about the fact that she had already run several marathons, and that her goal was to run a marathon in all 50 states.” (She completed this goal last October, with the Ocean State Rhode Race Marathon in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Tony says.)
Having run track and cross-country in high school, Catherine became a marathoner, using training in part to cope with the loss of her husband, Rick, who had died of lung cancer after only one year of marriage.
That day at the race, Tony approached Catherine with a request: would she help him train for the New York City Marathon?
She agreed—with the caveat that once he finished his first marathon, he’d want to keep going. “I just thought I was going to do one marathon and be done with it, but Catherine explained to me that’s not the way it works,” he says.
They ran New York City together that fall, finishing in about four and a half hours. When Tony hit the wall around mile 18, Catherine helped him push through. “‘What will your kids think if you don’t finish?” he recalls her asking. “She ended up using that as motivation to keep me going.”
After they crossed the finish line, Catherine’s prediction proved true: Tony wanted to run another marathon, but not for the reason she expected.
“I had become enamored by Catherine during our training,” he says. “I started thinking, ‘OK, I guess I could manage to do another one if that means I get to see you.’”
Their relationship developed slowly, during training runs and races, as Tony juggled a separation and parenting his three kids.
“We were kind of using running and races to kindle the relationship,” he says. “She used running as a way for her to cope with the loss of her husband, and she instilled that in me to use running to cope with my separation.”
She still has that grit, he says. “She refuses to give up. I see it now with her Alzheimer’s.”
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“We’ll keep doing it”
Tony started noticing changes in Catherine’s cognitive functioning in 2013, when she would repeat herself, ask questions about something he had just explained, and take far longer than usual to complete basic tasks, like balancing her checkbook.
The diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s or “a like condition” followed in April 2014. (An Alzheimer’s diagnosis can only be confirmed through an autopsy.) The diagnosis “gave her some peace of mind,” Tony says, by offering an explanation for what she was going through, and, therefore, a path forward. For her family, though, it came as a blow.
“It was just a shock to learn that Cathy had started to experience the loss of memory at such an early age,” says her sister, Teri Popp, 64.
For Christie, the diagnosis meant that her adult relationship with her mother would no longer unfold as she had imagined it would.
“I always assumed that she would be there and be a young grandma, so it was a really sad shock to have her taken away in a way that she’s physically there but not mentally there,” she says.
Tony, for his part, worried about whether he’d be able to fully recover from his June 2014 open heart surgery, which followed doctors’ 2012 discovery that he had a leaky aortic valve, to be able to resume running with Catherine—and taking care of her.
“My concern was, I’m not going to be able to [run] anymore and we’re not going to have that bond we’ve had all these years,” he says.
To say he recovered would be an understatement: he ran the Berlin Marathon, his 53rd, 108 days after his surgery. In December of that year, he resigned from his job as a commercial management pilot at UPS and they sold their Indiana condo.
Given their love for both running and travel, their plan seemed like the perfect way to live the fullest lives they could, Tony says. And studies show that consistent exercise (and running in particular) can reduce the risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease.
Among the highlights of their travels have included half marathons in Antarctica, Bhutan, and Madagascar. Many of their trips have been with Marathon Tours, a company that hosts expeditions to international races. Its president, Jeff Adams, calls their relationship “an amazing love story,” he says.
“His patience just never wavers,” Adams says of Tony.
Tony’s book chronicles their travels and runs, tells of how he developed a sense of patience on their travels (in part, by running the Berlin Marathon following his surgery) as a former self-described “type ‘A’ personality,” along with tender moments the pair have shared—including finishing 55 marathons hand-in-hand‚ and lessons they’ve learned along the way.
“I wanted to have something to refer back to to say, ‘Look where we were last week,’” Tony says of the book.
But he’s also planning for the future. In January, the couple plans to run a marathon in Costa Rica. And Tony’s setting new goals for the pair to tackle together, including running half marathons in all 50 states (they have nine to go) and 50 countries (they’ve already checked off 35).
In other words: they don’t plan to settle down anytime soon.
“As long as she’s able to enjoy what’s going on,” he says of Catherine, “we’ll keep doing it.”
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