By Kim Constantinesco
A warrior isn’t so much defined by his strength, but by the size of the focus within.
Within Lotatoa “Lota” Ward, 8, resides a deep and passionate focus for distance running. Also inside of him resides an ornery brain tumor.
Lota set off in the dark with his ultra running father, Keith. Equip with headlamps, the father-son duo took their first strides of the 50-mile race alongside live Buffalo. It was a crisp mid-March morning on Antelope Island, near Salt Lake City, Utah, and the rest of the runners weren’t starting for another hour.
Keith was a walking zombie. He had flown home from a business trip in Louisiana, landing back in Salt Lake around midnight. By the time he put his suitcase down at home, he had to wake up Lota, locate race bibs, and fuel up for the long day ahead.
The race directors of the Antelope Island Buffalo Run let Keith and Lota start well before the rest of the pack. By the time Keith and Lota reached mile 8, the sun had come up and the race field began to swallow them like an ocean wave.
Lota started to worry because other runners were passing him. He was afraid of getting left behind. He went into the “dark place” that nearly all endurance runners come to know, at one point or another — a place of discomfort engulfed by pillows of self-doubt. Around mile 10, Lota started to cry. Keith ran out in front of him by a few feet, because after thousands of miles run together, he knew that his son just needed to be left alone.
Endurance races tend to follow the same ebb and flow pattern of life itself, and once a runner learns to trust that with every low comes a high, managing the emotional roller coaster becomes easier.
“Around mile 14, he was a different person,” Keith said of Lota. “He was cheering everyone on that he passed by. He was happy, he was yelling, and he was singing.”
Then came another low. At mile 26, Lota’s feet started to hurt. Despite switching to another pair of shoes thanks to a friend of Keith’s, Lota didn’t find much relief. By mile 33, it was time to throw in the towel rather than risking further injury, that would take the budding ultra-boy out of running for an extended period of time — which would have ended up causing more turmoil than the race itself.
“We went back to the race director and talked to him,” Keith said. “He said, ‘You know, I didn’t even think he would make it past mile 20,’ so he gave him a medal for finishing the 50K. He also gave him a time slip, saying he had finished an ultra, so that it was official.”
Before Lota gets another crack at a 50-miler, however, he had to let doctors have another crack at his tumor.
Striding Through the Tumor
Lota’s brain tumor was discovered in October, just a month after he completed his third half marathon.
“We talked to him a lot trying to explain it to him, and we talked to him about how he conquered that big hill in his first half,” Lota’s mother, Rowena, said. “We told him that mental strength was the same strength he needed for his brain tumor, too.”
The tumor was removed in November. Known as a teratoma tumor, this type of benign tumor is capable of growing hair, teeth, and even skin. It’s not genetic in nature, but rather caused by misplaced tissue cells during development in the uterus.
Ninety days after having the tumor removed, the Ward’s went back in for a check-up, where it was discovered that the tumor grew to the size of a golf ball. The real scare came when the biopsy revealed that the cancer markers reached a dangerously high number — 27. The family quickly linked up with the oncology team at Primary Children’s Medical Center, where they put a port in Lota, so that he could begin receiving chemotherapy.
Lota was running through it all. He even did a 10-mile trail run four days after his biopsy.
“Running helps me feel better and feel strong,” Lota said. “It helps me deal with my tumor, and helps me get through tough times.”
Doctors contacted the family just before his chemo was to start, and told them that Lota was eligible to take part in a national study on this particular kind of tumor, but to begin, he had to have another MRI and more blood work. That revealed that his cancer marker dropped to 8, which was within the “normal” range. Days later, it dropped again to 4. That’s when doctor’s decided to just remove the tumor, and forgo chemo.
At the beginning of April, and just two weeks after Lota attempted the 50-miler, doctors went through his frontal lobe and removed 97% of his tumor. The last 3% of the tumor is a tiny cyst that sits by the brain stem, which doctors will monitor closely for the next couple of months.
It took him two days to wake up from his most recent surgery, and 10 days to be released from the hospital. Progressing through daily physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, Lota remains anxious to get back out on the trails and the roads.
After all, he has another half marathon on May 30 in Park City, which his rehab team is trying to get him ready for.
Bonding with Dad
“Lotatoa” is Samoan for “Our Warrior.”
