ON THE RIGHT TRACK: La Jolla High coach runs ninth 100 miles against cancer

For the ninth straight year, La Jolla High School (LJHS) swimming and water-polo coach Tom Atwell has run 100 miles around the school track. This year, he began at 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5 and finished at 2:30 p.m. the next day — just before LJHS students commenced their Teens For A Cure run to raise awareness and money for the American Cancer Society.

“Actually, I finished my hundred miles at 12:30,” Coach Atwell clarified while jogging alongside this reporter at 1:20 p.m.

Every year, Atwell — who stops only for water and bathroom breaks but not sleep — dedicates his run to someone who is either battling cancer or has succumbed to it. This year, it was for Granite Hills High School coach Rhett Gaeir and his wife, Carrie, both of whom are battling it. (Atwell’s shirt read, “Running for Carrie.”)

“I try to make it about something that’s a little closer to home, to give me a little bit extra motivation,” Atwell said.

This tradition started in the senior year of one of Atwell’s former students, Maggie Walsh, who lost her father to brain cancer as a sophomore. It was Walsh who brought Teens for A Cure to La Jolla High, but she sought a way to get students more excited about participating.

“So I said, ‘Tell ‘em I’ll run 100 miles and see if that helps,’” Atwell said.

It did — much to Atwell’s chagrin. (Prior to that, the longest distance he’d ever run was a 26-mile marathon.)

“I kind of said it half-joking,” Atwell said, “but I was locked in, so I did it.”

Atwell is a cancer survivor himself, as is his wife.

“We’ve both had our lives saved by good research and great doctors, so we feel like it’s our way of giving back,” he said.

Atwell had cancer three times, he said. The first, 25 years ago, was the most harrowing. It was a rare kind called histiofibrocytoma, a soft-tissue sarcoma that grew from the size of a marble to a softball on his hip within two weeks.

“They said I had a 25 percent chance of making it,” Atwell said.

Because it was too rare to treat in San Diego, Atwell was transported to UCLA for a round-the-clock experimental chemo trial.

“The doctor said to me, ‘The only reason you can do this trial is because you’re so fit,’” Atwell said. “So, ever since then, I always want to be as fit as I can be, because if lightning strikes twice, I want to be ready.”

Atwell said his time for the 100 miles this year (17 hours, 45 minutes) was his third-best. As a training run, he ran the 122 miles from the Santa Monica Pier to Scripps Pier two weeks earlier.

For his 10th anniversary run next year, Atwell says, his students have asked him to run 200 miles.

“I don’t know about that,” he said, laughing.

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