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Running with Bigfoot for Cancer Immunotherapy

July 19, 2018

As a scientist working at a biotech company, Thomas Tan recognizes the power of cancer immunotherapy. He also understands the long and difficult process of drug discovery and development—bringing new, effective treatments to cancer patients—so he’s undertaking a long and difficult journey of his own. On August 10, Thomas will be toeing the start line of the Bigfoot 100K, a 70-mile footrace through the Cascade Mountain Range of Washington State, and raising money for the Cancer Research Institute during this challenge. We spoke with Thomas about his motivation and preparation for the footrace and fundraising.

Tell us more about the Bigfoot 100K and how you’re preparing for it.

Bigfoot 100K is a 70-mile footrace that begins at Marble Mountain Sno-Park at Mount St. Helen’s National Monument in Washington. The course maneuvers through varied and extreme terrains surrounding Mount St. Helens (the infamous volcano that erupted in 1980) and into the Mount Margaret Backcountry before returning to Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Bigfoot 100K, which is an annual event held in August, has the reputation as being one of the toughest ultramarathons in the country. Runners need to be fairly self-sufficient as they traverse through some of the most remote single-track trails along mountaintop ridgelines, crossing streams and rivers, while climbing a total of 14,144 feet to get to the finish line. Runners also have to be prepared for the scorching summer heat on this relatively exposed course. For safety reasons, there are five checkpoints/aid stations along the course which runners must reach within a ‘cut-off’ time or they will be disqualified.

Thomas Tan, CRI fundraiser, on a training hike

I’m not sure why the event is named Bigfoot. Perhaps because Bigfoot sightings have been known to happen in these areas. I’m less concerned with Bigfoot sightings than real wild animal encounters. My biggest worry is how to best pace myself without going out too fast too early in the race, while making sure that I reach each checkpoint before the strictly enforced ‘cut-off’ time. My only goal is just to finish the race within the total allocated time of 25 hours.

I pretty much work 12 hours or more a day, so finding time to train for Bigfoot has proven to be a challenge for me. I therefore run on weekends. For me, the time I spend on my feet, which typically range from 4 to 12 hours, is more critical than the actual distance I run/walk. However, based on the elevation profile of the Bigfoot 100K course, which looks like an electrocardiogram (see below), I know I should be training on mountains and hills as much as possible. Alas, we are in sea-level land here in Massachusetts. So, on weekdays, I spend an hour or so at a local gym on weight exercises to strengthen my core and quads. Finally, I have planned to complete a couple of 50-mile ultramarathons to build my confidence. I recently completed a 50-mile run in Maine in May, and I have signed up for one more 50-mile race at the end of July. Then, it’s two weeks of recovery and minimal running (aka ‘tapering’ time in runner’s jargon) before Bigfoot.

Bigfoot 100K Course Elevation Profile

What is your connection to cancer and why do you believe that fundraising for the Cancer Research Institute is so important?

I am a cancer researcher in a biotech company. I manage a group of very talented scientists in immunology research who are dedicated to discovering and developing novel medicines for treatment of cancer. So, I appreciate that it takes a long time to discover and develop new therapies. It’s such a long and unpredictable process, but we know there are other ways to help and contribute, not only in terms of impacting patient lives, but also research and funding priorities. I think the Cancer Research Institute is doing an incredible job in raising awareness and engaging the public in these aspects, while inspiring the next generation of scientists and healthcare providers to tackle unmet medical needs.

As a scientist, what do you hope to see in the cancer immunotherapy field in the future?

I hope we will soon fully understand at the mechanistic level why many cancer patients still do not achieve complete or durable response to cancer immunotherapy. Only then will we be able to develop more effective and personalized treatments, hopefully with reduced immune-related side-effects and financial toxicity which are known to be associated with cancer immunotherapy.
 
What feedback have you gotten about training for such a tough ultramarathon?

The most common feedback I have received is that I should train on hilly terrains and practice consuming sufficient calories while running. You burn roughly 100 calories per mile while running. I will need to take in at least 7,000 calories plus the 2,500 daily recommended calories. Others emphasize staying well hydrated and replenishing my electrolytes lost during sweating. So, I’ve been practicing taking electrolyte replacement capsules during my long training runs.
   
What words of advice do you have for people planning their own fundraisers, especially those who are planning to participate in an intense sport or endurance event?

Choosing to participate in an extreme sport or endurance event as part of your fundraising shows you are willing to work hard to get to the finish line, even though there are no guarantees. Anything can happen in such events. You could get cramps; you could get injured. There’s no way to predict the outcome but you will give it your all to cross that finish line. This commitment serves as a powerful message to your donors.

Fundraising is not easy. It can be uncomfortable, especially for an introvert like myself. You have to develop a thick skin when asking strangers, or even friends, for donations. I’d remind myself that I’m doing it for a cause I deeply care about, not for my own personal gain. It keeps me motivated and focused on the big picture.

You can donate to Thomas Tan's fundraiser "Let's Finish Strong" on our website.

*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.

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