Every weekend Kathy Camp laces up her sneakers, lines up at the start line and hits the pavement, competing in road races in honor of her athlete father who no longer can. Parkinson’s disease has stolen his physical gifts; Richard Camp was a life-long athlete who won running medals well into his 70s. Now, he struggles to get out of a chair.
“Seeing both his inability to be the person I knew him to be… and seeing how his athletic prowess have given him a really phenomenal long life and wanting that for myself… the combo of that created the path that I’m on now,” Kathy, 37, of Laurel, Maryland, told FoxNews.com.
For the first 18 years of her life, Kathy was raised at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where her father, Reverend Richard P. Camp, now 79, served as chaplain from 1973 to 1996.
In high school, Richard was a multiple-letter athlete and was recruited by Vince Lombardi to play football at West Point. He turned them down to attend Wheaton College in Illinois, where, his senior year, he was invited to camp for the Chicago Bears. Instead, he got his Master of Divinity degree from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
At West Point, Richard played pick-up football with cadets and even coached at the end of the Vietnam War when staffing was slim.
In his 60s, he started running competitively in the USA Track & Field races. In his 70s, he was invited to run The Penn Relays, the first and oldest relay meets, started in 1985. He won the 100-meter in his age division and medaled several years in a row.
“His 23 years at West Point kept him going in his 40s, 50s, 60s… when you’re leading cadets to build their emotional, physical and spiritual muscles,” Kathy, a mother-of-one married to a Marine Corps officer, said. “Being a lifelong athlete helped him with Parkinson’s to stay off heavy drugs because his body is so naturally well-tuned.”
Richard was 72 when he was diagnosed and about two years ago, his symptoms worsened. In February, he underwent deep brain stimulation, a procedure that blocks electrical signals from targeted areas in the brain. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, it is only used for patients whose symptoms cannot be adequately controlled with medication.
Getting her act together
The turning point for Kathy, who had been an overweight, un-athletic child, came over the Christmas holidays in 2014, when Richard suffered a few falls.
“I need to get my act together,” she recalled thinking at the time.
Kathy’s first race was the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, DC, in October 2014. The event, with more than 30,000 runners, is a kind of rallying point for the military community and includes many wounded veterans, she said.
After the race she posted a photo on social media, detailing how she was running for her dad because he couldn’t. The outpouring of support and donations to the Parkinson’s Foundation in response to her photo inspired her to decide to run a race every weekend for a year.
Kathy participates in road races across the country, even looking for local races when she’s traveling for her work as a partner at a boutique public relations firms in DC that primarily consults with military men and women who want to transition to public office. She mainly does 5Ks, but will do 10Ks and half marathons occasionally.
When asked how her father feels about her ambitious race plan, Kathy said it serves as a reminder that they’re in this together.
“I think, first of all, he’s so excited that his awkward, chubby daughter is finally getting in shape,” she said. “He knows when I post that photo, I carried him through that run.”
Finding the spiritual muscles
Kathy has chosen not to take any donations or fundraise for her races to ensure the focus isn’t on her, but on Parkinson’s and the military community.
“There are vets all across the country who don’t have resources,” she said. “Our Veterans Affairs system is terribly damaged and with my father and Parkinson’s disease, I want somebody to think about, when making donations, to keep thinking about that.”
For most of her races Kathy wears her West Point Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) shirt, which garners attention from graduates and parents alike. She’s made it her goal to encourage a fellow runner in each race.
“Running is really a metaphor for life,” she said. “We need to dig down to find that spiritual well and that resource within ourselves to finish a race, sometimes having someone come alongside you and be that someone makes a difference.”
Her father and the cadets at West Point taught Kathy about spiritual muscles needed to get through a race— and life.
“Watching troops get decimated and they’re using that spiritual muscle they learned at West Point… it’s not about how strong you are, but what you have in that tank,” she said. “On some of those long runs I have to use what’s in that spiritual tank to get through.”
Every day for Richard is a challenge, but his wife of 58 years, Virjean, has kept him going. According to Kathy, many former cadets have reached out to offer their experience and support for his emotional health, as depression is a big hurdle with Parkinson’s.
“My father made his life supporting these men and women and there they are, turning around supporting him,” she said. “That’s how you know you made the right choices in life and it comes back to you like that.”