I'm a Runner: Ethan Zohn | Fitbie
 

Running Story: Running and Cancer

I'm a Runner: Ethan Zohn

The Survivor winner and charity founder's team of grassroot soccer runners raised $160,000 for AIDS education in Africa at the 2010 NYC Marathon

ethan zohn
David Yellen

Occupation: Survivor Winner and Charity Founder
Age: 37
Residence: New York City

How long have you been a runner?
I've run at various stages in my life. My father was a runner, so I have vivid memories of being asleep on Saturday mornings and then the running group would come over and be all loud talking outside my window, and then they would take off for the run. Ever since I was a little kid, running has been in my life, and I ran with my father. He helped me with my first race when I was about 9 years old. It was only two miles, but it felt like 100 miles back in the day. I have always kind of been athletic. I ended up kind of going more toward soccer and lacrosse back in grade school and high school rather than straight-up running, but I did run track in high school.

How were you at track?
I wasn't great because I basically just ran to stay in shape for my other sports, so I didn't put a lot of like energy into it. I hit puberty early, so I was 10 times bigger than all of the other kids out there, so it always helped me with my speed and endurance.

What did you run when you ran track?
I ran indoor track so I ran...was it the 220 or the 240? It was just a short sprint twice around the indoor track—that was my race. I also did the 440 relays and the high jump. But I did the 220 or the 240—whatever it was—before the high jump, so I always ended up sucking at the high jump because I was so dead from those. I hated it.

When did you start running to stay in shape?
I really hit my groove after college. I played soccer and lacrosse all through college. I did professional soccer for six years, so once I started playing pro, I really started to look at the way I was working out and the way that I was treating certain things. I did a lot of short-type motions up and down, that type of stuff. So distance running, we didn't focus on it. That was something I had to do on my own. It was important to be able to run more mile-to-mile without being winded, so I started training on my own and I really started to like it and it helped my endurance during workouts and matches. My natural frame and my natural body weight I think is more geared toward running and endurance-type sports because I feel like I am getting good at running, short sprinting-type stuff. I was complementing my training with distance and I loved it. I was away from everyone else for about an hour, and I could think about other things besides soccer. By the end, six or seven miles are gone and I feel good.

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Have you had any great ideas come to you on a run?
Oh god, yes. One of my hobbies is inventing things like stupid household products or things like that. I sit around and I think up this stuff all of the time. One of my jobs while I played soccer was freelance work for a bunch of advertising and branding companies in New York for products that would go out on the market. So I would go out for an hour run and would come back with 50 or 100 names for whatever product I was working on.

What was the best idea you had on a run?
One of my best ones is the EZ Crunch Bowl, which is a product that keeps your cereal crunchy for an awfully long time.

How does it work?
Imagine a swimming pool with a shallow end and a deep end. You have your cereal on the shallow end and your milk on the deep end and, when you want a little crunch, you just tap it over the edge. So, I have ezcrunchbowl.com which you can go check out, but it came to fruition on a run.

That's awesome!
I don't know if it's awesome, but it's interesting. The things that come to you when you have all of that time on your hands...

And you just ran the Disney's Princess Half-Marathon?
Yes, in terms of distance running, I guess you could say once I stopped playing professional soccer and did the Survivor television show, I really started to push my body, soul, mind, and spirit to the edge and I liked it. I got back and I started doing all of these endurance races like the Eco Challenge. I did 24-hour races. They were multisport races, but running is involved in that you have to train and be able to be on your feet for extended periods of time. So I could walk for hours or jog for hours at a time. I started loving it. I had never done a half-marathon or a marathon, but I signed up for the Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa in 2007 and it's a 34.8-mile race. I was like, "Why start with a half-marathon or a marathon?"

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What was your time?
It was 5:54:20. For that length and the race, in terms of elevation, it's one of the hardest races in the world. Starting at mile 26, the last miles are basically all uphill and downhill with giant peaks and valleys, but I went for it! The crazy thing about the race is that it closes in seven hours, so you have these people that have been training forever and are running this race. One of the most watched television minutes on South African TV is the minute before the marathon closes because you have these people that have been running for six hours and 59 minutes, and if they don't make it before the referee closes the tape on the line, you are done. Your name's not even written on the paper, and you don't even get a medal! That's how crazy it is. I felt a little bad, but when we watched the people finish, it's incredible with them sprinting the last minute, some people making it and some people not.

