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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Cancer Patient Makes It Through Peaks and Valleys

July 23, 1999|PETE THOMAS

The news was devastating, and those who have ever been told they have cancer can relate.

Louise Cooper- Lovelace, a second-grade teacher at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, was informed by her doctor a little more than a year ago that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer--the recurring kind.

"It's scary when someone breaks the news, because it makes you feel so vulnerable," she says. "But looking back, I really feel that my lifestyle equipped me to deal with this in a positive way. I looked at it as merely another hurdle, another obstacle."

The biggest obstacle ever in her path.

Cooper-Lovelace, 45, is used to them. Being a grade-school teacher, most are 4 feet tall and have runny noses.

But being a veteran triathlete and adventure racer, many of the obstacles come in the form of towering peaks, raging rivers and severe muscle cramps that are part of such grueling endurance races as the ECO-Challenge and Raid Gauloises, multiday marathons held annually in exotic locations.

Cooper-Lovelace has a second-place finish in the Raid Gauloises and several top 10s in other adventure races.

"It's a hell of a way to see the world," she says, adding that she was training for last year's Raid Gauloises in Ecuador when she had the world pulled from under her feet.

Cooper-Lovelace, a West Hills resident, was found to be Her-2 positive, meaning her cancer cells would keep regenerating.

She started undergoing chemotherapy and only recently was given a reprieve from that, and hope for the future in the form of a newly approved "smart drug" called Herceptin, a man-made antibody that attacks a protein produced by the Her-2 gene associated with this form of cancer.

The drug has shown promise, giving Cooper-Lovelace a new lease on life. New cancer cells have not been detected in months. "And it's going to prevent the cancer from coming back," she confidently says.

For the time being anyway, it's enabling her to mount a personal comeback of pretty remarkable proportions.

She had her last radiation treatment in February and immediately began training for the Catalina Marathon in March, because, as she said, "I needed something to focus on."

She didn't win the 26.2-mile run over the island's rugged terrain, but she finished, which was all she wanted to do.

"It was a real bitch," she recalls, "all hills and mud."

She then stepped things up a bit. She entered last week's Hi-Tec Badwater ultra marathon from the floor of Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth at 282 feet below sea level, to the trail head leading to Mt. Whitney, at 8,360 feet.

"My friend, Lisa Smith, contacted me about this race and said it'd be really cool for us to do it together and try to raise money for charities," Cooper-Lovelace recalls.

The two sent letters to family and friends, asking for pledges for donations to UCLA's Revlon Breast Center and the Christopher Reeve Foundation for spinal injuries.

The response was incredible.

So was her finish in the 135-mile race: 13th overall among 43 runners from around the world, and second among women in 40 hours 14 minutes. The overall winner was Eric Clifton of New Mexico in 27 hours 49 minutes.

"That way exceeded my expectations," Cooper-Lovelace says of her place in the lineup. "My crew and I weren't really racing; we just wanted to finish."

Smith fell short of the finish line by seven miles after having an allergic reaction to the muscle-relaxing body cream she was using.

"She got up the next morning, though, and finished just for the sake of finishing," Cooper-Lovelace boasts of her friend. "That was pretty cool."

Unlike the race itself. It began the morning of July 15 with a thermometer reading of 124 degrees, and it took total concentration just to stay focused on the white line running down the middle of the highway she was following.

Cooper-Lovelace had prepared for the heat by driving around the San Fernando Valley with her windows rolled up and the heater on, and by jogging under the broiling sun in full sweats. Her adventure racing experience, she figures, helped with the sleep-deprivation aspect of the Death Valley race.

At one point, a crew member driving alongside her in a car, insisted she stop and rest for 10 minutes atop a small hill. She reluctantly agreed, and discovered that the crew member had fallen asleep.

"I said, 'Forget that, I'm outta here,' " she recalls.

And on she went, running eight minutes and walking two, taking nourishment from another of her support crew, who caught up with her in his car.

"Everyone did everything to deter me from entering this race," she now says, having long since cooled off. "They kept saying how boring it was looking down at that long, white line of the highway.

"But I didn't think it was boring because there's such beauty in the desert. However, at times I'd look around and see that the only living things were us."

A hell of a way to see the world indeed.

FISHING

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