Atwater

Inspired by memory of his late wife, Atwater man takes Relay for Life to new lengths

Running a marathon is no easy feat. Thousands of people train daily for these races, only to quit before reaching the finish line 26.2 miles away.

But Atwater resident Jeff Stopper plans to run the length of almost four marathons, back-to-back, in one day.

The 48-year-old lumber yard manager will run 100 miles for Atwater's Relay for Life on Saturday in hopes of raising $20,000 for the American Cancer Society. "It's going to be a push to get it done," he admitted.

The father of two became familiar with ACS during his wife's fight with the disease. She died in 2001. "My first Relay for Life was with Cynthia," before she died, Stopper recalled.

Now, six years later, he hopes to honor her memory -- and that of all who have battled cancer -- by running a distance he has never run before.

Always an athlete, Stopper began running competitively in high school. His older brother had been a star runner at the Stoppers' high school in the Clear Lake area. "So everyone just assumed I'd be a runner," he said.

Stopper started as a sprinter, his brother's specialty. But he found much more success running the mile his junior and senior years -- when he clocked the distance in four minutes and 20 seconds. "I went on to junior college, ran cross country," Stopper said, and became captain of Yuba College's track and cross country teams.

In the early 1980s, Stopper competed in a few half-marathons, then met Cynthia, had two children and settled into the family life.

In the late 1990s, Cynthia was diagnosed with esophagal stomach cancer, which was misdiagnosed at first as acid reflux disease. "By the time they figured out what was going on she was stage four," Stopper said. She fought the cancer for three years before dying Oct. 11, 2001.

It was that same year that Stopper went to his first Relay For Life, a relay run/walk where teams keep moving around a track for 24 hours to raise money for the ACS. More than 4,800 of the events take place annually.

He attended with Cynthia, who had already been diagnosed with cancer.

"The luminaries are what struck me," Stopper said. At many of the events, paper bags with names of cancer victims and survivors written on them are placed around the track. At night, a candle is placed inside each bag to give light to the reason behind the Relay for Life.

Stopper said he was surprised by all the names he recognized as he walked around the Merced event's track that year. "You see the names, you know the stories."

His next Relay for Life visit wouldn't happen until 2006.

By that time, Stopper had become an assistant cross country coach at Atwater High School. He takes a team of kids to the cancer fundraiser every year.

To spice things up, Stopper and head cross country coach Ken Rhoades challenged each other to run 50 miles during Relay for Life. "We kept it from the kids," he said. "We didn't want them running that far."

Both completed the goal, Stopper said, by doing laps around the track throughout the event. "It was inspirational to see him running," he said. "And I think I inspired him too."

Rhoades said Stopper was not only an athletic inspiration, but also helped everyone associated with the Atwater team understand the importance of the event. "He was a real encouragement," Rhoades said.

Stopper finished his 50 miles a few hours earlier than Rhoades did at the event. "He's more diligent in his trainings," Rhoades explained.

While last year's 50-mile run might have been a challenge for Rhoades, it wasn't challenging enough for Stopper. For this year's Relay for Life, Stopper said "I thought, well, I'll just double it."

Stopper said he will run his 100 miles around the outskirts of Atwater, not on the Atwater High School track where the Relay for Life takes place.

He also said he does plan to take breaks for food, water and the bathroom. "It's actually called ultrarunning," Stopper said. There are many ultramarathons held across the globe every year where people run distances of 100 miles or more over one or several days.

Rhoades said his running partner "has a pretty good shot" at meeting his 100-mile goal, seeing as the weather stays below the low 90s. "If his body can hold up, I'm sure his mind can too," he said.

Following beside Stopper during his 100-mile run will be a motorhome provided by Atwater real estate agent Andy Krotik. The RV will be the ideal place for Stopper's many breaks, he said.

To train for his ultrarun, Stopper has been running 30 to 50 miles a week. Some of those miles are done with the Atwater High cross country team -- which he says is the best part of his volunteer job: "I think it can be inspirational to them to see an old guy doing it."

He also does early morning runs along the same route he plans to use for Relay for Life. "Running puts you in a nice place," reflected Stopper. "I find it enjoyable."

He also rides a bike and swims as part of his training for both the 100-mile event and the triathlons he often competes in. "I just did the Folsom International Triathlon a few weeks ago," he said.

But it has all been leading up to his ultrarun for Relay for Life.

"This year is especially important to me because my daughter Christine is in her senior year of high school," reads a letter Stopper has sent out requesting donations for the ACS. Christine's graduation, the letter continues, was a moment Cynthia had said she was especially going to miss.

His running, Stopper said, is "a reflection of the fact that she can't be there."

Stopper doesn't want any recognition for the miles he plans to cross next week. He is just some guy running, he said: "The real heroes are the ones out there fighting this disease every day."

Like them, he's no stopper.

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209-385-2407 or asouza@mercedsun-star.com.

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