On September 10, a dozen runners living with Parkinson’s disease (PD) completed one of the longest and most grueling relay races in the country, the Blue Ridge Relay. Spanning more than 200 mountainous miles from southwestern Virginia to North Carolina, with up to 17,000-foot elevations and a 36-hour time limit over two days, this was no easy feat. “We wanted to go into it not knowing if we could finish it,” said Bill Bucklew, a longtime Team Fox member and the organizer behind the team. To complete the race, each team member would need to run a total of 18 miles on average (at a pace of less than 10 minutes per mile), split into three legs.
Earlier this year, Bill ran the Marathon Des Sables, known as the toughest foot race on Earth, and realized he couldn't take on extreme races alone. “I started to shift my focus to the power of teamwork,” said Bill. He turned to social media and the PD community he met through Team Fox to find runners. One of the first runners to join was Rhonda Foulds who recruited almost half of the team. In a nod to the structures that allow nerve cells to communicate (a process impacted by PD), Bill named the group Team Synapse.
“When Bill told me his plan of getting an all PD relay team together for the Blue Ridge Relay, I was floored by what a good idea that was for raising awareness of PD and for inspiring other patients to take up exercise,” said Team Synapse member Joe Drake. “PD is a constant uphill battle. It is something we live with every day. So, when it comes to running up relentless steep hills, that’s right up our alley.”
Before the race, Team Synapse had never met in person as a group, but some had met individually; its members come from different locations and professions and vary in age and year of diagnosis. Rhonda has been living with PD since 1999 and Scott Fernandez was diagnosed within the last year. “I’m very proud that our team is representative of the overall diversity of the Parkinson's community,” said Bill.
From pouring rain and pitch-black conditions, to lost shoes and wild dogs along the course, Team Synapse faced several obstacles over the two-day race, on top of their everyday challenges with PD. Their attitude allowed them to persevere and cross the finish line. “Everyone faced some sort of adversity or fear and powered through it. And that was the inspiration for us all,” said Bill.
Many team members, including Rhonda, started running after their Parkinson's diagnosis. Since she was diagnosed, Rhonda has run over 100 marathons and over 200 half marathons, but she hadn’t participated in a team event. “My life has changed since I ran with this team,” said Rhonda. “When I was able to be with these other 11 people, that all shared the same affliction that I have, it was like an eye opener for me. We all know the importance of exercise and so throughout the race we're all pushing each other to continue. I can't even describe how grateful I am that I went through with it.”
Beyond the physical challenge of the race, Team Synapse has set an ambitious fundraising goal of $100,000 to support The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). To date, the team has raised nearly $59,000 and plans to leverage Giving Tuesday to boost donations.
This year, MJFF secured its largest Giving Tuesday match ever and every donation to the Foundation will be doubled, up to $4 million. “Giving Tuesday is a great way to double down on fundraising so that people who donate can feel even better about it,” said Bill. “And it's a good time to reflect on what this team did to raise awareness and support for PD research,” said Bill.
What’s next for Team Synapse? “I want to focus on doing more team events in the future because you can accomplish so much more together,” said Bill.
Team Synapse at the start of the race.
At the end of the race, there were over a dozen people from the local community holding up signs and congratulating Team Synapse on completing the relay within the 36-hour time limit.
Team Synapse meets for the first time as a group the day before the relay.