Next week, Doug Ulman will run a 26.4-mile marathon in the Himalayas. It won't be the hardest race he's run.
Ulman, 22, has had cancer three times in the last three years. Each time, he has bounced back -- and set new challenges for himself.
Two months after the first occurrence -- he was 19, a sophomore and a soccer player at Brown University when a rare form of cancer struck -- he decided to form what would become the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults to help young people fight the disease.
"Cancer used to mean death to me," Ulman wrote in the fund's guidebook for young people affected by cancer. "I used to think if someone had cancer there was no hope. I now know better. A good friend of mine told me that he and I were lucky, because no one can have the perspective on life that a cancer survivor has. From the moment of diagnosis, you are a cancer SURVIVOR."
Last summer, Ulman decided to tackle the Mount Everest Challenge Marathon. Next week, he will join a team of runners from the United States and India in the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race in Sandakphu National Park in northern India.
He's running for himself and the world.
"It's just like any other goal in your life," Ulman said. "You build up, and you train, and you get ready and prepare -- and then you go off to do something. And when you accomplish it, it's wonderful.
"And it's also to show people that having cancer, or any kind of life-threatening disease, doesn't mean that you can't return to a normal life and do things that normal people do, or that are above and beyond what normal people do."
Ulman was invited to join the race by World T.E.A.M. Sports, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing diverse groups together through sports.
Founded in 1993 by Jim Benson, chief executive officer for New England Financial, World T.E.A.M. has sent teams of disabled and able-bodied athletes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, bicycle around the world, run through the Sahara and cycle in Vietnam.
T.E.A.M. stands for The Exceptional Athlete Matters.
"We want to give people an opportunity to do things that they never thought they could do," said Executive Director Steve Wisnant.
World T.E.A.M. will send two disabled and three able-bodied athletes to the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race. Erik Weihenmayer, a teacher and mountaineer from Denver who became blind at 13, was to be the team's "anchor," said Smith Maddrey, director of international programs for World T.E.A.M. The race would have been a "stepping stone" for him toward climbing Mount Everest in 2001, Maddrey said, but Weihenmayer discovered a stress fracture in his tibia Tuesday and will not be going.
"He and Doug were the centerpiece of this event, and now Doug is," Maddrey said.
Tim Mackie of Columbia, who ran in the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara last year and cycled through the Gobi Desert with World T.E.A.M. in 1995, also is a team member.
Blind cyclists rode tandem bikes along with sighted athletes in World T.E.A.M.'s 1995 world tour, Mackie said. "Along the way, disabled people came out to watch. They would ride part of the way on their bikes."
The Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race is divided into five stages. Runners return to accommodations at night. The course begins at 8,000 feet and will go to 11,000, over some rough terrain, Maddrey said. Temperatures are expected to be in the 50s and 60s during the day, and may be below freezing at night.
The Mount Everest Challenge Marathon, slightly longer than the standard marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards, is the third day's stage race. It's called that because Mount Everest is visible from the trails.
That's the race Ulman will run.
"It's uneven terrain, through little towns," he said. "It's running near streams and wildlife and everything. There are certain parts we have to walk because it's really rocky."
He's been training, flying to Denver last week to run at 9,600 feet with his cousin and a college friend, who took turns running beside him.
"Things are going well," Ulman said Tuesday. "I am filled with a nervous excitement, and wish I could go tomorrow. I am ready to experience this adventure."
Ulman will call home daily, using a satellite phone. His mother will post the dispatches on the fund's Web site so young cancer patients can read them.
The Ulmans have lived in Columbia since 1972. Doug's father, Louis Ulman, is an attorney; Diana Ulman, an artist and decorator. They are community-minded people, volunteering for Democratic organizations and Temple Bet Aviv and serving on the boards of Jewish and arts groups. Once a month, they make a dinner for the homeless at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. But when Ulman got sick, they felt helpless.
"It is your worst nightmare as a mother," Diana Ulman said. "I'm a fix-it person, and I can't fix this."
For her and for her son, another person's ability to listen and understand offered healing.
Ten months after his first diagnosis, Ulman found a Baltimore man with the same rare cancer, chondrosarcoma. Ulman had surgery in August 1996 to remove a tumor on his ribs, and part of a rib.
"I finally found somebody that had the same exact type of cancer, and was young," Ulman said. "We just had so much in common."
"They talked for hours," Diana Ulman said. "For me, talking to other moms was helpful. One mom said to me one day, 'Wasn't the second time worse than the first?' And I said, 'You're the only person I've talked to who understands that.' "
Twice more, in March and June 1997, Ulman received cancer diagnoses -- both malignant melanoma, a potentially life-threatening skin cancer. Each time, he was treated, and returned to an active life.
After her son's first diagnosis, when Diana Ulman could not find an appropriate support group for him, creating such groups was a natural choice for the Ulman Fund.
The fund offers free support groups in Columbia and Providence, R.I., and groups are being formed in Baltimore and Denver. The fund's Web site, which receives about 600 hits each week, includes a "Survivors' Network" to help people with similar cancers find each other.
Support groups meet weekly with a facilitator for eight weeks. A monthly group is offered for those who want to stay in touch after the intensive sessions.
The Ulman Fund pays for everything.
"The young people who find us are so grateful," said Susan Jacobson, a licensed social worker who leads the Columbia group and is a cousin of Diana Ulman. "You can just hear the palpable relief in their voices."
Group members talk about anger, sexuality, spirituality or a spiritual awakening that has come since the cancer, Jacobson said. They share information about how to deal with losing all your hair. There's a lot of laughing. They open their hearts.
"I have to say that a person that seeks out a group already has a heart ready to open," Jacobson said. "There is such a relief in talking to other people who really know how it is."
Ulman stages events each year to benefit the fund: a "Summerfest" dinner and auction in June and a College Soccer All-Star Game in August. The fund sends out applications to every college coach in the country to recruit players. This year's game at River Hill High School raised about $11,000, he said.
A new event, a golf tournament held this year at the Greystone golf course in White Hall, took place last month.
Ulman estimated that the fund has raised more than $200,000.
Although he is certified to teach middle and high school, Ulman works full time on behalf of the fund and related activities.
A Public Broadcasting Service "Health Week" segment, showing Ulman speaking to students about skin cancer, aired in May. Doug and Diana Ulman created a video for the Maryland Coalition for Skin Cancer Prevention, to be shown in schools.
"I think he's an amazing young man," Jacobson said. "It just knocks me out. Such an unusual person to have created what he's created. He's somebody who really wants all the juice out of his life. So this opportunity came up, and he wasn't going to miss it."
The Ulman Fund's Web address is www.ulmanfund.org.