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How did you feel afterward?
I didn't feel great. I was 34 and feeling invincible, so I didn't train properly for it. My longest training run, I think, was 21 miles. I couldn't walk for about a week afterward.

What did you do to celebrate?
We went to a bunch of wineries.

And then you were down for the week?
Exactly. But my real job is that I work for a charity. Well, I cofounded a charity called Grassroot Soccer for HIV/AIDS education in Africa, which is nice because I was running for Grassroot Soccer in South Africa. It was good to be able to run for something personal.

Who ran with you?
It was tough to recruit people for a 35-mile race, but I took two people. One of my roommates came and another guy who was actually on Survivor, Ian Rosenberger.

How much money did you guys raise?
It wasn't a lot. It was hovering around $3,000 bucks. It wasn't an official charity marathon. It was just us racing. But then I started getting attention for the charity, and now Grassroot Soccer actually has a team in the New York City Marathon that started in 2009. Then it was a team of 30, and in 2010, we had 40. In 2011, we're shooting for 50. Last year we raised $160,000 for Grassroot Soccer.

I heard that Jenna from Survivor ran the Disney race with you.
So now I have regressed in my marathon. I started with the 35-mile, and now I am doing a half-marathon. Obviously I am out on the road all of the time, and I wanted to be able to have fun together and bond and support her running. She is my girlfriend, and I have always wanted her to run with me in New York, and she has always said no. The only way she said that she would do it with me is if it was Disney because she loves Disney, so we decided to enter the half-marathon there. So she signed us up, and I started to get all excited and she asked, "What's your favorite Disney princess?" I was like, "I don't know." And she asked, "What size do you think you'd be in women's?" And I didn't know. I found out that she signed me up for the Disney's Princess Half-Marathon, where its 1,300 women and like 400 guys. The women run in tutus and tiaras, but it ends up being an incredible time. The marathon itself benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which is personal because it's something I went through. We finished around two hours and five minutes. She hates running, but for her first half-marathon, she loved it because it's so distracting. You're running with characters, jumping around. You stop for photos, you stop for water. So it ended up being a nice, easy first race.

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How did you motivate each other? Did you train together?
Yes, we trained together pretty much the whole time, and she was motivated because she got to get new clothes to go running...shoes and socks and shorts. That was a big motivation for her, but what motivated us obviously was that it was for a greater cause, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which was wonderful. And then she was nominated for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year, which was exciting. But also, I think for her she liked seeing herself get stronger and better. She couldn't even run a mile without a struggle before—not that she's not fit—but she had never really trained for anything along these lines, so it was nice to sort of look at the schedule and go out there one mile, two miles. Week by week, we started to build and that was exciting for her. It was a great self-motivator.

What did she buy you to wear for the race?
We were pretty traditional. We didn't dress up or anything like that.

No pink tutu?
Everyone was saying, "Oh, you're running the half-marathon? It's all women?" And, I thought about it—1,300 women, there could be worse races to run as a guy! I wasn't super upset.

Would you ever run together again?
Yes. I like running and being able to run with Jenna. I don't think she'll ever do a full marathon, but I think she is definitely excited.

Was the first time you ran the NYC marathon in 2010?
Yes, so there is a back story. I did a big campaign for my charity Grassroot Soccer in 2008, where I dribbled a soccer ball from Boston to Washington, D.C., which is 550 miles. And I was in the middle of the campaign and I ended up tearing my ACL. So I made it 260 miles, and then I was supposed to run the New York City Marathon in 2008, but I couldn't do it. I came back from my ACL surgery and I was feeling great. Then in 2009 I was training for the '09 New York City Marathon because Grassroot Soccer had a team in it and I was the captain. And that's when I found out I had Hodgkin's lymphoma. Even during my whole chemotherapy treatment and all of that stuff at the time, I tried to run as much as I could and be outside. I said that it was the one thing that gave me confidence, even during such a horrible time in my life. The team would come with me to run in Central Park.

