Dave Wilson has run through exhaustion and injury, in intense heat and suffocating humidity. He’s run late into the night — when Wilson began running, a favorite training time was Friday night after his sons’ high school football games. And when a lawn-mower accident nearly cost him his foot in 2011, Wilson started cycling and learned to swim so he could compete in triathlons.
Since his first triathlon in 2013, Wilson has completed several, including Deep Creek’s Savageman with its extreme terrain, dubbed the hardest race on earth by triathlete.com, which Wilson has competed in three times.
“When I would finish one race, my question was always, ‘What’s next?’” Wilson says of his passion for competing. “I wanted a bigger, harder, more enduring challenge.”
Unintentionally, he found it. In September 2016, Wilson was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is, ironically, the inspiration for his midlife love of running. In 2007, Wilson, who lives in Woodbine, joined a team for the inaugural Robert Packard Center Fiesta 5K for ALS Research, a 5K race sponsored by Johns Hopkins University’s Packard Center.
Wilson participated in memory of Tim McGehee, his high school friend from Woodlawn High School. McGehee, a Packard Center patient, had died from ALS. As part of the “Flappy Floundos” team for the Fiesta 5K (the moniker chosen in celebration of McGehee’s love of silly names), Wilson finished his first-ever 5K the way he started it — by walking.
He vowed to run in the next Fiesta 5K and immediately began training. A year later, he made good on his word. His first 5K led to a 10K, then half marathons in 2009 before running his first full marathon in 2010. While recovering from the run-in with his lawn mower, he fed his running fix with cycling, tackling his first century events —100 miles on a bike — in 2012. Once his foot healed, he was back to running, adding triathlons to his competitive repertoire.
Wilson’s most meaningful race remains the Fiesta 5K. On May 5, he’s running in his 12th consecutive Fiesta 5K as one of the event’s best fundraisers — he’s raised thousands of dollars toward the $2.8 million total raised to date — and a Packard Center patient.
So far, ALS has yet to alter Wilson’s zeal. Last October, he achieved a personal first: back-to-back competitions across three weekends. First, he completed the full-distance Iron Man Maryland, then cycled in the Seagull Century from Salisbury to Assateague, before wrapping it up by running the Marine Corps Marathon.
ALS is changing how he runs, though, both physically and mentally. “It’s a little frustrating knowing the progression of my disease,” Wilson says. When he had trouble closing his right hand into a fist for running, he and oldest sister Lynn Wilson fashioned a custom glove with Velcro straps. Though he has had some progress with treatment and physical therapy, he knows that the physical changes are only beginning: “My right arm and left hand are starting to weaken, and since January, I can feel something in my leg.”
“His diagnosis was a shock, but we’re Wilsons and we kick into action,” Lynn Wilson says. “We show up at his doctors’ appointments as a pack. This is a family battle. We all have a specific skill that helps him.” Sister Cat Wilson Levy is a nurse, Dave Wilson’s twin sister, Dawn Wilson, works in medical insurance, and Lynn, a retired business person (and avocational seamstress), offers her expertise. His sisters, one of his three sons and his extended family participate in the Fiesta 5K as members of the “Flappy Floundos and the Ironman” team, renamed last year to celebrate Wilson’s tenacity.
“We’re hoping to slow his progression,” Lynn Wilson says. “The doctors and nurses see it, and we do, too.”
To that end, shortly after his diagnosis, Wilson retired from and then dissolved his family business of rebuilding automotive transmissions. “This freed my days to do more of the things I like and want to do,” he explains.
“Dave’s story is inspiring not only to ALS patients, but to all of the Fiesta 5K runners,” says Suzanne Connelly, Fiesta 5K race director. “At the Packard, we always say that the hope is in the science. Dave is bringing hope to ALS patients with every step he takes, and we are so proud to have him be a part of our event each year.”
It’s a message Wilson wants ALS patients, their families, anyone to take to heart. “I know what my destiny is, and right now, this is a gift of time,” he says.
“I am using mine to its fullest. … I want people to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up.’”
For more information on the 2018 Fiesta 5K for ALS Research on May 5, visit support.alscenter.org.