Of all Julie Weiss’ memories of her father, his larger-than-life personality stands out most: Maurice Weiss was a drummer — a regular on the radio by age 5 — a bandleader, a stock broker, and a tennis and racquetball player who took up acting at the ripe age of 70.
“Everything he did, he did it big,” she recalled recently with a smile and a shake of her long, blond hair.
Now Weiss is following her father’s lead. To raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, from which her father died in 2010, Weiss is running 52 marathons in 52 weeks and donating the funds she raises to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). Her final race will be the Los Angeles Marathon on March 17. As of Feb. 25, she has raised more than $143,000.
Her jaw-dropping mission has taken her across the country, and sometimes outside the United States. She has run marathons in Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as in Toronto and Rome. All of that traveling has been exhausting, she said — not to mention running 26.2 miles every weekend for nearly the past year.
Still, she explained, she is propelled by a bottomless reserve of energy she draws from her cause.
“My spirits are high because of the fact that I’m helping so many people,” she said.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to PanCAN, an advocacy nonprofit based in Manhattan Beach. The five-year survival rate for the disease is 6 percent. And due in part to a genetic mutation, Ashkenazic Jews — those of Eastern European descent — have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The defective gene is found in about 1 percent of Ashkenazim, according to a 1997 study published in Nature Genetics.
Weiss knows this as she ties on her purple ASICS running shoes before every race. Purple is the color of the pancreatic cancer awareness campaign, and Weiss sat down to lunch recently bedecked in its hues — purple beaded earrings, a sparkly purple top, even purple nail polish.
At 42, Weiss is tall, tanned and lean. She lives in Santa Monica with her fiancé, 19-year-old daughter and her dog, a chow chow-collie mix. She’s still amused by the disbelief she encounters when she talks about her 52-marathon quest.
“When I first tell people, they’re like, ‘Can you really do that?’ ” she said. “A lot of people think I’m crazy. That’s OK. I’m not crazy — I’m just extremely passionate.”
Weiss didn’t take up running until her mid-30s, and back then it had nothing to do with her present cause. Instead, she recalled, she was overweight and on antidepressants.
“I was on vacation with my family in Hawaii, and I started running on the beach. When I got home, I didn’t need the medication anymore — I found my love for running,” she said.
Right away, she knew there was no other way to go but big; for her first event, she competed in the 2007 Los Angeles Triathlon.
It had been her father’s dream to watch her run in the Boston Marathon. Weiss attempted to qualify 19 times, beginning in 2008, but couldn’t seem to make the time she needed. Her father wasn’t fazed, she said. “Keep going,” she remembers him telling her. “I’m proud of you. You can do it.”
On Weiss’ 18th try, in late 2010, she missed the qualifying mark by two minutes. She was disappointed, but it was nothing compared to the crushing news she would receive the next day: Her father had stage-IV pancreatic cancer.
Weiss with her father, Maurice Weiss. Photo courtesy of Julie Weiss
She told her father he would fight it. She said he would beat the cancer, just like she would qualify for the Boston Marathon after struggling for so long. But he died 35 days later.
Less than two weeks after that, she finally qualified for the race. She ran through her grief — and she also set a personal record that she still hasn’t beaten: 3 hours, 47 minutes, 19 seconds.
“I ran across that finish line with my fingers pointing to him in heaven,” she said. “He was the wind at my back.”
Weiss knew it was the beginning of something, the start of a mission for her to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.
“I knew it should be centered on my passion for running and my love for my father,” she said. “I’d heard about people running that many marathons, and it seemed like something I could probably do.”
It isn’t only about her father anymore; Weiss dedicates each marathon she runs to someone affected by pancreatic cancer — victims who have died, patients battling the disease and survivors now living cancer-free.
At the Surf City USA Marathon in Huntington Beach last month, she ran across the finish line with Roberta Luna, an 11-year pancreatic cancer survivor. At the Half Moon Bay International Marathon in September, she ran the last two-tenths of a mile with Paul Perkovic, who had stage-IV pancreatic cancer at the time. He died about three months ago.
“You could see the smile on his face when we crossed the finish line,” Weiss said. “That’s what it’s all about — we created some hope and some joy and inspiration for that moment.”
Her work isn’t going unnoticed. “Julie is truly an inspiration to all those involved in the fight against pancreatic cancer,” said Jenny Isaacson, vice president of community engagement for PanCAN. “Her dedication and passion in honor of her father and all those touched by this devastating disease is remarkable.”
For the past year, Weiss has kept a strict schedule. During the week, she works full time as an accountant at a commercial real estate company in Brentwood. She leaves work on Friday afternoons, flies to a different city, runs a marathon on Sunday and is back at her desk Monday at 9 a.m. — “9:15 sometimes,” admitted Weiss, whose progress can be followed at marathongoddess.com.
On the days between marathons, she concentrates on recovery. She stretches every day and does weight training once a week. She goes to bed at 9 p.m. sharp. She eats at least 70 grams of protein daily.
Over the course of her marathon year, she has gotten to know many people affected by pancreatic cancer — some only in memory. That sense of community keeps her motivated.
“Every time I run a marathon, I imagine their spirits running with me,” she said. If fatigue sets in, she closes her eyes and imagines them whispering in her ear: “Keep going,” or “It’s OK to walk for a while,” or “I’m with you.”
“No matter how hard that marathon was or how bad I hurt yesterday, it’s nothing compared to what these people are going through,” she said.
Crossing the finish line for the 52nd time — after a total of 1,362.4 miles — will be an emotional experience, Weiss predicted. “I may have to run with a box of Kleenex,” she said, laughing.
After that, she’ll take at least a month off from running, but she will continue to participate in run/walk events to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. And there’s a 54-mile ultramarathon in South Africa she’s planning to run in June.
“It’s in my blood now, and in my spirit,” Weiss said. “I’m so motivated. This is meant to be.”