Tulsa’s passion for pink

Survivors and founders reflect on 20 years of Race for the Cure in Tulsa.



Mary Byrne has participated in Tulsa’s Komen Race for the Cure since it began in 1996. This year, organizers expect 6,000 participants — 600 of whom are breast cancer survivors, like Byrne.

It was 1996, and five years had passed since Mary Byrne received her last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. 

But during a routine appointment, her oncologist, Dr. Vicki Baker, mentioned Tulsa was hosting its first Race for the Cure event and encouraged Byrne to enter. For the active runner and mother of three teenagers, breast cancer was not a distant memory, but an ever-present, nagging concern.

“Dr. Baker said it would be really great to have a survivor who is an active runner,” Byrne says. “She said she would pay my entry fee, and I could decide if I wanted to do it.”

Twenty years later, Byrne has never missed a race.

 

 

Humble beginnings

In the early days of the Race for the Cure, only a small group of survivors participated. Marolyn Allred was one of them. 

At that time she had been out of treatment for nine months but was still bald from chemotherapy. 

“My husband, who has since passed away, got me involved,” Allred says. “He was into anything that had to do with celebrating life and surviving breast cancer.” 

They had good reason to celebrate. Although she was only in her 40s, Allred’s first doctor believed there was nothing they could do for her and suggested options to keep her comfortable in her final months. That notion was unacceptable to Allred and her family.

“I’m busy, I don’t have time to die,” Allred said at the time. “I’m not done raising my children.”

It was with that indomitable spirit that Allred, who was not a runner prior to her cancer diagnosis, entered Tulsa’s inaugural Race for the Cure. She has participated every year since.

Over the past 20 years, her husband, who died in 2000, her twin sister, extended family and friends have joined her on race day on a team they call Marolyn’s Mateys. Donning pink pirate costumes, they celebrate those who have survived and honor those who haven’t.

 

The old ladies

Both women remember one or two elderly women at the first race wearing hats with over 20 pink ribbon stickers, representing each year they had been cancer free. One of the women, who was the oldest survivor at the time, got up out of her wheelchair and walked the last 100 feet, using the wheelchair as a walker.

“It brought the whole place to its feet,” Allred recalls. “Twenty years ago — for somebody who had just been diagnosed — it was such a big deal to see somebody who had lived for 20 or 30 years. That wasn’t common.

“Now I am one of those old ladies, a 20-year survivor. That’s why I keep going, just to give heart to ladies who are newly diagnosed.”

The past two decades have brought noticeable changes to the race. That small group of survivor participants has grown enough to require an aerial photo to capture them all.

There were about 2,500 participants at Tulsa’s first Race for the Cure. This year, organizers expect about 6,000 — 600 of whom are survivors.

“I’ve seen everything in 20 years,” Allred says. “I’ve seen husbands who’ve shaved their heads except for the pink ribbon logo, families with bouquets of flowers celebrating their loved ones coming across the finish line and, of course, honoring the sad ones who haven’t survived. They’ve got team members running on behalf of people going through treatment who are not able to physically participate in the race and in memory of those who have passed.” 

 

On your mark, get set, go

With the philanthropic pedigree of the race’s founders, it was inevitable that Tulsa would have a Race for the Cure.

Bill Donahue, former vice president/general manager of Tulsa NBC affiliate KJRH, wanted to bring the race to Tulsa. He and his wife, Michele, were avid runners, and she was a two-time breast cancer survivor.

He was looking for someone to chair the event, so he contacted Barbara Schwarz, a breast cancer survivor and local champion of breast cancer causes who had seen the same surgeon as Donahue’s wife. In 1998, Schwarz founded Tulsa Project Woman (now Oklahoma Project Woman), a nonprofit that provides free, comprehensive breast cancer services to women without health insurance.

“My plate was pretty full, but I told them, ‘I know someone who is involved with Komen nationally,’” Schwarz says.

She was talking about her friend and fellow American Cancer Society board member, Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford. The two women decided to co-chair the first race.

It was a cause close to Ford Bales’ heart. She and her mother, a breast cancer survivor, helped launch National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985. Ford Bales served as a national spokeswoman for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month for about 18 years.  

Ford Bales moved to Tulsa in 1989, when she married local attorney Vaden Bales. She had attended races in other cities and knew Tulsa would be a perfect venue for its own Race for the Cure.

“Tulsa is an impressive city in how it supports local organizations,” Ford Bales explains. “The fact that the majority of the money stays here in Tulsa to help women get mammograms or treatment, or whatever it is they need, is important.”

Schwarz credits the local medical community as an important part of the race’s success.

“Everybody came out of the woodwork to help support the race and the mission,” she says. “We are really blessed to have a supportive medical community.

“We raised more money than we ever thought we would that first year,” Schwarz says. “It started the tradition that goes on to this day.”

 

Sept. 24 — Komen Tulsa Race for the Cure 
6:30 a.m., race site opens; 7:30 a.m., 5K; 9, 9:15 and 9:30 a.m., untimed 5K; 10 a.m., 1-mile. ONEOK Field, 201 N. Elgin Ave. Fundraising opportunities available. Visit www.komentulsa.org to register or for more information.

 

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