Then I had a stem-cell transplant and was in isolation for 21 days in December 2009. So I would be in the hospital, looking out the window, and I knew that the New York City Marathon route went right past. I knew that I would run down that road eventually. It was such a huge motivation for me while I was sick. I had a visualization board, pictures of myself, and shots of people crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon. It was something that I looked at every single day, and it gave me the strength to get out there. It kept me going. The nurses and doctors thought I was crazy because I knew that 30 laps around the hospital was a mile, so I would get out there with my chemo pump and my IV bags and my bald head and I would walk laps and laps and laps while I was in the hospital. So, anyway, that was December 2009 and January 2010. I ran the 2010 New York City Marathon 10 months after my last chemotherapy treatment.

Congratulations! Did it live up to your expectations?
It was more. I just wanted to finish. It wasn't about the time. I had put the training in, and I was healthy and I was just so happy.

That's amazing.
You keep your name on your chest and everyone screams for you and you think you are the most popular person in the world running around and there is a little bit of press around. It's exciting to share your story, and it was just a really exciting day. My whole family was there—my mom and my brothers—and they saw me cross the finish line. It was totally awesome.

What was your time?
I wanted to finish under 4:20, and I finished at 4:16. I couldn't even breathe. I had to hold myself back a little bit because I didn't want to crawl across the finish line. In 2011, I want to break four hours. That's my goal for myself.

Are you training again?
Yes. I ran the Disney's Princess on March 7, and I was supposed to run the New York City half on March 20, but it didn't work out because I got back late. I am not training full-on because it's so far in advance, but I am always running.

How often do you run?
Not every day. I'll start gearing up really training in July, but until then, I do a lot of cross-training. I'll play soccer, I'll lift weights, and I'll do some speedwork. I take a mixed martial arts class with squatting and jumping and plyometrics, and then, once I'm ready, I'll start training. I have to play with it but, at Disney, I met Jeff Galloway. He kind of invented the whole run/walk strategy for marathons. He is a very interesting guy and an interesting model for it. He says to run four minutes and walk 30 seconds, run four minutes, walk 30 seconds for the whole race. He's obviously studied it and a bunch of different runners and says that it's a viable way to run a marathon even for time. So I might play with that a little bit for this next marathon.

Didn't your father do the New York City Marathon, too?
Yes, and that was a big deal for me as well—another reason why the event was so huge. Ever since my dad passed away from colon cancer when I was 14, I wanted to run the New York City Marathon. He did it twice, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When I crossed the finish, I'm sure he was there in spirit somehow, so that was really cool.

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Your family must have been so proud of you.
Yes. It was totally awesome and one of the pictures that I have of my dad is from him running the New York City Marathon. He had passed the person who was taking the picture and he was running backward to look back so it looks like he is in front of everyone running the race since he is running backward. I have memories of that picture in my head for my whole life.

How much work goes into your fund-raising efforts?
I like running for myself, but to be able to run for something greater than yourself is a great feeling. It brings a sense of teamwork and community, camaraderie with the team all working toward a common goal. You are not just trying to cross the finish line but also raising money to help save people's lives at the same time. I really enjoy that. It is a lot of work—not only just the fund-raising part, but with a team that size, it's finding hotel rooms, getting food, signing them up, making sure they are fund-raising on time, sending out newsletters. There's that whole side of the process, but the actual fund-raising is tough because it's tough to raise money and there are so many people doing it. It starts to be very tricky with walk-a-thons, marathons, and bike-a-thons. A lot of people do it, and there are so many great people and so many great charities, but it makes it more worth it for me knowing that every step I take out there is for that. But it's a strategy. You have to write letters and get people to buy whatever you are trying to sell, and I keep going back to the same people year in and year out.

You're also an ambassador for Stand Up to Cancer, right?
I am. Obviously I am in a position where I have been on TV, so it's nice to be able to sort of use my face or fame to help other organizations. I am on this global convoy team. There are like six of us, and I got to go to a big Stand Up to Cancer live broadcast and it was amazing. They raised more than $80 million. I love the fact that there are so many celebrities out there doing good things, especially the New York City Marathon. They always get a handful of well-known people who are running for a cause.

