Coronado’s Marathon Man Bill Haffey Races to Save Lives

Coronado's Marathon Man Bill Haffey, the man with two birthdays, is intent on fulfilling his "Cool Impossible" mission as he races to save lives.

When people tell Bill Haffey, seen here in his garage gym with all the race medals he’s earned, “I don’t think I could ever run a marathon,” his response is always, “Yes, you can! You just need to shift your focus.” A retired psychologist, Bill now spends his time raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and trains fellow runners the Pose Method of Running. (Courtesy of Bill Haffey)

Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll verify that I always say I have the best job ever. Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to review movies, food, and books? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to attend and then report on cool events in Coronado? Yes, all those perks are wonderful, but the reason I love working as a staff writer for The Coronado Times is that I’ve gotten to interview some of the Crown City’s most remarkable residents, people who share their stories with me so that I may, in turn, share their stories with all of you.

Leukemia & Lymphoma SocietyWhen I recently sat down one-on-one to interview Coronado resident Bill Haffey, I could not have anticipated how profoundly he would end up inspiring me. Without hyperbole, Bill may very well be the most optimistic person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and his attitude is contagious. As Bill, who’s called Coronado home since 1989, prepares to run his 67th marathon this Sunday, his goal is so much bigger than the finish line; Bill is running to raise $66,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). With his website, entitled mycoolimpossible.com, Bill is well underway with almost $10,000 raised so far!

Background: A Second Lease on Life

Bill, born and raised in Brooklyn and then Long Island, New York, was a lifelong athlete, but never considered running to be a sport for the sane. It wasn’t until he “had one foot in the grave” that Bill, who had never even run a mile, entertained the idea of training for his first marathon.

It was on a vacation in 1993 when Bill, along with his wife, Elli, and their two children, Melinda and Chris, was celebrating his 46th birthday at one of his favorite restaurants in New York that his life’s track was forever altered. Unbeknownst to Bill, as he ate his seafood dinner, he ingested a pathogen that went well beyond the worst case of food poisoning. After dinner, as Bill began vomiting repeatedly in a violent fashion, he felt an intense pain, and assumed he must have torn a muscle. Not leaving anything to chance, Bill went to the hospital, a decision that ultimately saved his life.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a “muscle pull” he experienced but rather the tearing of his esophagus at its junction with the stomach. In layman’s terms, partially digested food and gastric acids flooded Bill’s chest and abdomen. “I was told if I had waited five more minutes to go to the hospital, I would have died,” he recalls. According to Bill, the complication he experienced has a 97% mortality rate. (Basically, if you look up “lucky” in the dictionary, Bill’s smiling face ought to be pictured next to it.)

Bill Haffey
In 1989 Bill flew to California for two job interviews. As he flew to San Diego for the first interview, he looked at a magazine advertisement for Coronado, and decided, “That’s where I want to live.” After his first interview was over, Bill came over to the Crown City, and fell so in love with it that he canceled his second interview, which was to be held in Sacramento. (Courtesy of Bill Haffey)

Bill had emergency surgery right away, and days later experienced complete cardiopulmonary arrest. As he fought for his life, Bill had to undergo yet another surgery, and then spent the next 60 days in the ICU, where doctors still weren’t sure if he was going to survive. When he was finally released from the hospital and was able to fly home, Bill had to remain on a 24-hour feeding tube for the next few months. Even still, he wasn’t out of the woods, and ended up having to endure two more surgeries. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve of 1994, about a year and eight months after that fateful birthday meal, that Bill was released from the hospital, yet again. Most people would dream of having their lives resume to normal, but, Bill wasn’t most people. With a new lease on life, Bill’s life began anew!

As a practicing psychologist who specialized in rehabilitation medicine, Bill put his clinical experience to work on himself, intent on making the most of the life he almost lost rather than feeling sorry for himself. Of his illness, Bill shares that the greatest lesson he learned from it is,

Every day is a gift. Live it as if it’s your last because it damn well may be. Ask yourself, ‘What do I have to give thanks for today?’ Gratitude is everything. Stay focused on the positive, and do what you can do to change somebody else’s life. We’ve been put here so we can help make other people’s lives better, and in so doing, our own lives are better. It’s when we concentrate on ourselves, that we lose sight of what’s important.

At his surprise 50th birthday party, standing in the presence of friends, loved ones, and co-workers from all across the country, Bill was asked what his half century birthday wish was. Bill vocalized his desire to become a healthier and in better shape version of himself with the passing of each five year milestone. Bill’s undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and as he wrote his thesis on William James’ 1896 lecture, The Will to Believe, it really shaped his outlook on life. Effortlessly quoting James, Bill speaks from the heart as he shares, “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”

Team in Training: The First Steps

Having recovered from his near death experience, Bill, who always considered himself to be a “pretty positive person,” was ready to grab the next chapter of his life by the horns. On two separate occasions, as Bill proudly stood on the sideline cheering on his daughter Melinda as she completed the Boston Marathon, he never envisioned himself becoming a runner. It wasn’t until his CEO and friend, Greg Bellomy, suggested that they join Team in Training (TNT) to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that Bill became a man on a mission, intent on running the 2005 San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon.

