Connecting the Community and Advancing Cancer Research With Every Step

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Omar Nelson, Ph.D., was giving it his all — “you always save something for the end” — as he crossed the finish line at the Fitbit Miami Marathon on Sunday, January 28. Still, he had good reason to be tired. He had not only completed the grueling 26.2-mile run, but also the 13.1-mile half marathon earlier in the morning — 39.3 miles total. He was the first person ever to run both races back to back.

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Omar Nelson, Ph.D., crosses his second finish line after running 39.3 miles.

Nelson, 36, is an assistant scientist studying ovarian and breast cancers in the laboratory of Sophia George, Ph.D., at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. As he ran, he was also raising money for Sylvester.

“I love what I do at Sylvester,” said Nelson, who arrived at the Miller School in 2009 as a postdoctoral fellow. “It’s the work equivalent of the runner’s high.”

Nonetheless, spending hours each day trying to eradicate two diseases that together killed nearly 55,000 women in the U.S. in 2017 creates its own pressures, and in 2010, Nelson, who had run track in college for a year, began trying to shake off the stress by turning himself into a distance runner.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “At first I suffered from what I call the ‘Jamaican curse’ — all speed and no endurance. I couldn’t even run a mile without stopping. But I didn’t quit, and now I typically run 65 miles a week. I run five or six days a week and go through about 20 pairs of shoes a year. On the days I don’t run — usually Sunday — I take long-distance bike rides, such as Miami to Homestead and back, or I do loops on Key Biscayne.”

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Omar Nelson, Ph.D., with medals for running both events at the Fitbit Miami Marathon.

Nelson’s emotional outlet evolved into a passion that rivals his love for science. Although running long distances is a very repetitive activity, he started devising ways to personalize his runs. One was to run his age in miles every year on his birthday, something he has done since he turned 31. Nelson, who will be 37 on June 13, jokes that eventually he will have to move to Europe and change over to kilometers. Another was using the Miami-Dade County map to plot out individualized runs, such as a 22-mile heart-shaped course he ran and dedicated to his wife, Nicole. He even biked the shape of a turkey (45 miles) on Thanksgiving Day.

But as his self-designed runs began taking him through neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Overtown, he received comments from friends who were concerned for his safety. Nelson, who had grown up poor in Jamaica, knew that such concerns were often more about perception than reality, and that perceptions often pushed people apart, rather than bringing them together. He decided instead to use his runs to create connections.

“I created the One Love Run, and a group of us run through Miami’s underserved neighborhoods one Sunday a month,” said Nelson. “It has become quite an event, and a lot of people turn out to support us as we run through. The runners who participate are the sponsors, as they fulfill the theme for that month, which ranges from handing out gift cards, collecting supplies for the Overtown Youth Center, feeding the homeless, or handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving and wrapped toys for the children at Christmas. It’s about engaging the community and breaking the disconnect.”

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Omar Nelson, Ph.D., in the laboratory at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Nelson began setting personal challenges for himself, too. In early 2016, he ran seven marathons in seven days before work, showing up on time at the laboratory after each weekday run. Later that year, he ran 31 half marathons in 31 days to raise funds for the Voices of Children Foundation.

Initially, running the two Fitbit Miami Marathon races was Nelson’s main focus, but when he learned about UCARE, he signed on. He set a goal of $10,000 and is well on his way to reaching it. In fact, to date he is UCARE’s leading fundraiser. His fundraising campaign will continue through March, and anyone wishing to make a contribution may do so here.

UCARE is an easy-to-use site where participants choose their own campaign from categories that include dedicating a birthday, honoring the memory of a loved one, celebrating a special occasion, hosting an athletic challenge, thanking a physician, or being creative with their own idea. There are online tools to help customize giving pages, as well as templates to help personalize a message to share with family, friends, or colleagues. Additional tools help track the fundraising progress. More information is available online at Miami.edu/UCARE.

“I like to be different — to not do what everyone else is doing,” said Nelson. “That’s true in my running, and UCARE lets my fundraising be just as individualized. Combining them, I now have a platform through which I can continue to offer inspiration and hope. If I made it this far, so can others. Life is simple, not easy.”