Running for My: Man completes marathon in Antarctica for his late wife

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NEW YORK — He didn’t know it at the time, but Dave Ventresca had been training for his first marathon for close to four years.

The 47-year-old New York marketing consultant had run some 10 and 5Ks in his life but running a marathon was never on his to-do list.

“I knew I wasn’t going to put up a fast time, but I knew I’d be able to get the race done,” Dave said.

He had the support of his friends, family and of course, he knew his wife My Luu, would be watching his every step.

“Someone like her doesn’t come along very often in life,” he said.

Dave and My met in 2013 in probably one of the most unromantic ways: She was 39. He was 43. While neither had been married, both had been in long-term relationships, both knew what they wanted and what they didn’t.

“She just struck me right off the bat,” he said. “Her story just captivated me.”

She was born of Chinese decent in Vietnam. As Communism spread, My’s parents, two older sisters and younger brother boarded a boat with no clear destination. During their 10 days at sea, My’s brother, Sang, says they had to fight off several pirate attacks before landing at a Malaysian refugee camp on the island of Bidong. It’s west of the mainland in the China Sea.

At the time, My was just 5 years old. The six of them shared what amounted to a one-room hut with no running water for 13 months. My’s uncle, who was already living in the United States, got in touch with the American Red Cross. The organization found the family and relocated them with him in Houston, Texas.

Dave says My wasted no time in Houston: “She learns English, graduates valedictorian of her high school class and then gets herself into Yale.”

My didn’t stop at learning English. In addition to her native Cantonese, she also spoke Russian and Spanish. Her ability to speak four languages helped her land a job as a diplomatic liaison and translator at the US Embassy in Uzbekistan, Russia. In her spare time she picked up a brown belt in karate, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and had run marathons on five continents. She dreamed of hitting all seven.

“Her plan of running on all seven continents… it was more of a goal to travel than it was to run,” Dave said. “She wasn’t a runner first. She was a traveler first.”

She returned to the United States in 1999 after accepting a job with IBM’s global initiative team based in New York. Dave says she helped find ways for women-owned businesses to succeed. Four years later she found herself sitting across from Dave on a Match date. There was another soon after and a few more before, as Dave says, they both knew this had, “long-term potential.”

After only a month and half of dating, Dave says, My proposed a trip to a friend’s wedding in the Dominican Republic. And I said even better.”

It was on this trip Dave heard more of My’s story. She had been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2012. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders’ website, only about 4,000 people a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with Amyloidosis blood cancer. While it can turn deadly quickly, it can also be treated as a chronic illness. People can live for decades if doctors can find the right balance of medication.

After My was diagnosed she received chemo and a stem cell transplant. It seemed to work. Her cancer was in remission for the year leading up to the Dominican Republic trip. Dave admits, after reading what he could on the internet about Amyloidosis, he was scared.

The fear however, was countered with the fact she was in remission, had just run a marathon in Dublin and was training for a marathon in the small Asian country of Bhutan. It would be her 8th marathon on her 6th continent.

He says he looked himself in the mirror and asked himself two questions: “What would I regret more in the future? Losing her to a medical condition or walking away out of the fear?” Dave says his choice was a “no brainer.”

Not long before the Bhutan race, My told Dave she was starting to feel some of the same symptoms just before her original diagnosis. After the marathon, her doctor confirmed her cancer had returned.

Dave said it was scary but he knew they had found the right combination of drugs before and they, along with My’s doctor, were confident they could do it again.

“We never had the conversation ‘you’re terminal… you have so many months.’ We always had a path forward. There were medical options available. It’s the hope that can balance the fear,” Dave said.

With hope and a heart full of love Dave decided it was time to ask My to marry him. He told her they were going to Philadelphia, Dave’s hometown, for one of his friend’s birthdays but instead he took her to get her nails done.

They visited the spot of their first Match date before he took her to a hotel where he had put together a book of memories from their year and half of dating. Photos, matchbooks, play bills, ticket stubs, and menus from restaurants. Then he played a video with their friends urging her to say yes to the next question.

He popped the question on bended knee and she said yes. After Dave took My to dinner, he had another surprise in store.

“I said there is a great view from the roof top bar,” he said. Waiting on the roof were 30 of their closest friends and she was happy she had her nails done.

A few weeks before their wedding, they got some bad news. My was not responding to treatment.

“Do we want to wait until you are in remission again? We talked about that but decided to press forward with our original schedule. So glad we did. I would have regretted it so much,” Dave said.

While things weren’t looking good, Dave says there were still options, still hope: “She thought she was going to outlive all of us.”

They were married on August 7, 2015. The New York Times covered it. The article doesn’t mention her illness. It focused on their story. It focused on their love. That was by design, Dave told me. For their honeymoon, they spent four nights in Aruba.