He says, “Team in Training takes people who have never run before, and says, ‘We’ll teach you how to do it.’ It’s a great cause!” In November of 2004, at age 57, Bill began his training, lacing up his sneakers for his very first run. Bill laughs, thinking back to that first run as he shares, “I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ It was horrible!” Nevertheless, Bill’s commitment to Team in Training remained strong, and he powered through any physical and emotional discomforts he experienced as he learned how to run.

Team in Training

Bill completed his first marathon despite having to walk the last four miles due to agonizing leg cramps. Powering through the pain, it never occurred to Bill to quit. While more than a fair share of people would have been thrilled to simply check off “Marathon” on their bucket lists, Bill knew he owed it to himself to try again. At his second marathon just four months later, it was at the 25 mile marker that Bill’s legs once again gave way, but, as with the previous marathon, he finished, even shaving half an hour and some change off his previous finish time.

Never one to go into anything halfheartedly, as he learned to run, Bill discovered that he not only had the tenacity to press on when racing got tough, he realized he had it in him to be a fast runner. Even during Bill’s very first marathon, he had his eyes set on qualifying for the Boston Marathon, an ambitious goal for any runner, especially a novice one. At this year’s San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon, Bill placed first in his age group with a 4:00:03 finish time. (I’ll say it for you, “Wow!”) Bill, who’s crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon seven times, is always in it to win it, but his racing success is certainly no accident. “Goals are important to me. I focus on outcomes,” he shares.

Bill Haffey
“Falling in love with long distance running has changed my life totally,” Bill, seen with his daughter Melinda at the 2017 San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon, shares. This was the 66th marathon Bill completed, and he finished first in his age group. (Courtesy of Bill Haffey)

Fundraising: Racing to Save Lives with His “Cool Impossible”

One may ask Bill, “Why raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society? You never had cancer,” to which Bill replies, “I do these crazy fundraisers simply because I know enough about what goes on, not because I had cancer, but because I know what it’s like to be sick. I know how precious life is.” Even while Bill was in the thick of his own unforeseen medical crisis, his perspective was shaped by his compassion toward others. As Bill fought tooth and nail in the ICU, his 39 year old boss, a father of six children, was dying of bile duct cancer. Two days after Bill was released from the ICU, grateful to be home, he was attending his boss’s funeral. As defeated as Bill’s body felt, his appreciation of how fragile life is inspired him to help others.

Bill, who knows he can never personally begin to pay back the people who saved his life, instead pays it forward. He runs for LLS in honor of those who are fighting blood cancers, thinking about those people who he’s known personally who’ve fought leukemia and lymphoma. As September marks Blood Cancer Awareness Month, Bill encourages the people of the Coronado community to consider donating to his fundraising efforts as they remember the people in town who “should still be here today.” He says, “Coronado is a community that really cares.”

As Bill’s had the joy of training other Coronado runners, he’s had the opportunity to hear the personal stories of those whose own lives have been impacted by blood cancer. “Everywhere you turn, you will bump into someone who has cancer,” he says. One such person who he thinks about often, even though he unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting him, is the late Dr. Morton Pastor, a Coronado resident who passed away from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. As Bill helps train Dr. Pastor’s daughter Cheri, he’s learned so much about her father, marveling at all the goodness Dr. Pastor brought to Coronado. Thinking of people like Dr. Pastor is what drives Bill to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

As was the case with his own medical nightmare, there is no one-size-fits-all cure, and Bill knows that each dollar raised will help the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society work toward a cure for the 1.3 million people in the United States who are currently fighting blood cancer. “When I see what’s happening in cancer research today, when I see the possibility that people like Dr. Pastor could still be alive, and when I see kids who have a whole life ahead of them now, how could I not want to help with that,” he asks. “It’s why we’re here. The drugs and therapies that they’ve developed for blood cancers are now helping with other forms of cancer,” he adds.

Just like he has goals in running, Bill puts the same amount of energy toward fundraising. While $66,000 sounds like an impressive yet arbitrary fundraising goal, Bill explains that the significance behind that amount is because it represents $1,000 for each of the 66 marathons he’s already completed. Bill, who estimates that he raised about $4,000 during his first marathon, was inspired to set such a high goal for this latest fundraising effort after reading Eric Orton’s book entitled The Cool Impossible.

Orton’s book, which is described as an “inspiring step-by-step guide that will open up a new world of achievement for runners of all levels of ability and experience,” resonated with Bill. “At the end of the book, there’s a paragraph which basically says, ‘What’s your cool impossible?’ I kept thinking about that as I was out running, wondering what was next for me,” Bill recounts. His own “cool impossible” became a two-fold dream; first to raise $66,000 for LLS, and secondly, in conjunction with the first half of his vision, to complete the greatest feat for a non-elite runner such as himself.

