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Nature's Gym

Call everyday Ironman Keith DiMarino a runner and he’ll be the first to correct you.

“I enjoy working out, but I’m no runner. I’m an intervals guy. I don’t do long distance.”

Or at least that what he always thought. Then a friend challenged him to a race he ultimately couldn’t refuse: the infamous Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) in Arizona.

“Naturally, I objected. It’s an ultramarathon through the Grand Canyon. Seemed crazy. You zigzag down, across the floor and back. I thought, ‘This is the type of thing endurance athletes go for.’”

And Keith wasn’t wrong. The R2R2R is not for the faint of heart. It’s a grueling 48-mile run/trek through 10,000 vertical feet of gain and loss from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim and back again. Takes most people 15 hours to hike one side, with a night of camping in-between to get out of the heat and avoid trekking in the dark. It’s long and it’s tiring and the sun beats down on you the entire time.

“But then I just kept thinking about Lexi…”

Who’s Lexi? Lexi is Keith’s 12-year-old daughter and daily inspiration. Earlier this year she too faced what appeared to be an insurmountable task: overcoming a migraine that lingered for nearly three months. Headaches made her have to miss school, so days and nights were spent in dark rooms trying to stay calm and quiet.

“As a parent, you want to fix everything for your children. You want them to be happy and carefree. This was different, though. We didn’t even know where to start.”

With some research, Keith and his wife found the good doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Specialists there are highly trained to work with childhood migraines and it quickly became apparent that the DiMarinos had found the best medical group to maximize Lexi’s recovery and success. Action plans were put together with a holistic approach: psychology, food & nutrition, and exercise. And yes, even with migraines, Lexi diligently went to the gym.

“My daughter’s a fighter. I watched her go work out multiple times a week. You could see the headache in her eyes when she would exercise, but she did it anyway. Many of us in that situation would buckle and give up, but not Lexi. I thought, ‘This Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is tiny compared to her journey.’ If she could do that, I wanted to show her I could do this.”

So Keith called his buddy and accepted the challenge. Then he upped the ante with a goal of raising $25,000 for pediatric migraine research. Suddenly Keith had a trek to get in shape for – the biggest of his life! – and one he hoped could show his daughter that nothing is impossible.

“In sharp contrast to me, the rest of the guys were real deal Iron Men. I wasn’t going to let Lexi down, though. Or myself. So I trained 5 or 6 days a week for three months. The voices in my head telling kept telling me I couldn’t do it, so I had to stay focused on the goal at hand. Just like Lexi.”

Soon the two-day challenge was upon him. Temperatures on Day 1 reached over 90 degrees and, unknown to the group, the water in most of the canyon was turned off. So for 22 arduous miles Keith actually had a shortage of water.

“You want to take breaks because of how hot is it, but you don’t want to run out of daylight and you’re short on water, so you’re trying to make it out as quickly and safely as possible.”

Conditions were brutal. People dropped like flies after the first day. By morning it was just Keith and three other guys left.

“I woke up thinking, ‘My legs won’t carry me. My feet won’t carry me.’ It took a speech from one of the Iron Men to snap me out of it. He reminded me that your brain and body are programmed to stop you. That when you think you’re done and it feels like you have 0% in the tank, it’s a trick. You actually have 60% left.”

It was enough to get Keith back on the trail. But if Day 1 was about water, Day 2 became about fatigue. Keith had never done anything like this before. The man was mentally and physically exhausted.

“Because I was so tired, my fear of heights kicked in. Once you go over the ridge, there’s no getting out. You’re either helicoptered out or you get carried out. By Mile 46, you’re exhausted. Just throwing your feet forward, pushing poles, breaking it down into little bite-sized pieces.”

But just like Lexi, Keith was determined to make it through.

“The end was amazing. I was getting teared up. I told myself, ‘I can’t believe I just did this.’ I was so grateful to be alive. So grateful to do this in this landscape. It was so peaceful and beautiful out there and I was grateful to be able to do it for my daughter and for a good cause.”

These days Lexi still gets the occasional headache, but they’re manageable and getting better. She’s happy now and loves playing her ukulele and laughing. After five months of her own personal endurance, she’s almost back to her old self.

“As a parent you hope to earn the respect of your children through your positive actions. Lexi flipped it on us, though. Her resilience earned our admiration and taught us to never underestimate the desire to succeed.”

Truth be told, we could learn a lot from them both.

Editor’s Note: Keith and his wife couldn’t say enough good things about the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and wanted to thank all the doctors at CHOP for their care and hard work. “All the credit goes to them,” they say, and invite you to join the fight against chronic childhood migraines by donating here.

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