For years, Meg Rowe has been a periodic patient at the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Neurofibromatosis Center, awaiting test results and undergoing procedures. But on Feb. 15, she plans to run a mile through the bitter cold — happily and in her underwear.
"I figure, I've been through chemo[therapy], and I've been through radiation treatments," said Rowe, who in her early childhood was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic disorder that affects her nervous system and can cause malignant tumors. "Running a mile is nothing. Compared to everything else that I've been through, this will be easy."
On the Saturday after Valentine's Day, she'll be participating and raising money in Cupid's Undie Run at Power Plant Live's Luckie's Tavern. The underwear-clad runners aim to secure donations for the Children's Tumor Foundation, which funds research, support, care and awareness for neurofibromatosis.
This is the first year the race, which started as a run around the Capitol in Washington in 2010, will be held in Baltimore. It was the first city to sell out for this iteration of the run, said Kate Gibson, director of the Baltimore race, and organizers' goal for the city is to raise $50,000.
Prerace festivities start at noon at Luckie's, and the run starts at 2:15 p.m. All participants are at least 21 years old, and they can choose to remain sans pants for the duration of the day's events. The noncompetitive run will proceed along the Inner Harbor's promenade.
Organizers expect 18,000 runners in 27 American cities to participate Feb. 15, with the hopes of raising $3 million for neurofibromatosis research and the foundation. The run raised $1.3 million last year.
A race that's personal
Recently, Rowe has been living with her parents in Fairfax County, Va., to be closer to the hospital. A few staff members there plan to race with her.
"It would take a lot more than cancer to prevent me from participating in this," Rowe, who has been fighting against malignant tumors, said in early January.
Rowe, 39, worked for an insurance company and lived in Virginia Beach, Va., until her symptoms worsened a few years ago. Now she plans to go to nursing school to become a pediatric psychology nurse, to use the knowledge and fortitude she has gained from years of battling her own disorder to help others.
"I just really feel that is my calling," Rowe said. She didn't see much of a community for neurofibromatosis support in her childhood. The disorder occurs in about one in 3,000 births in the United States.
During the race, she plans to wear the pink wig she donned for each of her chemotherapy treatments, boxers and a tank top. "I am not wearing anything more revealing than that," she said.
Former and future undie runner Karen Taggart has known Rowe since fifth grade, but she didn't know Rowe had neurofibromatosis until after college, when Rowe's symptoms worsened. Both of them praised the treatment available at Johns Hopkins.
"I feel very confident in saying that Meg would probably not be here if it weren't for the great treatment that she's received there," Taggart said.
Taggart, 39, lives in Washington and works for a database company when she isn't running for her fitness or charitable causes. She's training for her first marathon.
Of running in the cold, she said: "Maybe I'll wear my thigh-highs to track practice."
Many of Taggart's fellow Washington and Baltimore runners work toward charitable causes such as bipolar disorder, which Taggart said she deals with "every day." But Cupid's Undie Run is different because of Rowe, described by Taggart as a source of constant motivation.
"This one, obviously, is just really personally important to me," said Taggart, who also expects to have fun with the "funky" styles of Baltimore.
"Baltimore will pull out all the stops for this. Baltimore has a good sense of being able to balance the fun of the race with the serious nature of the race."
Rowe and Taggart are in a battle for the top fundraiser spot in the Baltimore area. As of Friday night, they had raised $2,249 and $1,792, respectively.
"I really think that we inspire each other, because each of us has different challenges that we face," Rowe said. "I really try not to not complain about what I'm going through."
Neurofibromatosis brings confusion, unpredictability and pain to the lives of those it touches.
Rowe has lost friends to the disorder the past few years. "Those people aren't here anymore to fight it, and I am," she said. "Until my dying days, that's what I'm going to do."
The run quickly gains speed
Though the disorder has no cure, inspiration and strength often win out.
Chad Leathers' brother, Drew, had his first neurofibromatosis-related tumor taken out at age 10.
"Less than four years later, he couldn't play any sports, he couldn't run around," said Leathers, the run's creator at the Children's Tumor Foundation. His younger brother was soon paralyzed.
In 2009, Drew spent about 180 days at Johns Hopkins while suffering from neurofibromatosis complications.
"He arrived in a very, very bad state," Leathers said. "I spent [an] untold amount of weeks there in Baltimore."
Leathers, now 29 and living in New York, wanted to do more fundraising, so he and three friends started Cupid's Undie Run in Washington to raise money for better treatments.
"Within about four weeks from ideas to execution, we ran about 600 people around the U.S. Capitol, and nobody got arrested," Leathers said.
In the years since, the thousands of participants and the popularity of the concept have "been shocking to say the least," Leathers said.
"We tapped into a community that we didn't know existed," he said. "It's cheesy, but it is true that the community around us — whether it's in our hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, or in Baltimore or in D.C. or, frankly, across the entire country — that people have seen an inspiration to help. And it's carried him and our family toward the light at the end of the tunnel."
Some participants in this race — such as Gibson, the Baltimore race director — and the broader community don't have any direct connection to the disorder.
"My personal feeling about philanthropy is, I'm not a wealthy person, but I have time and skills," said Gibson, 35, a production coordinator at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. "If I can give that to something that will use it, that's what I'll do."
An undie run is a special kind of event, and Leathers expects the sold-out Baltimore crowd to understand the day's power.
"The people of Baltimore are resilient and excited, and they're going to be extra cold because they're going to be running down in the Inner Harbor," Leathers said. "I mean, Super Bowl champs: It's not coincidence. That's pure drive from a powerful city."
Find out more
For additional information about the sold-out Cupid's Undie Run on Feb. 15, go to cupidsundierun.com/city/baltimore/.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun