BOWLING GREEN, Ohio (AP) — For Joe Boyle, training for his first marathon isn't just a challenge of endurance and strength.
It's a test of heart and will and hope, and by those measures he's already crossed the finish line.
The 39-year-old Bowling Green man learned he had kidney cancer in 2011, roughly a year after he found a passion for running.
The diagnosis and ensuing treatments stalled his marathon plans, but now he's seizing his last chance to pound out 26.2 miles before starting an intensive, experimental immunotherapy regimen.
On Sunday, Boyle, his Cleveland Clinic oncologist, and some friends will run three loops of a nearly 9-mile course they've mapped out along Bowling Green's sidewalks and through the Bowling Green State University campus. The run will cap several years of on-and-off training and cross off a goal that a doctor once told him would be impossible to accomplish.
"When they say 'You have cancer' or when they say 'You're never going to run again'... it's a horrible, horrible place, and you're kind of grasping in the darkness for anything," Boyle said.
The marathon became something to strive for as he fought cancer. Running brings him hope, he said, and his quest has inspired those who know him.
"It might not be an option for him to do it again," said Elizabeth Gorski, a friend who will run the marathon with him. "It's something that he really wants to do, so we are going to do it."
He wants those miles to send a message to his children — Ellie, 11, Joey, 8, and Mark, 5 — and the students he teaches at Rogers High School in Toledo.
"We're all dying in one way or another. We don't know when ... we are going to check out, so the important thing is just to do what you love and be with the people that you love," he said.
He started running in 2010 after a visit to Africa awakened his interest in physical fitness. Out-of-shape and overweight, Boyle joined a BGSU-associated group on an educational trip. The itinerary included a hike up a mountain in Tunisia, and upon reaching the top he said he had an epiphany.
"I just climbed this mountain," he thought. "If I can do this, what else can I do?"
He started running within weeks of returning home. He jogged at first — "huffing and puffing around the block."
But he finished a 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) race, later extending it to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).
"Running just became this incredible, empowering thing for me," he said. "It was tranquil, it was quiet, it was fun, it made me feel good, and it became a huge part of who I am."
Boyle planned to run a marathon in 2011, and that March he finished a half-marathon. After the race he became sick, developing stomach pains that prompted a visit to the emergency room at Wood County Hospital. That's when doctors discovered a tumor in his right kidney growing into his circulatory system.
A whirlwind of emotions accompanied a flurry of medical action.
After a major surgery at Cleveland Clinic, he developed a blood clot in his left leg which caused his leg to swell to double its size. He was treated for the clot, but a doctor told him running wasn't possible.
The news was devastating, threatening to take away the thing that made him feel "really alive." He used a walker to get around, and he slowly built up his strength despite the leg pain.
In time, he started to run, though his pace was much slower. By September, 2011, he finished another 5-kilometer race and worked to build up his miles.
Summer, 2012, brought another setback. His kidney cancer had traveled to his lungs, prompting more intensive treatments.
Through it all, he ran when he could, finding solace in those strides.
Every four months he undergoes scans to check the disease's progression. In November, his Cleveland Clinic medical oncologist Dr. Brian Rini told Boyle that the tumors in his lungs were still growing — albeit slowly — and he would soon have to start treatment.
He'll begin an immunotherapy regimen in mid-February, and the side-effects — fatigue, joint pain, inflammation — will make running difficult.
If he wants to do a marathon, he needs to do it now.
Boyle and his friends embraced the challenge. He increased his training and at least three of his friends volunteered to run alongside him. Rini, a veteran of four marathons who often chats with his patient about their mutual love of running, agreed to join the unconventional run too.
"It's not even a physical thing, it's more mentally to try to cross it off the list," Rini said. "He's like me, once you decide to do something ... you are going to accomplish (it)."
That determination is inspirational.
"He's amazing," Rini said.
The runners will start and end the marathon at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where Boyle and Gorski started a youth group. Boyle expects other friends and a couple students he's taught to run with him for parts of the marathon.
The group is readying for frigid February temperatures, and Boyle may have to walk some sections. But he's intent on finishing.
Gorski admires her friend's resiliency, energy, and sense of humor and is confident he'll reach the finish line.
"He's always looking on the positive side," she said. "I've not seen a bad day from Joe Boyle."
He doesn't know exactly what will happen after the marathon. He said the treatment he's about to start has caused tumors to shrink and even disappear in some patients, and he plans to continue teaching social studies.
For the moment, he's focused on the marathon and bolstered by the love shown from the community, school, friends, his children, and his wife, Katie.
"When you realize you can do these things, that's living," he said