Cancer Physician Finds Running Helps Physically, Mentally, Spiritually

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In his long career, Alva Weir III, MD, FACP, has shaped cancer care in Tennessee by training many of its oncologists. The most-senior member of UTHSC Division of Hematology and Oncology, he is also chief of medical hematology and oncology at the Memphis VA Medical Center, a choice he made to care for the nation’s often-invisible heroes. And for decades, he’s volunteered on the medical mission field in Albania.

Dr. Weir doesn’t believe in talking much about himself, but he often makes his hospital rounds in a worn pair of orange-soled running shoes. That small detail is a glimpse into what makes him tick.

At 71, Dr. Weir has run 14 marathons, including Boston, and a sprinkling of half marathons he doesn’t count.

Dr. Alva Weir III at the Boston Marathon.

“I have run all my life — short distances, like 3 miles two or three times a week — just because it felt good. It’s like you’re free and there’s no time pressure. And nobody’s on your case. And it’s a beautiful world. You’re thinking of people,” he said, the hospital world and its pressures fade away.

At 53, when the last of his three children was grown and gone, Dr. Weir for the first time in decades, had extra time. He could have slept longer or learned bridge. Neither appealed to Dr. Weir, who’s up three days a week at 5 a.m. running the Wolf River Greenway, nodding in the dark to a handful of others of the same bent.

“I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I run a marathon? I haven’t done that,’” he said.

Dr. Weir finished his first 26.2-mile race in slightly more than four hours, roughly a 9-minute pace. A few marathons later, he’d trimmed his time to under four hours. For a guy about to turn 60, it was enough to qualify for Boston, still one of the most elite races in the world.

He trained alone and ran it alone.

“I like running. I like being by myself,” Dr. Weir said.

“I’m a Christian. I spend the first 30 or 40 minutes praying for my students, patients, family, and lots of people who have been important in my life”

Dr. Alva Weir

Running before the world’s switch gets flipped on is so central to Dr. Weir’s sense of well-being that he intends to run until he can’t. He doesn’t know what he will do then, because he doesn’t know which part will give out first. “Most likely, it will be my feet,” he said.

Dr. Weir, the son of Memphis physician Dr. Alva Weir Jr., works more than 50 hours a week, including 10 hours as the program director of UTHSC’s fellowship in hematology and oncology. In the last decade, Dr. Weir has trained 60 hematologists and oncologists, including the 12 studying under him now.

“He’s somebody any program would be lucky to have,” said Neil Hayes, MD, MPH, chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology in the UTHSC College of Medicine. “He’s trained as many oncologists in the state of Tennessee as anybody, which means he’s had an enormous impact on the oncology care in the state.”

More than 90% of his fellows pass the board certification exam on the first try. “He handles their education and mentoring in a really elegant way,” said Dr. Hayes, also a runner.

Dr. Weir is getting over injuries now. But when he’s not hurt, he finds himself instinctively running farther and farther.

Dr. Weir and his daughter, Catherine Cowles, are pictured in Chicago after the Chicagoland marathon. Dr. Weir was 70.
 

“If I get where I can run 16 miles at a time, I’ll say ‘OK, I think I’ll do a marathon.’” He sets his sights on one, buys a plane ticket, and spends the next two or three months training, alone. Outside of high school track, he’s never had a coach. Outside of his daughter, he’s never had a running buddy.

“Then, I’ll run the marathon, hate it, and hope I never have to do another one, until the urge hits again.” he said. That is the torment of running, the push and pull of shin splints and ragged feet against the glory of endorphins and accomplishment.

For Dr. Weir, the balance always includes time — getting up before the sun all year long, running and praying against the rhythm of his own breathing and pace, and then, hustling to get downtown to his patients by 7 a.m.

“It’s hard when the long run pretty much blows your weekend day, when you should be with your family,” he said. He is able to run, he says, because his wife, Becky Weir, manages the rest of their lives.

“She does everything in the house. She does the maintenance, the electricity, the plumbing. She does everything. I do the doctoring, and I run, and play with the grandkids.”

To be in Dr. Weir’s running category is to be “disciplined and self-aware,” Dr. Hayes said. “You have to practice regularly, week after week. And you have to take care of yourself. Anyone can sprint 100 yards, and there’s a million ways to do that. But when you run a marathon, you have to run your marathon.”

That means finding one’s pace in a surging crowd and knowing when to push against the reserves of logic and sinew.

Dr. Weir hoped to run his second Boston Marathon when he was 70. In the lead up to it, he got COVID twice, and then was hurt with a series of pulled and torn muscles, creaky tendons, and bruised bunions.

Instead, last May, he ran the Chicagoland Marathon with his daughter, Catherine Cowles, and found himself struggling in the heat. “Most people dropped out of it. In fact, I won the 70-and-older category, because I was the only one over 70 willing to stay in.”

Dr. Weir knows people who run slow marathons and finds himself headed in that direction. He doesn’t disrespect it as much as he doesn’t know if it would be fun.

“I’ve always sort of been competitive and wanted a certain time. That’s probably not best for an old guy.”