Didn't you recently become a vegetarian?
Well, I am on and off. I eat fish now, but for 14 years after my dad died, I was vegetarian for far too long and the only thing I wanted to eat was Buffalo wings when I got back. Now I am still kind of weaning myself back on. I eat some fish and dairy, but I stay away from red meat and chicken. Sometimes I'll have a little bit of turkey.

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How has that diet impacted your running?
It really hasn't, to tell you the truth.

The Buffalo wings didn't hurt?
They always hurt a little bit, but they are worth it. I have never really focused on my diet in terms of the way to be a better runner or athlete, but I always eat well. I am a healthy eater. I don't drink sodas or do any of that stuff, but when I am seriously running, I definitely do look at my diet. It hasn't hurt me at all, but I think it could help me if I put the time into it.

Do you have a favorite area where you love to run?
Well I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, so whenever I go back home to visit my family, I always go back there and run the streets because that's where I grew up and it's fun.

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What do you like about it?
My favorite time of year to run is September/ October because that's usually when I would go back to school for the preseason of soccer. It's always the smell of the air, the grass. It's a little bit cooler, so I love running that time of year, especially in Lexington. It's getting into fall and you just run and the trees are changing color and it's just such a cute Revolutionary town and it's awesome. This bike path that leads through Lexington all the way into Cambridge is nice to run because there are no cars and it's completely engulfed with trees and it's so quiet and nice.

Do you do anything to pysch yourself up for a great run?
I don't listen to music. I never have while I run. If I have to do a long run, I definitely take care of myself. I'll go to bed early, I'll prepare mentally, but nothing else, really. Usually the start of the run is a little bit slow for me, but once I get going, I get pumped up and kind of get excited about how I feel when I am running. When the going gets tough, there are places that I go and mantras that I recite.

You travel a lot. Have you done any great runs out of town?
Yes, and I'm very fortunate that I am able to travel both for work and for pleasure. I take my GPS watch and my running shoes everywhere I go. That's one way that I get to know a new area. That's how I get to know the town. I'll run through the town and get the lay of the land. I have literally run everywhere that I have ever been. I just went to Bora Bora and I ran there. It's a small island. From end to end, it's maybe a mile, so I ran around the island a couple of times like a track. People think I'm crazy because, in some of the areas, people don't run, but I love running in Bora Bora. We went to the place, the St. Regis Resort. Have you seen the movie Couple's Retreat? Well, that's where they filmed it and, when I was sick, I said that's where we were going to go when I was better. It's ridiculously hot, and it's so nice to go for a jog there.

Do you run on sand?
Yes. There was one path and then I ran on the sand around the island as well. Another run that I did was in Sonoma wine country outside of San Francisco. It was awesome. It was last summer. My sister was getting married, and we went out there for the wedding and I went out for a run. Coming from New York City, the air was so fresh and clean and it was cool. It was one of those runs that felt great.

Any pet peeves while you're running?
In New York City, I get frustrated with the crowds and people that kind of run and stop and run and stop—they will just stop out of nowhere. Or people that take up the entire sidewalk. It's very self-centered New Yorker. I don't have too many pet peeves, but I'm really obsessive-compulsive about my running socks. I would wear a new pair of socks every day of my life because I love them. When I go with my girlfriend, Jenna, and we go to the running store, I am always looking at the socks. And I don't really like them washed and dried. I like them washed and dried halfway and then air-dried. I am obsessed with socks. I am always on the quest to find the perfect pair of socks!

What are your favorite running socks?
My favorite socks right now are Asics Kayanos. They are black and yellow. They are designed specifically for the right and left foot with arch support. They don't slide around when you sweat too much.

What's next?
Grassroot Soccer and the team for the marathon. I wrote and published three children's books. They are for ages 6 to 9 years old, so I am actively getting those out there. They are called Soccer World about a cartoon version of myself who travels the world and learns all about the cultures and traditions and people and landmarks through soccer. I have Soccer World: Mexico, Soccer World: South Africa, and Soccer World: Spain. Spain actually got translated into Spanish, which is exciting.

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