Pursuing the Abbott World Major Marathon Everyday Champion Medal

As Bill stood in line about to start the 2017 Boston Marathon, he couldn’t help but feel inspired as he looked around at his fellow runners, observing a runner with a prosthetic leg, a blind runner with a guide on either side, and another runner with a shirt that caught Bill’s eye. That shirt, which had six spaces for check marks, listed six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. Realizing that that runner was there to earn the right to check off Boston on his shirt, Bill knew what he himself was meant to do next. He decided to pursue the Abbott World Major Marathon Everyday Champion medal, which celebrates the completion of all six races. It is estimated that there are only about 600 runners in the world who have earned this medal!

Abbott World Marathon majors medal
Connecting his running to his fundraising efforts, Bill says, “Running is a vehicle; it’s not a thing in and of itself. It has to do with challenging oneself to help others challenge themselves to do what they think they can do. Knowing that the research that went on when I started running has already funded cures today, this money I’m currently raising is going to help with new treatments that will save many people’s lives.”

Bill has already run the Boston Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and the New York City Marathon, completing each in under 4 hours, and has now set his sight on running the three international components required to earn the Abbott medal. (He’s curious how many of the Abbott medal winners have earned it after turning age 70, and is awaiting word from the Abbott World Marathon Majors about the age statistics of those whose footsteps he’s intent to follow. Bill shares his personal goal is to “be one of the few people who’ve earned the Abbott after turning 70 years old.” )

As if this quest wasn’t already challenging enough, Bill purposely upped the difficulty level for himself, choosing to run all six major races, starting with this past April’s Boston Marathon, within a year and a half of each other, and setting a goal for himself to finish each under four hours and fifteen minutes.

On September 24, 2017, as Bill runs the Berlin Marathon in Germany, he will earn his 67th marathon medal. On November 5, 2017, he will again run the NYC Marathon, earning his 68th medal. Already signed up to run the Tokyo Marathon on February 25, 2018, it is the London Marathon on April 22, 2018 that Bill dreams of, already appreciating why it will be so momentous to him. When he crosses the finish line in London, yes, he will complete his 70th marathon and earn the prestigious Abbott World Major Marathon Everyday Champion medal, but it’s the timing of the race paired with that medal that is especially noteworthy and meaningful.

Update:  Bill finished the Berlin Marathon on 09/24/17 in 04:02:36, staying well within his goal of sub 04:15. He finished 21/120 (top 17.5%) in the 70-74 men’s division. Here Bill is seen in front of Germany’s Parliament building, known as the Reichstag.

Bill, who will celebrate his birthday eight days prior to the London Marathon, is anticipating that race because it coincides with the 25th anniversary of his near death experience. Each year on Bill’s birthday, April 14th, Bill and his family celebrate what he refers to as “two birthdays.” They celebrate the number of years he’s traveled around the sun, and commemorate the number of years that have passed since he cheated death. When he crosses the London finish line, Bill will be 71/25 years old respectively. After London, Bill will run the Chicago Marathon in October 2018.

Bill Haffey
Bill running the 2008 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, finishing in 3:47:24. He says, “When you run, the first goal is to finish and to finish healthy.” (Courtesy of Bill Haffey)

As Bill discusses his racing and fundraising pursuits, it’s so interesting realizing how determined he is. He never uses the word if, instead saying, “When I finish . . . ” It’s remarkable how that type of mindset has allowed him to accomplish so much!

Bringing Bill’s medal pursuit full circle with his fundraising efforts, he shares, “It has to be for someone else. It’s not about me. I sat down and wrote a proposal to LLS, explaining I wanted to raise money for them as I tried to get into the marathons in Berlin, Tokyo, and London.” When LLS gave Bill the number of the minimum amount of money he was expected to raise if they helped get him into the elite international races, he shook his head as he laughed and said, “That’s too little!” When he shared his proposal for raising $66,000, the director, according to Bill, “almost fell out of her chair!”

It should be noted that none of the money Bill is raising on his mycoolimpossible.com website is in any way paying for his travel, accommodations, or race fees. Bill is shouldering the cost of that, wanting every dollar he raises to help those with leukemia and lymphoma.

Future Goals

When Bill finishes raising $66,000 for LLS and when he earns his Abbott medal, he still won’t be close to finishing his life’s to-do list. Citing the first line from the autobiography he’s already started writing, Bill quotes, “On April 14, 2047 I will celebrate 100 years of vital living.” Bill, only 70/24 years young, has proven he still has a lot of living left to do, and, given what he’s accomplished so far, the sky’s the limit for the greatness he’s yet to achieve, especially when it comes to raising money to help fight cancer. It’s not everyday when I can say that I’ve met someone who genuinely makes the world a better place, but after talking with Bill, I know for sure Coronado is home to a genuine hero and role model. “My legacy,” he humbly concludes, “will have nothing to do with running.”

Bill’s “Cool Impossible” Fundraising Website

My Cool Impossible

Bill Haffey and daughter Melinda
Bill Haffey and his daughter Melinda at the 2017 Boston Marathon. Of his fundraising efforts, Bill says, “Every dollar counts, even a dollar.” (Courtesy of Bill Haffey)

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Coree Cornelius
Resident, Educator, Military Spouse, and Mother."I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: manager@coronadotimes.com