Health & Fitness

Tens of thousands of people worldwide tried to outrun a car. You know who wins.

Winner Calum Neff of Canada runs during the Wings for Life World Run in Sunrise on May 7, 2017.
Winner Calum Neff of Canada runs during the Wings for Life World Run in Sunrise on May 7, 2017. Wings for Life World Run

More than 2,000 of us inch up to the starting line for what we already know is a losing proposition: to see if we can outrun a car.

And as we start running at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, runners at 24 other venues across the world are doing the same thing at the exact same time.

Confetti shoots into the air at precisely 7 a.m. (which is 1 p.m. in Munich, Vienna and Milan). The 2,240 runners in Sunrise, like those in other parts of the world, get a 30-minute head start on a “catcher car,” which then takes off at 10 mph, eventually speeding up until the fastest (and farthest) runner is caught. They call it “a race with no finish line.”

I call it justice. You see, as years have passed, I have become a back-of-the-pack runner. That means when I hit the finish line, the massage line is already long and the initial supply of icy beverages has been replaced by lukewarm drinks. Worst, all the fruit is gone. (My triathlon goal is now simple: Finish quickly enough to score an orange slice.)

But everyone in the race, called the Wings for Life World Run, has helped with a larger goal. Originated by the makers of Red Bull energy drink in 2014, the run raises money for spinal cord research.

It's a beautiful 65 degrees, with blue skies compromised only by media helicopters. After checking the pace chart, my strategy is to mentally divide the day into three 30-minute 5Ks. That would be 15K in one hour, 30 minutes, and the catcher car would then pass me, deactivating my chip.

I keep my first 5K easy, feeling great and hitting the mark in 29 minutes. I’m buoyed by a familiar face; Alan Miller of Cooper City, known for teaching a course called ChiRunning, sidles up to me after starting farther back in the pack. He reminds me to not overstride and to stand tall.

“But overall, not bad,” he says as he darts ahead. He has run marathons in just over three hours, two hours faster than my best. Within a minute, he is out of sight.

Keeping with the mission of the run, several wheelchair participants (not just the competitive wheelchair racers) mix themselves in. Seeing them makes me want to keep moving. (One theme of the event is “Running for Those Who Can’t.”)

Local publicist Jack Wolfe had introduced me to one such person the day before, Jessika Kattah. It also reminds me that for every paralysis story that makes the news, there are so many more that don’t.

Jessika Kattah competes during the Wings for Life World Run in Sunrise on May 7. Kattah, a 2004 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High, was paralyzed after a tumor was removed and then 12 years later scar tissue became compressed against her spine. PHOTOS BY marv watson

Kattah, 30, and I make small talk before there’s a pause. She sees I’m having trouble phrasing the universal “what-happened-to-you” question, so she just explains.

At age 14, doctors discovered and removed a tumor on her spinal cord the length of a hot dog and the width of a baseball. Twelve years later, it grew back, and scar tissue became compressed against her spine, paralyzing her.

“I went into the second surgery never thinking I’d be in this chair,” says Kattah, of Sunrise, a 2004 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High. “But I refuse to believe that in my lifetime we’re not going to find a cure for spinal cord injury.”

She also hands me a rubber bracelet. One side reads “I believe we will find a cure for spinal cord injury.” The opposite site reads “F--- paralysis” with an extended middle finger.

The next 5K feels like any other race, except buses wait along the route. They’ll scoop up those who are overtaken. I hit the 10K mark in 59:15, 45 seconds ahead of plan.

On the other side of the globe, Barb Volk, manager of an Orange Theory Fitness in Plantation, runs through Milan, Italy, with her husband, Ben. They wanted a good run before going on their cruise.

“We ran on cobblestone roads and past beautiful buildings,” she emails, after covering 21K. “Now we’re ready to enjoy some pizza and wine.”

Figuring I have less than 30 minutes to run, I turn up my speed a notch, but I’m still smooth and steady. Until I hit the 14K mark.

“The car’s coming!” a pace bicyclist yells. My running form evaporates as I lean forward and torque my body with every step. The race is about to end, so we’re leaving it all out on Sunrise Boulevard. Runners nearby later confirm they all have mixed emotions. One is “hurry up, the car is coming!” The other is “thank goodness, the car is coming.”

At 15.59K, my race is over. A charter bus with nice cloth seats loads our sweaty bodies near Sawgrass Mills Mall and drops us at the finishers’ chute, where volunteers provide bagels, a certain energy drink, bananas, and boxes and boxes of oranges.

The worldwide winner from the field of 86,240 was a wheelchair racer, Swede Aron Anderson. He covered 57.25 miles in the Dubai race. Dominika Stelmach of Poland topped the women, running 42.38 miles in Santiago, Chile. Colombian Ana Villegas was the top female in Sunrise ( 27.25 miles).

Winner Ana Villegas, who is from Colombia but now lives in Miami, run during the Wings for Life World Run in Sunrise on May 7, 2017. Marv Watson Wings for Life World Run

The Sunrise overall winner, finally caught on north U.S. 27, turns out to be Canadian ultramarathon runner Calum Neff ( about 41 miles). He ran for four hours, 25 minutes.

I found his photos on the Red Bull photo gallery. No fruit was in sight.