Queens resident Tessa Wehrman has always had a good reason to run. It was a way to improve her performance on her high school track, tennis and basketball teams in Urbana, Ohio. When she moved to New York, she described it as a “cheap way to see the city.” The marathon runner said she has always found the exercise to be therapeutic.
Now she can add another reason to the list: helping her overcome cancer.
When asked about her history with marathons, the 28-year-old explained with a laugh, “I’ve run 2 ¾.”
One was in Columbus, Ohio and another was the Marine Corps Marathon, which goes through Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. She was unable to finish the marathon in Nashville, Tennessee, not due to any fault of her own, but because a tornado was posing a threat in the area, forcing her to stop with just six miles left to go.
Shortly after settling in New York, she began using running to volunteer with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people participate in athletics. Throughout her time with Achilles, Wehrman has assisted runners with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, prosthetic limbs and who are visually impaired, by running along with them as a guide.
In May of 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26.
“I was completely blindsided,” she said, adding that her family had no history of the disease. “I had just run my best marathon a month before, so I was very surprised to be considered sick.”
Eight days later, she underwent a double mastectomy followed by four months of chemotherapy. Instructed not to run for six weeks after the mastectomy, she continued her service with Achilles International by walking along with the athletes. After receiving the go-ahead to start running again, she did so, even through chemotherapy.
“I ran not as far, not as fast and I’d have to walk more, it depended on the week for sure, but I continued to run through treatment. It was my way of being able to control something and saying cancer couldn’t take that away from me.”
In November of last year, she watched the New York City Marathon on television while recovering from her final reconstructive surgery.
“I’m going to run that race next year,” she told herself.
Since then, she has competed in three half marathons, two Olympic triathlons and a half Ironman triathlon. Her current training regimen for the upcoming New York City Marathon consists of at least three runs a week: one made up of shorter intervals, a 10K and a 15-to-20 mile run on weekends. She engages in cross training – usually biking or swimming – two days a week as well.
Wehrman credits a lot of the motivation for her comeback as coming from her family, friends, neighbors and organizations that she’s volunteered with.
“There are a lot of tough cookies in the Achilles Track Club,” she said. “I’ve seen so many people overcome challenges so far beyond, so it was no question for me to get back out there.”
In September 2011, over 40 athletes and guides from Achilles International came out to run the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in her name, something she said she was very honored by.
Ultimately it was this triumph that led Foot Locker to ask Wehrman to represent Queens on its Five Borough Challenge Team, made up of a runner from each borough that has used running to overcome challenges. The team will run together for the first 13 miles of the New York City Marathon before going off on their own, the winner receiving a trophy and “city-wide bragging rights,” according to its website.
Gabriella Citrin, director of publicity and events at Foot Locker, said she felt Wehrman’s story made a perfect fit within this year’s theme of using running to overcome challenges.
“Being that a year ago she was in a totally different place in her life, overcame breast cancer and is now running a marathon, we felt it was a strong story to tell,” Citrin said. “I think she’s a great inspiration to anybody, but especially for young women to show that you can beat this horrible disease and continue to live life to its fullest.”
With the New York City Marathon scheduled to take place on Sunday, November 4, Wehrman is very close to realizing a goal she set for herself one year ago.
“It’s been a crazy rollercoaster of a year,” she said. “I’m very excited to represent Queens.”