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Doctor completes his 42nd Grandma's Marathon thanks to a life-saving donation

Despite a devastating diagnosis 15 years ago, Dr. Jim Kirkham kept running his favorite race. In 2020, it took the generosity of stranger to keep his streak alive.

MINNEAPOLIS — After a year of virtual races, thousands of runners made the trek to Duluth on Saturday for the return of Grandma's Marathon, but one of the participants had an even more impressive comeback than the race itself.

Dr. Jim Kirkham finished the marathon despite spending 2020 fighting leukemia and undergoing a bone marrow transplant at the age of 69.

"I looked it up on Google, and I saw that there was a 40 year old that ran in under a year, but there aren't a lot of us (transplant recipients) that pull off a marathon in under a year," Kirkham said.

There may have been no one better suited to take on the challenge, especially at Grandma's Marathon. Kirkham has been running the Duluth event ever since the second annual race in 1978, and he has missed only one race since. 

He now has 42 finishes under his belt, which earned him a 1,000 mile Grandma's Belt Buckle along the way.

"I do wear this to work, and it looks a little odd," Kirkham said with a laugh. "It gets some stares because it's so big." 

Dr. Kirkham says training for the 2021 marathon wasn't easy, due to the pandemic and 23 days of recovery and chemotherapy following his bone marrow transplant.

Then again, none of his previous marathons were easy, and 2021 wasn't the first year in which he was running as both a doctor and a patient.

"I graphed out my times over the years," he said, pointing to a large chart on his kitchen table. "In 2006 I got really sick and you can see what happened, I had to add another piece of paper at the top, to show how slow I went."

His uphill battle began following a devastating diagnosis of aplastic anemia and myelodysplastic syndrome.

"One person mentioned I maybe had three weeks, at the time, to live," he said.

But Dr. Kirkham didn't want that to slow him down, so he kept running.

"This is a picture of me coming in (to the finish line) in 2006," he said, pointing to a scrapbook of marathon memories. "When I first got sick they told me, don't run a marathon and so I had to secretly do it." 

Kent Erdahl: "You're a doctor disobeying doctor's orders?" 

Dr. Kirkham: "Yeah, I guess I was. At no point did I ever think I was going to die. Though, I knew I'd have to go through a lot of bumps."

But he says, he knows he would have never made it this far, without a lot of help. He is thankful for the prayers and support of his friends and family, the care he received from his doctors at M Health Fairview, and the life-changing decision to donate bone marrow made by a complete stranger.

"I don't know who it is," Dr. Kirkham said. "Somewhere in the United States, somebody 23 years old went under general anesthesia and gave bone marrow through Be the Match. That bone marrow was a perfect match for me."

Dr. Kirkham says he feels extremely lucky that he has suffered zero complications from the transplant. Although the intense chemo therapy still took a toll, he says his marathon training and his scrapbook helped him persevere.

"I was in the hospital for 23 days and opened a marathon each day," he said. "I'd go through the pictures and think of how hard I worked to do that marathon and I could sure make it through this day."

Kent Erdahl: "Did it feel like a marathon those days?" 

Dr. Kirkham: "Yeah, it was a very similar feeling. At the end of a marathon, you're almost running like a robot. You have no energy left in your muscles and you want to quit. That training and suffering ends up being very helpful when you do have to suffer and you didn't sign up for it and pay the fee for the marathon and you're not going to get a medal. You're going to get your life."

As long as he's living, the medals will keep coming anyway. When Kirkham finished his 42nd Grandma's Marathon on Saturday, his wife Shelly was running at his side and his daughters and doctor were there cheering him on.

"I couldn't wish for more than what I've got, which is normal blood right now, and legs that are working. I'm feeling great," he said. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

By sharing his story, Dr. Kirkham says he hopes others will be inspired to become a bone marrow donor. Go to BeTheMatch.org for information on how to sign up.

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