When they returned, My continued treatment but her doctors still could not find the right drug combination and worse, she had developed an infection. Over the next month her health started on a downward spiral. She was admitted on a Monday. Her cancer was at an advanced stage. After initially seeing an uptick in key markers Dave says, she went into cardiac arrest. Dave watched it happen. “I wouldn’t wish that moment on anyone”

A team of doctors rushed in, pushed him out into the hallway and saved My’s life. She was intubated, but they still found a way to communicate. “She would nod her head up and down and squeeze my hand.”

Those moments ended when My was put on heavy painkillers and was sedated. Dave never left her side.

My died on September 25, 2015. I talked to Dave just before he left for his race in February then again a few weeks after the marathon in March.

He’s a well-dressed, skinny 5’8″ white guy with a trimmed beard that could be called scruff. He shaves his head bald and is still madly in love with My. Several times during our conversations he spoke of her in the present tense.

“Talking about my wife is one my favorite pastimes,” he said.

When he starts in on a story he is animated and full of energy, right up to the moment it seems he remembers she died. He may look down or past you but he doesn’t dwell on it. It’s more like he takes a moment then goes right into the next story. As we continued talking, I felt I needed a moment more than Dave.

As a journalist, you train yourself to be a witness to history, a finder of facts, the truth teller. But hearing Dave speak about his wife in such an unconditionally loving way makes one re-evaluate every relationship you thought was good. It makes you believe in true love. It makes you wonder why anyone would waste time on a relationship that wasn’t half as good as Dave and My’s.

Even not knowing everything about their relationship you know enough that Dave would have run 10 marathons for My despite having no intention of ever running one. Love, as we know, moves you in ways that can’t be explained. You just do what your heart tells you, even if you know better.

Running a marathon is never easy, and Dave’s first wasn’t what even the most dedicated runners would consider a good starter race. He and My’s brother Sang were going to complete My’s goal of running on all seven continents. The only continent My had yet to conquer was Antarctica.

It attracts a pretty select group of runners. It’s limited to about 200 and they come from around the world. Many are searching for a seven continents marathon medal; others are running for a cause.

Dave was, in a way, running for both. After My’s death he set up the My Luu Memorial Foundation. A non-profit that helps high achieving students from diverse backgrounds pursue their academic dreams.

“My wife was such a believer in the transformational power of education so this memorial fund seems right,” he said.

Dave and Sang began their training about 18 weeks before the March 11 race. On some of Dave’s longer training runs, he would recall conversations he’d have with My. One in particular stood out. They were in her apartment back in 2014 and were talking about the Antarctica race he was now training for.

“It was her trying to convince me to do it (with her.) My first reaction was ‘hell no,'” he said.

Four weeks before the race, Dave developed shin splits. Painful, he says, but x-rays showed he was only risking a stress fracture if he continued. At no time did Dave think about quitting. He had to do this. He was running for My.

Dave and Sang traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, three days before the race where they boarded a boat with the other runners. They got to know one another on their way to Antarctica, their stories too. They met a blind runner who was also a gold medal Special Olympian whose sport was, “wait for it,” Dave told me, “downhill skiing.” They met 11-year-old Quinn Gardiner-Hall from a small New Zealand town. He is running 4 half marathons in 4 countries in an effort to get kids off the couch. He and Sang also told their new friends why they were running.

They got off the boat and headed to the Russian Research Center that also serves as the start and finish line for the race.

“I felt her presence, not necessarily her voice. It’s weird, even though I’d been battling shin splints a month into the race; race day I felt better than I had in the previous four weeks. During the race itself I didn’t feel anything but a little a pain. I really did feel like she was kind of carrying me and she was there guiding me.”

The weather was unseasonably warm on race day. Instead of single digits it was 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Another sign My, Dave believes, was looking out for him.

The 26.2 mile dirt, rock and snow course is set up in a loop. It’s hilly, covers 2200 feet of elevation and is icy in spots. There are no spectators so runners are their own cheerleaders.

“She would have loved this. This is all of her favorite things. All the things she loved,” she said.

Dave wore My’s wedding ring and a medallion with an imprint of her thumb on a chain around his neck. He wore a shoelace from her running shoes around his wrist. Sang wore the other.
“I got weepy only once during the race,” he said.

It was around the half way point when his marathon playlist came to, “Make You Feel My Love,” by Adele. “It’s the song we danced to at our wedding.”

Dave and Sang finished the race well before the 6 and one-half hour cut off time and soon they were back on the water heading to Argentina. The last night, at the Captain’s Dinner, awards were given out. My’s story had traveled from runner to runner and got back to the captain. Dave and Sang were asked to the front. Along with their medals for finishing their first marathon, they were given a medal less than a thousand runners have earned, a seven continents medal.

In four years, Dave went from the top of the highest mountain to the deepest of valleys. Good training for a marathon on Antarctica, but that was never his goal. He was just running for My.

Link to My Luu Memorial Foundation: