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Walking toward victories: Cancer survivor Louise Clark plans to keep her 5K streak alive

There are many constants associated with the Shelter Island 5KRun/Walk, celebrating its 23rd year on Oct. 15: Happy crowds of supporters cheering the participants, a community coming together to raise funds and awareness about treating cancers affecting women, are the most notable, but Louise Clark winning the 5K Walk is also as close as it gets to a sure thing.

She has a streak of crossing the finish line as the first walker going back more than a decade. Asked recently how she trains, she answered with a typically self-depreciating laugh. “Train? Walking the dog, I suppose,” she said, adding that Lucille, the energetic yellow lab, keeps her on her toes.

How did she get into race walking? “Impatience,” she said. “I was walking with a friend who always wanted to stop and chat with people, and I was always, saying, ‘Come on, come on.’”

A familiar place for Louise Clark, crossing the finish line first in the 5K race walking event. Here she’s seen accepting a high five from Dr. Frank Adipietro. (Reporter file)

The competition to break the tape first after the 5 kilometers — a little more than 3 miles — through the Island is one thing, but closer to her heart is the purpose of the race, and one she knows all too well.

One morning in 2012, Ms. Clark, who runs her business, Shelter Island Graphics, out of her St. Mary’s Road home, was working on a freelance assignment for the Reporter, designing an advertisement for the 5K Run/Walk.

She remembered the weather as clear and serene that autumn morning. The backyard — which the Dublin native calls the “back garden” — rolling down and away from the house, was lit softly by the sun, and a good crop of apples from trees lining the fence were ripe on the boughs.

She was just putting the final touches on the ad for the 5K event and its support for those with cancer, when she got a phone call.

The irony was as cruel as it was inescapable. She was told she had breast cancer. It would be one of many calls over the next year that she and her husband Keith, now married 26 years, would dread answering for the news they might hear.

“The hardest part is waiting for phone calls,” Keith remembered.

More irony: In 2012, she had placed first in the race walking event at the 5K for the preceding seven years, boasting a personal best of 33 minutes. She was in perfect health, an athlete who could walk the legs off anyone who accompanied her on her long rambles around the Island.

It had all happened quickly. Early that fall, feeling fine, with no lumps and no worries, Ms. Clark had gone for a regularly scheduled mammogram at Southampton Hospital. Something had been discovered, she was soon told. A biopsy was arranged and then the phone call came.

She had a malignant growth in her breast. The shock took an immediate toll. That afternoon Keith’s mother Barbara, known as Buzzy, who Louise was close to, was due for lunch. “I just ran up the stairs, I couldn’t take it,” Louise said. “I couldn’t tell her.”

But shock soon turned to action, she added. “Let’s get down to business,” she told her husband.

His mind was dominated by a question, obvious and insistent: Will she survive? “But then you have a goal,” he said, and with a goal comes a course of action. And hope. “You go from there,” he said.

Louise described her therapy in modest terms. “I had a simple lumpectomy,” she said. “It didn’t spread.” She followed her doctor’s orders to the letter and started a chemotherapy and radiation program. “It wasn’t as bad as I’ve heard,” Ms. Clark said.

Mr. Clark smiled, and said, “It depends on the person.”

What eased the ordeal of the therapy, and more importantly, the feelings of uncertainty and fear, was the support she received. Her parents came from Ireland within a week of hearing the news to stay with them.

And she got letters from a girlhood friend from Dublin she had stayed close to over the years. “Mary Kennedy,” Ms. Clark said. “She’d send long, hand-written letters. She’d been through it.”

Solid support and love was also a bit closer to home. She described how she’d get up in the morning and find gifts at her front door. “Scarves, comforters …,” her voice caught just slightly as it trailed off.

She lost her hair. “That was tough,” she admitted. “It was long and blonde.”

But then another phone call came. After months of arduous therapy, she had come through. “It was on the first day of summer,” Ms. Clark said. “I was told it was all normal.”

“Or as normal as she gets,” Mr. Clark said, and they both laughed.

A city girl, Louise had walked everywhere in Dublin and never stopped when she got to the Island. “There are just so many beautiful places here,” she said.

On Saturday, Oct. 15, the race will celebrate its 23rd year, bringing together Islanders and greeting guests who run, walk and stand and cheer.

It also serves an important purpose for everyone on the East End, raising funds for those suffering from cancers that affect women, and also helping to support their families.

Three organizations benefit from the generosity of sponsors and individuals: The North Fork Breast Health Coalition, Lucia’s Angels and Coalition for Women’s Cancers.

The North Fork Breast Health Coalition works for prevention, early intervention and a cure for breast cancer. It’s an entirely volunteer group that provides grants to people diagnosed with cancer, assisting them to meet multiple needs.

Lucia’s Angels is a beneficiary, formed in honor of Lucia Terzi Bagan, who was helped during her cancer by family and friends. Lucia wanted others to have the support she received. The Angels use money to support women with late-stage breast, uterine, cervical and/or ovarian cancer.

Coalition for Women’s Cancers is a volunteer-driven group that supports women affected by breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, creating a supportive network focused on early detection and improved quality of life.

In addition to money paid by entrants and contributions, there are also raffle tickets sold for gift items, which goes to Lucia’s Angels.

Tickets will be available for a 50/50 Raffle and prizes to East End shops and restaurants with all monies raised benefiting the aforementioned nonprofits.

Ms. Clark spoke specifically about Lucia’s Angels and the support it provides to women and families, with funds for gasoline gift cards, health insurance, transportation to doctors, house cleaning, groceries, dental work, and other expenses.

“It’s the simple things,” she said.

Two heroes. Shown after the 2017 5K Race are Islanders Annmarie Seddio, left, first cancer survivor across the finish line, and Louise Clark. (Reporter file )

Shelter Island Run/Walk Info

• The race starts at 11 a.m. on Oct. 15 and is followed by a barbecue and awards ceremony in the parking lot of Sunset Beach.

• For more information email [email protected]

• To register online to run or walk, go to https://events.elitefeats.com/22shelterfall

• To make a donation or become a sponsor or volunteer, go to shelterislandfall5k.com/