By LYNNE ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 29, 2011
For Father Joseph Peek, the journey of 26.1 miles begins with a 5K on Oct. 15.
And the leukemia survivor has chosen the Winship Win the Fight 5K as his comeback race.
More importantly, he says, he is entering the race as a way to support research at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. All the money raised by his race team, Patient Endurance, will go to cancer research at Winship. So far, his team is among the leading teams in fundraising, with more than $100,000 already raised by race participants and sponsors.
The cancer center will hold its inaugural Winship Win the Fight 5K on Saturday, Oct. 15, to bring the community together in the fight against cancer.
“This is what research is for,” Father Peek said recently as he sat on the terrace at Winship enjoying some juice and the morning sun. “The fact that I’m here is because of the research that happened before I got here.”
Father Peek, a former U.S. Navy rescue swimmer, isn’t looking to break any time records in the Winship Win the Fight 5K. He’s not even going to be able to run it. Truth be told, he will be fortunate to finish the course, walking at a slow pace. The longest he’s walked recently is seven-tenths of a mile. But that was such an encouraging milestone for him that he began to believe he can one day run a marathon.
“I’ve been telling everyone along the line that they’re invited to my first marathon,” he says. “This is the beginning of my comeback.”
For several years, Father Peek, a leukemia survivor and former college athlete, has been sidelined from his life as an athlete and priest. He has wounds over much of his body that prevent him from participating in many of life’s routine pleasures. Running, swimming or cycling, all activities he enjoyed, have been distant memories for four years. His energy level for four years has been so low most days that he could barely walk up a flight of stairs. He can’t wear a priestly collar because of wounds on his neck. He instead wears black t-shirts with a white collar. A friend has sewn a small square of white cloth onto the middle of the collar of each so that he looks more sartorially sacerdotal.
After being diagnosed with leukemia, Father Peek had a bone marrow transplant in 2003 that saved his life. One of his 10 siblings was a match, and the transplant went well—for a time. But then, the new immune system from his sister began to attack his own body and has been fighting it ever since.
“I told my sister after the transplant, ‘Thanks for the donation, but we’re still not getting along,’” he said.
Father Peek isn’t complaining. He’s happy to be alive, he says, and he credits his doctors at Winship for saving his life.
Of the rejection issues, Father Peek said, “I have never asked ‘why me?’ I was raised with the tradition to ask, ‘why not me?’”
That said, he does confess that “it’s a tough walk” to deal with the side effects of the transplant and not to have realized his life’s dreams—yet.
Father Peek, who dreamed of being a pilot (a heart murmur kept him from that dream) or a priest from the time he was in seventh grade, sees changes ahead.
There’s the fact that he can walk nearly a mile. His strength is improving. Best of all, he will begin a new assignment at All Saints Church in Dunwoody on Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day.
Soon after he heard that good news, he happened to see news of the Winship 5K online. And he thought to himself, “Now that’s one thing I can do.”
“I figured this could be a donation of Thanksgiving,” Father Peek said of his efforts to raise money for the race.
Many of the other hundreds of people who have registered for the Winship Win the Fight 5K have stories of courage, faith and hope, too.
“The fact that they want to give back to us when we believe that they already have given us so much is very humbling,” said Walter J. Curran Jr., MD, executive director of Winship Cancer Institute. “Every day our patients teach us courage and hope in ways that we might never have known otherwise. We are happy to have an event to bring us together to celebrate courage and hope.”
The run/walk will begin at 8 a.m. at Emory University’s McDonough Field complex on Asbury Circle on the west side of the Emory campus. Father Peek is scheduled to celebrate Mass there prior to the race at about 6:30 a.m.
Registration is $25 and can be done online. On the day of the race, registration opens at 6:30 a.m., and ample parking is available at no charge in the Peavine parking deck on campus.
The Winship Win the Fight 5K is USA Track and Field-certified, making it a Peachtree Road Race qualifier. This 5K is the only metro area race to be held in historic Druid Hills, one of Atlanta’s most beautiful neighborhoods.