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May 1
2018

The inspired becomes the inspirer

Dave Wilson used to run the annual Robert Packard Center for ALS Research Fiesta 5K to honor a friend. Now, he has another reason: his own diagnosis

Reprinted with permission from Rising to the Challenge: The Campaign for Johns Hopkins

On a sunny Saturday morning in May 2017, Dave Wilson stood before a crowd of about 1,200 people gathered for the Fiesta 5K, an annual fundraiser for the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. He was the event's second-highest individual fundraiser, raising more than $9,500 in honor of his high school friend, Tim McGehee, who died after suffering from ALS. 2017 marked Wilson's 11th consecutive year running in McGehee's honor, but this year, he had another reason. Eight months earlier, Wilson received an ALS diagnosis.

"This is a gift of time. None of us know how long our time is, and I am going to use mine to the fullest," he says of his diagnosis. "People ask me what they can do [to help], and I tell them to live today."

Wilson recalls he crossed the finish line of his first Fiesta 5K the way he started it — by walking. But just participating with "The Flappy Floundos" team — the team's moniker was a nod to a nickname shared by McGehee and another team member — meant the world to him.

"I think of Tim every day and did even prior to my diagnosis," says Wilson, who shared a hobby — drag racing — with McGehee. "I could always count on him. He changed my life. When he passed, I realized just how short life is, and that we need to be happy."

Hear Wilson speak why Fiesta 5K means so much to him

Wilson set his sights on the 2008 Fiesta 5K, but with a new goal: not only to fundraise and participate, but to run. That race led to more 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and, eventually, marathons. Over the years he ran through injuries and late into the night — one of his favorite training times was Friday nights, after work and watching his three sons' football games. Even a lawn mower accident in 2011, which nearly cost him his foot, couldn't stop him. Wilson switched to cycling, and once he recuperated, he learned to swim so he could compete in triathlons.

"When I would finish one race, my question was always, 'What's next?'" he says. "I wanted a bigger, harder, more enduring challenge."

Wilson knows his ALS journey will be a challenge steeper than any he's faced before — but refused to let the diagnosis slow him down. Nine days after the diagnosis, he tackled the Savageman, a 70-mile triathlon in Deep Creek, Md., one of the hardest in the world. Wilson followed the Savageman by competing in the Baltimore and New York City marathons, then a full-distance triathlon in January 2017.

As spring approached, his focus returned to the Fiesta 5K, and his team had a surprise for him. They'd adopted a new moniker — "The Flappy Floundos and the Ironman" in his honor.

"Dave's attitude is so inspiring," says Paula McGehee, Tim's widow and another member of the team, adding that Wilson, who retired from his job building automotive transmissions in July, also recruited about a dozen people to join the now 40-person team. "He cherishes every day."

There are challenges as the disease progresses; Wilson now has difficulty closing his right hand into a fist while running, so he and his sister, Lynn, have created a custom glove out of a cycling glove and Velcro straps to help keep it in place. But he has all intentions of running and competing as long as his body will allow, in part to inspire the people who've always inspired him.

"I found the love of racing in that first 5K, and I've stayed involved because of the friendship that I lost and to help people," Wilson says. "Now I am living it. I want people to look at me and say that 'because of you, I didn't give up.'"