Five Miles With the Strongest Woman I Know

by Deb Valois

I met Kathy at a Nark Running Strategies (NRS) group run a couple of years ago. The details of the run are not memorable. But the joyful smile and constant engaging chatter from this woman is what sticks in my mind. Since then, I have run on many occasions with Kathy, including a challenging, very fast half marathon effort during the pandemic. Kathy was still recovering from recent surgery, and I was “racing” a half marathon for the first time. Miles 9 to 13 were the only miles I have run with Kathy where there was not plenty of talking.  And you know there is hard work happening when Kathy isn’t chatting! It was a PR day, and a day I learned that I could push myself hard with the help of good company.

Fast forward to the Miles on the Mohawk five-mile run this weekend. That run had a very different purpose. Although the run was still to celebrate the ability to do hard things, and it involved friendships and family, smiles, and chatter, this time it was to recognize strength when strength seemed impossible.

Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer this year.  She received chemotherapy (which she says has been very effective) in preparation for the remainder of her treatment regimen, which included radiation and surgery.  Despite that, she continued to run with friends when she felt well enough and ran some days when she didn’t. The five-mile Miles on the Mohawk was a celebration of Kathy’s completion of chemotherapy, which ended just four days before the race.   And it wasn’t just Kathy celebrating.  Her family (in the traditional sense and the running community sense) came together to recognize the strength of this amazing woman who inspires us all. 

I intended to “interview” Kathy throughout the run, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise! Seriously, between the crew surrounding her, the fans cheering from the course, runners we leapfrogged with along the way, and Kathy’s signature chatter, there was no room for a discussion! We ran, walked, stopped for pictures at every mile, encouraged others on the course, and thanked others for motivating us.   So here is a compilation of Kathy’s thoughts on running and illness gathered over many conversations post-race.

When and why did you start running?

I’ve run 5Ks on and off most of my life; living in the Capital District, the Freihofer’s Run for Women sucks you in.  I decided to become a distance runner in 2015 after watching my niece get engaged at the Ragnar Cape Cod finish line.  I wanted to be a part of all the excitement running brings to life. 

What does running do for you?

Running makes me happy.  Running, first and foremost, means happiness and friendships.  Rarely will you see me running without a smile on my face or encouragement for others.  Running also means fun, sunrises, being with my BRB Tiffany, endurance, peacefulness, health, challenge, and longevity.  It means I can eat more! Running has brought the best people into my life. It makes me feel close to my Dad, who died five years ago after a courageous battle with cancer. Whenever a run gets tough, I think of his fight and carry on. I dedicate every sunrise run to him.

Describe your running community.

My closest running buddies are Tiffany and Duke/Sunil. Sooooo many fun miles with them!  And all the Nark runners. I am forever grateful to the NRS team.  Not only for making me the best runner I can be but for their outpouring of love, support, and encouragement. My Nark running buddies were some of the first people I told about my diagnosis. Who knows you better than those who run 18 miles with you?

Tell me about your recent health issues and how it has changed your perspective?

I never thought I would get diagnosed with triple-positive invasive ductal and lobular carcinoma (breast cancer). Except for my Dad, my relatives die of heart disease and stupidity, not cancer! I feel like I've done everything right: managed my weight, ate healthily, exercised, never smoked or drank excessively, and breastfed my daughter longer than six months.  So why me? My oncologist says it’s just dumb luck, and I believe her.

Most people would have stopped running during cancer treatment. Explain why (and how) you kept lacing up?

When I first was diagnosed, I was VERY angry and embarrassed.  I didn't tell many people. I didn't want to burden friends or family, and I definitely didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I decided that I would run through chemo, even if some days I'd only be moving forward. 

Running made me happy.  Sunrise runs invigorated me. I always arrived home with a smile on my face, no matter how I felt when the run began.

Going through chemo is very similar to marathon training: every treatment/week gets progressively harder, but you get through it knowing there's a great party at the end.  

After my diagnosis, one of the first disappointments was that I could no longer train for or run a Spring marathon. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to identifying the next race and official training cycle once I’m back on solid ground. 

Talk about your fitness goals on the horizon.

My obsession with pace and qualifying for Boston this year went out the window. Now my goal is to run Chicago in October and finish.  I'll qualify for Boston next year, or not at all, and run with a charity bib. And if I’m not able to run Chicago this year, there's always 2022.   

What are you going to do with your hair when it comes back?

I like my bald head! I don’t think I will ever have long hair again.

After we crossed the finish line of the Miles on the Mohawk five-miler, we hugged, took pictures, and came back to the team tent for some post-race refreshments.  Kathy was overheard saying, “I just ran a 5-mile race four days after finishing chemo… I am pretty damn strong!”

Kathy Viggiano, you are the strongest woman I know! The power of your smile and your strength moves people! Thank you for sharing your challenges, your strength, and your words. You may never know how many people you inspire and how many find the strength to keep moving just by watching you.

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