When Marie Lisette Flores sets a goal for herself, she sees it through to the end. And then she moves to the next challenge.
Take her decision in 2005 to join a 75-mile bike ride from Miami to Key Largo to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She wasn’t particularly athletic, but she trained for three days and set off.
Fast-forward to 2009 when a friend told her about a triathlon to raise money for cancer. Flores had never participated in a triathlon before but signed up immediately, thinking about her daughter, a thyroid cancer survivor. She fell in love with the race and signed up for four more that year.
Then there was the time in 2010 when she joined a three-day, 375-mile group bike ride around Puerto Rico with her husband. And earlier this month, she ran what’s called Goofy’s Challenge at Walt Disney World: a full marathon and a half marathon in a single weekend.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, so today I do all of this because I can,” said Flores, 47. “I feel a positive energy when I exercise, so I want to keep doing it.”
And that’s why she signed up to run 26.2 miles in today’s ING Miami Marathon, joining some 25,000 runners. It will be her fourth marathon.
What makes these accomplishments even more exceptional is that Flores has multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease in early 1999. Among her first symptoms: the left side of her body went numb for several days and, later, her right arm suddenly became so weak she could no longer raise it.
For a year after her diagnosis, Flores took vitamins and changed her diet, eliminating red meats and fast-food. Her doctor told her to eat well, exercise and shy away from the sun, because too much heat can trigger or worsen attacks. And so Flores would go on occasional walks in her Kendall neighborhood after the sun went down.
A year passed without another episode. Flores convinced herself that she was fine, that she didn’t have MS and that she could eat whatever she wanted.
So Flores, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the Dominican Republic, went back to a diet of Big Macs, fries and chuletas, or pork chops. In August 2001, while on a Caribbean cruise for her daughter Kristell’s 15th birthday, Flores basked under the sunlight.
“I exposed myself to the sun. It was a beautiful week,” she said. “But I felt the heat.”
Days after returning to Miami, Flores’ right arm went completely dead. It was her third episode, and the first time she needed hospitalization.
Finally, Flores accepted the reality: she had MS and needed to take better care of herself.
In the next few years, Flores would take part in a blind study for a new medicine, natalizumab (known by its brand name Tysabri). Once a month, Flores got a monthly infusion of what she now knows was a placebo, and not the drug.
Meanwhile, the MS episodes grew increasingly severe. After her last hospitalization in 2005, she could barely walk without a cane.
By that time, the study was over and the drug was available on the market. Flores, like others who participated in the study, received a year’s supply for free. She hasn’t had another episode since.
“She just took off and never looked back,” said Dr. William Sheremata, her longtime neurologist. “She was only able to walk a short distance before, and now she’s become this super athlete.”
Shortly after her last hospitalization in 2005, a woman Flores had met in the study told her about a two-day bike ride from Miami to Key Largo and back to raise money for MS research.
“I’m in,” she remembers saying.
Her parents, who live in Miami, worried about the possibility of an MS episode triggered by the sun exposure. So they followed Flores and her husband close behind in a car all the way to Key Largo.
Sheremata said he cautions his ambitious patient not to overdo the exercise. Still, he recognizes that Flores’ overall fitness works in her favor.
“She is thin, she cools off efficiently and she is able to pace herself,” said Sheremata, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “What’s important is that she avoids getting overheated.”
Flores, who speaks lovingly of Sheremata, said she tries to get his blessing before each race.
She speaks proudly about having completed the Miami-Key Largo bike ride every year since except 2008, when her daughter graduated from college the same weekend. The bike ride filled her with so much positive energy that when a friend later suggested a triathlon, she signed up immediately.
Her love of triathlons led to half marathons, which led to a half ironman. At some point, she became convinced she needed to complete a full ironman race, so she began training for a full marathon. She prepared for the Disney and ING events with the TeamFootWorks training program in Coconut Grove.
“What’s great about Lisette is that she’s not just doing this to finish, but she’s competitive, and keeps trying to beat her own personal record,” said Josh Liebman, the group’s program director. “I think doing this keeps her healthy, both physically and mentally.”
Friends and acquaintances often ask Flores if they can send others who have been newly diagnosed with MS her way, for advice and counseling.
“She is an example of the fact that you can still have a life after diagnosis,” said her husband, Jorge Luis. “She inspires a lot of people in different ways, including me.”
As for her next major goal, Flores plans to complete a full ironman next year.
“There’s this image of people with MS having to be in bed or in a wheelchair,” Flores said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen to me. But I won’t stop doing what I’m doing until my body gives up on me.”