Rowena is a native of Samoa, and she met Keith, who hails from New York, while they were in Hawaii. The two married, moved to Utah, and had six children — four girls and two boys
The fourth in the family lineup, and the first boy, Lota started running with his dad when he was just seven years old, logging miles as Keith was training for a 100-mile race.
“My favorite thing about running is I like to listen to the birds,” Lota said.
“There’s a natural connection between Lota and the mountains, and that’s why he loves it so much,” Rowena added. “He also likes to spend time with his dad.”
Keith began running six years ago because his mother had a stroke, and he wanted to improve upon his own health.
Keith was working two full-time jobs at the time, and Lota simply liked getting that one-on-one time with him.
“He said he like running with me because he likes to talk,” Keith said. “He hates running with an iPod. Sometimes the questions he asks are really deep life questions, even for an 8-year-old. Before his illness, he would tell me about school. He would ask questions about where we lived before he was born, am I scared of being shot, have I ever been in the hospital? Just life questions you don’t think he would think to ask at that point in time. Ever since the [first] brain surgery, he talks more about his feelings saying ‘Hey, I was scared. What do you think is going to happen at the next doctor’s appointment? What could happen next?’ He wants to have everything played out in his mind ahead of time. It’s helped. Every time he goes to an appointment, he’s prepared for it. He knows what the worst possible thing is that could happen to him, and he knows what the best possible thing is that could happen to him.”
Lota’s dedication to his sport carries over to school as well.
“He knows he can do pretty much anything he sets his mind to,” Keith said. “We’ve been telling him as he does these longer and longer runs, ‘Remember how you feel or how you get through it because you can take this same feeling and get through a hard test at school, or anything that’s hard.”
Getting that First Step
An 8-year-old regularly running these distances goes against societal norms. Children at this age are often encouraged to play soccer, basketball, baseball — sports characterized by short bursts of energy. Most marathons don’t even let anyone under the age of 18 compete.
Despite some concern for letting developing children run such distances, Lota’s doctors have fully cleared him to partake in the sport he loves most.
“His doctors are very encouraging of him running and being active,” Rowena said. “The doctor said, ‘Let him do what he wants to do. It’s a big help in his recovery and fight right now.'”
When Lota first expressed an interest in racing, Keith and Rowena had their doubts. Rowena, who is on her own transformation journey on Utah’s The Younger You Challenge (a television show aimed at helping contestants feel stronger physically and mentally), signed up for her first half marathon, and Lota wanted in, too.
“I said, ‘No way. You’re crazy. I’m nervous getting ready to run this race, and here you are begging to go run it? You’re not running this race,'” Rowena said. “Then he cried.”
Telling his wife that he would run next to Lota the entire way, Keith got Rowena to cave and let Lota race. Keith told her, “He’ll see what it’s like, and he won’t want to run again.”
“He showed up at the finish line, and he was just smiling from ear-to-ear, and he lifted up his medal when he got it, and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to cover my walls with these,'” Rowena said.
A month later, Lota ran another half as part of the Xterra Trail Run Series. Then he added a 10K to his running resume. He was able to compete in the Xterra National Championship — a half marathon in Ogden, UT, where he not only ran for himself, but he ran for two church friends.
“He has two little friends, who are brothers, that have spinal muscular atrophy,” Rowena said. “They were raising money to buy a wheelchair for one of the boys, so Lota said he wanted to run for them.”
Lota raised $1,700 and invited the family to his big race.
Once he crossed the finish line, he became the national champ for the half marathon in the Xterra Trail Running Series. Following the race, he also presented a check to the family in need.
More Medals Ahead
Laying in his hospital bed last week, just days after major brain surgery, Lota’s mind wasn’t only on running again, but on his friends.
“He told Rowena that he wanted to raise money again for his friends once he gets out of the hospital,” Keith said.
Lota clearly feels that he has much more running ahead. For him, it’s a rich and necessary contrast to the medical journey that he’s been on.
Being a runner has helped this warrior learn that pleasure often lies in the challenge itself, and progress is attained one small step at a time.
If you’d like to follow Lota’s journey, he has a rapidly growing Facebook page.
“I want to thank the people that support me on my Facebook page,” Lota made sure to say in our interview.
You can also make a donation on his Give Forward page.