In 20 years of long-distance running, one of Karen Winholt’s most lucid memories is running her third San Francisco Marathon in 2007.
“I just remember I had the biggest smile across my face running across the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said.
Despite her love of the race, Winholt, a 56-year-old resident of Antelope, did not return to the San Francisco Marathon until this year, running the event on Sunday with the Parkinson’s Foundation Champions. It was her fourth San Francisco Marathon, but her first since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013.
“Nobody tells me I can’t do something,” said Winholt, who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease at the age of 49. “When somebody tells me, ‘You can’t do this,’ it’s like, ‘Well, I’m gonna try and you can’t tell me I’m not going to try.’”
Though Sunday’s was one of her more difficult marathons, Winholt said, she completed the course in a little over six and a half hours with the help of her longtime friend Joy Toyias. She ran for a good cause, surpassing her $1,500 fundraising toal to raise $1,820 for the Parkinson’s Foundation in the weeks leading up to the marathon.
In total, the Parkinson’s Foundation team raised over $7,300.
“Karen is a great example of someone who was diagnosed and said, ‘I’m going to keep living my life the same way I did before my diagnosis,’” said Francesca Villa, a national manager at the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Villa also explained that Winholt’s situation is unique in that she was one of a select few members of the Champions actually diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“Going out there having Parkinson’s and exercising at the same time is the message that we want to spread, which is there is a way to take back control from this disease,” Villa said.
In 2013, two weeks after undergoing a complete hysterectomy to combat uterine cancer, Winholt started running again, even though her doctor had instructed her to wait six months. As she jogged along dirt trails in the hills of Auburn, she felt weakness in her legs but assumed it was due to her recent surgery.
Soon after, at the behest of her physician, she began to take medication for Parkinson’s to see if it would improve her condition. It did, and Winholt, who saw Parkinson’s as an “old person’s disease,” requested a brain scan and a referral to a Parkinson’s specialist.
“I kind of demanded it,” she said. “I said, ‘If I need to believe this, you need to show me proof.’”
The scan revealed that she had Young Onset Parkinson’s, but this discovery only made her more motivated to run. Besides the physical benefits that exercise has for Parkinson’s patients — studies have shown that 2.5 hours of exercise per week can significantly improve patients’ quality of living – Winholt said that running is one of the activities that helps her get through the “dark days.”
“I could be in a certain mood or be kind of stressed about something and just go out running,” Winholt said. “Even if I don’t have somebody else to talk to, I can control and think about things and then I have a whole different mindset when I come back.”
It was through running that she and Toyias became friends. The two women met at Oak Hill Elementary in Antelope – where Winholt has worked as a library tech for 23 years – and ran their first race together in October 2005 at the Lake Natoma Four Bridges Half Marathon.
At the race, Toyias said she caught the marathon bug, and the two have run together ever since, often crossing the finish line holding hands.
“It fills my heart,” Winholt said of her friendship with Toyias. “I’m so excited. I know how she feels when she finishes and I know how hard it is to train for these things. She always keeps telling me that I inspire her but she inspires me.”
In December, Winholt plans to compete in her 20th consecutive California International Marathon — the first marathon she ever ran — in Sacramento.
“I have changed the minds of a lot of people,” Winholt said. “A lot of the people that were naysayers that didn’t think I could do it are runners now and understand.”